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Stephen Rees: Fiddling with Cajun Energy
Robert "Doc" H. Woody
2012-08-22

In the last few years, Cajun music has invaded the Nashville scene with gusto. Not since Doug Kershaw and Jimmy C. Newman has the Louisiana musical culture generated such great acceptance in Music City.      

The source of this enthusiasm is the family group L’Angelus, composed of Katie (guitar), Paige (bass), Johnny (drums), and Stephen (fiddle). Their instrumental prowess is complemented by vocal harmonies that are unique to family ensembles. Since all band members are still in their twenties, youthful zest contributes substantially to their dynamics and energy.         

The name “L’Angelus” is French for the Angelus prayer in Catholicism. Based on their religious beliefs, at the sound of a bell, many Cajuns pause three times daily (morning, noon, and evening) to pray to the Blessed Virgin Mary, in search of “coming together.”     

Each of the four siblings is an integral component of the band, and each adds distinctive qualities. For Fiddler Magazine, the focus herein is on fiddler Stephen Rees.

Born March 29. 1988, in Iowa City, Stephen Charles Rees is one of the eight offspring of John and Linda Rees. Prior to Nashville, he lived in Winchester, Virginia, Grand Forks, North Dakota, and Gulf Breeze, Florida, but most of his years were spent in Lafayette, Louisiana. In Stephen’s mind, Lafayette remains “home,” and he returns there to rejuvenate himself as often as his busy touring schedule allows.       

For the most part, Stephen was home-schooled. However, his first memorable childhood performance was being in “The King and I.” He enjoyed the experience and admits, “I suppose that I caught the bug. I was probably six or seven years old—from then on, performing was in my blood.”         

Not surprisingly, his early musical influence was from family members. His father, John, strongly supported the kids’ musical talents, encouraging them to practice. His mother, Linda, plays guitar and sings, and his Uncle Charlie Rees has the popular band “Atchafalaya,” a Native American word meaning “long river.”          

L’Angelus has rapidly developed a large international following. Regardless of venue, their concerts lead to exuberant audiences. In addition to their “attractiveness” and musical virtuosity, it seems likely that their cross-genre repertoire is a major virtue.

Why did you take up the fiddle?

My first instrument was the harmonica. After I had been playing for about a year, my dad told me that he was going to buy me a fiddle “because you are a natural-born fiddle player.” I’m not sure why he thought it and I don’t think he really believed it—maybe he did—but his confidence in my potential for fiddling gave me a strong motivation. He also has always given that same sort of support to each of us in L’Angelus.

With whom have you studied?

Like many kids, I first spent better than a year learning the Suzuki method. I studied with Eva Trazinska, who lived just outside Winchester—even now, I may slip a few Polish licks in my Cajun tunes. She was an excellent teacher. I was a rather stubborn brat; I was not particularly into classical music, but she had great patience with me.

When I came to Nashville, I studied with the incredible Kenny Sears. Since I was largely self-taught, Kenny focused on helping me with “undoing” some bad habits. He was a Godsend.

[Kenny Sears, the Premier fiddler on the Opry, told me: “A few years ago, I gave the Rees family some pointers about performance and stage presence, and worked with Stephen on his fiddle technique. I am impressed with their new CD. Stephen has become a very good fiddle player. I am proud to have contributed to his unique talents.” Also see: Woody, R. H., “Kenny Sears: Premier fiddler on the Grand Ole Opry.” Fiddler Magazine, Summer 2009, vol. 16, no. 2.]

Given your growing up in Louisiana, this may seem a bit silly to ask, but why Cajun music?

In the arts, one should stick with what he or she knows. Cajun culture and its music were crucial parts of my childhood and continue to be a major part of my artistic identity. However, I use the numerous genres and styles as a launch pad. I’m not afraid to dive into blues, classical, bluegrass, whatever the song needs. But I always try and throw a dash of Tabasco flavor on whatever tune I am playing.

[For the full text of this interview, subscribe to Fiddler Magazine, or purchase the Fall 2012 issue.]

For more information, visit www.cajunrecords.com and www.langelus.com

[Robert “Doc” H. Woody is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and an attorney in private practice in Omaha. He writes articles and books about musicianship (including several pieces for Fiddler Magazine in the past); his book Social Psychology of Musicianship is due for publication in 2012. He performs with the River City Ragtime Band (website: docwoodymusic.com).]