Tab Benoit – Keeping his roots well-watered
When Tab Benoit discarded the piloting education his parents had financed, he wanted to reassure them he was a young man with artistic conviction and a good head on his shoulders. That was 1989, and he was 20. “They weren’t real happy with me, put it that way,” he laughs. “My mom wasn’t happy. My dad wasn’t as bad with it. He kind of pulled me aside one day and said, ‘Look, do you really think you can do this? If your heart’s in it and you really think you got it, well, then I’ll stand behind your decision, but your momma ain’t going to be happy.'”
Momma’s doing fine now. After her son’s thirteenth album — if you count a few collaborations and the benefit recording Voice Of The Wetlands — he finally received a substantive bit of positive reinforcement from the blues community, winning a Blues Music Association Award (formerly a W.C. Handy Award) for last year’s Fever For The Bayou.
“That’s the first time I’ve ever been nominated,” Benoit says. “I didn’t have my hopes up. My big thing was I got to play a couple of songs there in front of all my friends and a lot of the respectable artists out there. I was actually looking forward to the jam at the end, but after I won I ended up talking to people all night long, so I didn’t get to play, ’cause everybody wanted to finally talk to me. Hey, all right — now they want to talk to me.”
Benoit’s new album, Brother To The Blues, mingles traditional country with his swamp blues. “I don’t make a record with a concept in mind and then go out and reproduce it live to try to sell the record,” he says. “I more or less record records to promote my live shows.”
In the tenuous post-Katrina climate, Benoit understandably craved steadiness and familiarity. So he took a couple of days last November to revisit his early musical influences.
“Being an artist for a living is like building a house,” Benoit muses. “You start with the foundation, and you build things on top of that. I guess doing this record was kind of like putting on an addition that I’d already set the foundation for when I built the house. The slab was already laid, so now I just came back and put the room on. That’s my country room.”
His rugged, leathery baritone is colored by lifelong residency in the bayou town of Houma, Louisiana, and his French, Choctaw and Cherokee heritage, while his guitar playing bears the telltale rhythmic influence of his first instrument: “Drums are still my favorite thing to play, and there’s nothing wrong with that,” he says. “I wish more guitar players would play a little drums. Maybe they’d have a better sense of timing.”
Before the kinetic guitar performances of Albert Collins, Albert King and Buddy Guy lured Benoit toward a blues focus in his late teens, he played guitar and even dabbled on pedal steel with local country and Cajun bands. “I wanted to go back and play some of the songs that I used to play that I don’t get to play anymore,” he says. “I always loved George Jones and Hank Williams. I love playing pedal steel, and I don’t get to play it a lot. I mean I could play it at home, but it’s not the same as playing it with the band.”
The blues-tinged vocals of Williams, Jones, Jimmie Rodgers and Ernest Tubb caught Benoit’s ear at an early age. “Jimmie Rodgers is considered the father of country music, but to me he was a blues singer,” says Benoit. He notes that Rodgers and Robert Johnson “were singing the same kind of songs; they were riding the same trains; they were playing gigs for a bottle of whiskey. They were both poor guys living train to train, gig to gig, playing blues.”
Benoit borrowed his new disc’s title track, “Brother To The Blues”, from Jones’ 1980 comeback album I Am What I Am. The title itself hints at a deep kinship between country and blues. After all, both originated as front-porch expressions of the poor, working-class south, and, as Benoit is quick to note, lines were later drawn around performers according to race.
He drives the point home with a heartsore rendition of Williams’ “I Heard That Lonesome Whistle Blow”, bending high, clear notes on his guitar into spacious, keening melodies. Jim Lauderdale — whose music Benoit had heard, though the two had not previously met — sings on this and two other tracks.
“I could tell from listening to him that we came from a lot of the same stuff,” Benoit says of Lauderdale. “Even though we might be on slightly different paths, we were both new guys from the old school.
“For me, it’s important that the roots in all music are maintained. You can’t grow trees without roots — bottom line. You don’t see those roots. They’re in the ground. But they’re the most important part. I love seeing the newer crop of old souls out there that are sticking with the program even when the program gets difficult.”
Billy Joe Shaver, Benoit’s former labelmate on now-defunct Justice Records, stands in for an earlier generation of outlaws, contributing grizzled vocals to his own song “Comin’ On Strong”, first recorded a decade earlier on Shaver’s Highway Of Life. “He’s another one of those guys who wasn’t trying to have a sound, he wasn’t trying to be somebody else,” Benoit explains. “He was being himself, and he had a great way of telling a story. A lot of the early country songs were telling stories, but not so directly.”
Louisiana pop-rock party band LeRoux, which provides instrumental support throughout the album (including a cover of the band’s swaggering “Can’t Do One More Two-Step”), marks another aspect of Benoit’s youthful remembrances. “They were the biggest band out of Louisiana for a long time,” he recalls. “I grew up playing their songs at weddings and stuff, but now I’m playing one of their songs with them. I was like, ‘Man, I’m part of LeRoux now. All right. I made it. Hey ma, look at me.'”
His relentless touring, more a matter of choice than necessity, is a bare-bones operation. Benoit, bassist Carl Dufrene and drummer Darryl White make up a tight, muscular three-man unit, churning out fiery, Cajun-tinged soul-blues. The minimal rhythm section produces a remarkably robust sound without eclipsing the ebb and flow of Benoit’s lyrical, percussive guitar work.
For Benoit, maintaining ties to the waterlogged land of his birth is every bit as important as retracing his musical history. He may be on the road over half the year, but it grieves him to be away. On “When A Cajun Man Gets The Blues”, from 2002’s Wetlands, he laments, “Now when I’m feeling the pain, the bayou’s calling my name, and that’s an offer I can’t refuse. I say it’s hard to miss you Louisiana, lord, when a Cajun man gets the blues.”
“It’s not easy to leave Louisiana in the state it’s in right now,” says Benoit. “I feel like I need to be here helping.”
Even before the storms last year, he had good reason to fear for the region. According to a government publication on Louisiana wetlands restoration, the state has seen a “net loss of two million acres of coastal wetlands over the last century.”
Benoit didn’t need any official pamphlet to clue him in about the problem.
“Imagine if you lived on the coast and in the span of about 20 or 25 years of your life, you’ve lost ten miles deep of that coastline. Imagine if the water line was ten miles inland from where it was when you were a kid. I mean I’m 38 years old, so in about 25 years or so that’s how much land we’ve lost. The gulf is ten miles closer. Ten miles.”
Benoit is no political artist. You ordinarily wouldn’t hear him railing against the government. But the time came three years ago when he felt compelled to take up grassroots activism and founded the nonprofit organization Voice Of The Wetlands.
“If somebody doesn’t come out and tell everybody the truth, then they’re going to believe the lie,” he says. “And if they believe one lie, they’re going to believe all the lies. I got into to it because I’ve watched the land wash away.”
Momentum was building last year. By August 2005, the Voice Of The Wetlands album, featuring Dr. John and Cyril Neville, was being pressed, and an IMAX documentary on the coastline’s vulnerability, Hurricane On The Bayou, was in the can. Then — worse than the filmmakers’ prophesies — Katrina hit.
“[The film] was supposed to be open-ended,” recalls Benoit. “They came and re-created a hurricane using airboats and fire trucks to blow wind around. They built houses that were just the top of a house to make it look like a hurricane had passed through. And they started editing the movie, and the hurricane did pass through.”
For the sake of survival as well as artistic integrity, Benoit now feels the urgency of translating marshy earth into song more acutely than ever. “I know what the swamp sounds like,” he says, “but it doesn’t necessarily mean that what’s comin’ out of the guitar to me sounds like what I think the swamp sounds like. To you it might, but to me it’s still not there yet. To the outside listener you’re probably gonna hear it more like what I wish it sounded like, but to me there’s still more that I could do in there.”