Robert Doerschuk- Glitter and Glue – the everyday players who bind New Orleans music together all have their own ways of dealing with hard times in the Big Easy.
He got off the bus with a guitar case in his hand, a total stranger. “I checked into a hostel,” he remembers. “Then I started going to all these open mikes. I ran into a guy called Dave Sharp, who used to be in an English band called the Alarm; he was running a writers-in-the-round thing, where anybody could show up and play in the circle. I heard all these great people there, like Anders Osborne, a terrific Swedish songwriter and guitar player who’d moved to New Orleans.
“And there was this openness I’d never seen anywhere else. I’d never been in a place where musicians of this caliber would take a kid like me seriously and show me their techniques: ‘Slide guitar? There ain’t nothin’ to it. Here, this is what you do …'”
West found a foothold in the city’s small but tough cluster of Americana performers. He started playing at the Kerry Irish Pub, and then at Margaritaville, where he worked his way up to three nights a week. Both of those gigs continued to the last days before Katrina. The miracle was that he never had to play anyone else’s material — “not even a Jimmy Buffett song at Margaritaville,” he says, laughing.
“Nobody cared, as long as you entertained people. So for three or four hours I could work out my tunes, try ’em on the audience, and build up my technique. I just loved these clubs like the Circle Bar, that would have the Lost Bayou Ramblers, this great young Cajun band from Lafayette, and then my wife Katie and me as Truckstop Honeymoon, and the next night it would be some punk band.”
Throughout their time in New Orleans, Mike and his family lived in the lower Ninth Ward. “It was an old, blue-collar, mainly African-American neighborhood,” he says. “Real estate agents would say it’s on the wrong side of the industrial canal, but the lots were big, with this semi-rural yard farmer thing going. People kept chickens and horses. There were great folks there, the best friends I ever had. Nobody had proper air conditioning, so when it got hot inside you’d go out and find some shade. If you were having an argument at the time, your neighbors heard it all. But it was magical to go out one morning and there’s somebody wearing an Indian headdress and riding a horse. The place was full of life.”
The city’s tolerant vibe encouraged West to stretch out. He played only guitar when he moved in; today he’s more likely to pick banjo or mandolin, both of which he practiced while kicking back on his porch. “I was listening to old country records when I came to New Orleans, but being there opened me to other things and took me beyond style,” he says. “You can go in as some smartass with a lot of musical tricks, but the community in New Orleans said, ‘Look, it’s got to come from the gut and the heart. It doesn’t matter how it’s dressed up, as long as it reaches people and feels good to sing.’
“I’d been trying to make it in the British indie pop scene, where it’s all about getting airplay. You get really snotty about stuff like, ‘Man, that band sucks.’ But then I moved to the city and I realized that I just like to play. As long as I can book gigs, I’m a happy man. New Orleans just opened me up as a musician.”
The levee broke while West and his wife were playing in the midwest. He hadn’t been back yet as we spoke, but he’d heard that the flood had risen up to the eaves beneath their roof, even though they lived on the highest land in the neighborhood. Although the house was still standing, everything around it was washed away, leaving West with some major decisions to make.
“I love that neighborhood,” he says. “I’ve written thirteen albums’ worth of songs about it. It’s home, you know? On the other hand, we’re used to living on the road and living out of our car. We’re still doing the things we’d normally do. It’s just that our roots have been severed. So here we are, putting down some roots in the midwest, feeling a little nervous but also feeling that Kansas is a place that can bring something to us and that hopefully we can bring something to it. There’s a lot of talent here. The people have terrific heart. And it’s cheap, just like New Orleans was when we moved there…”
And here West breaks off, for a few seconds. “I don’t know,” he resumes. “It’s sad. I just have faith that we’ll return by dribs and drabs, and the heart of the place will still be there. But we’ve all been scattered, like seeds off a dandelion. We’re all over the place, all of us from New Orleans, but we’re in touch with each other. The black guy with the headdress on his horse, the white guy in the bondage suit and chains in the gay community near the French Quarter, and that weird guy with the long hair and the banjo, we’re all still parts of the community. Those are bonds that you can’t break.”
September 18, somewhere between Nashville and Memphis.
Like Mike West, Lynn Drury had a regular routine going at Margaritaville and other clubs around New Orleans. But where it took a cataclysm to separate West from the world he loved, the Mississippi-born singer-songwriter was on her way out when circumstances rushed her more quickly into the void than she had expected.
Her mind was already wandering to New York, where she planned to try her luck in the months ahead. Her singing, equal parts honey and home brew, had won some attention down in the Crescent City. She was even able to give up her day jobs shortly after she had arrived, with a guitar and a business degree from college, and get by on working local clubs maybe five nights a week. Drury had started at Cooter Brown’s and then moved up to the Neutral Ground Coffee House, as part of a rotation that involved four performers every night of the week.
Over time it became almost hypnotic, this life of sleeping in and playing late, earning little and spending less. She’d get out of town now and then, making the trek to San Francisco for some summer engagements, or playing band jobs. She had put a group together just before Katrina; its members rode the vicious breeze to parts unknown, bumping Drury back to working solo, as she had done when she first came to town.
“I’ve always evacuated as hurricanes came,” she says. “I know what a Category 3 storm feels like even 45 miles inland, so I evacuated on Sunday before Katrina. It was creepy, leaving New Orleans. I’d played a show on Saturday night, down at the Kerry Pub, and then my sister called at 7 on Sunday morning and said, ‘You’d better get out now.’ So I called my friends, and I took two with me. I took my guitar, my amp, some clothes, my birth certificate, my Social Security card, and some pictures that were important to me. Later I heard that my apartment had four feet of water inside, even though it’s four feet off the ground, and I thought about my grandma’s quilt, the one she made by hand, which I had left behind.”