Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys are among the world’s foremost cultural ambassadors for Cajun music. Mainstays of Lafayette’s Festivals Acadiens since 1988, they have spread their music as far away as Japan and Australia, hosted New England’s Rhythm and Roots Festival, appeared on Mountain Stage and A Prairie Home Companion, and garnered several Grammy nominations.
They play a high energy, joyful brand of Cajun music, with a mix of harmony vocals and instrumental chops that makes them as listenable as they are danceable. Both Steve Riley and David Greely are top notch Cajun-style fiddlers, but Steve’s role as vocalist and accordion player in the Playboys leaves David with most of the fiddle duties. At the 2001 Festivals Acadiens, David and Steve had been playing together for thirteen years, but it was not an easy job to kick off Lafayette’s Downtown Alive TGIF party the Friday after September 11. Somehow they managed to set the right tone, leading off with a beautiful waltz written by David and following up with a set that was both reverent and defiant.
In this interview, held the following day, David reminisced about his long love affair with the fiddle and Cajun music.
Did you start off playing Cajun music on the fiddle?
Actually no. I started playing the fiddle when I saw Richard Greene play with Seatrain in the early seventies. So I went out and bought a fiddle the next day, a nice Japanese plywood fiddle. I wish I still had it. Seatrain was opening for Black Sabbath that night in New Orleans, so I went from Black Sabbath to Flatt and Scruggs in one day! I was completely blown away by the instrument and when I got one, I found out it was easy. It seemed easy to play. I made up two songs the first day.
The first day? So you must have played something before that.
A little guitar. I was always real musical but I never really found an instrument until I found the fiddle. Of course, fiddlers were in short supply in that part of Louisiana, which was just east of Baton Rouge, where I grew up. So within a year I was on stage making money, which is a lot of incentive. On the stage, making money, and finding girl friends.
What were you playing then, bluegrass or country music?
I was playing in a band called “Cornbread,” which many years after we broke up got recognition from Bluegrass Unlimited for being one of the first punk bluegrass bands to ever exist. We played a lot of bluegrass, very much in love with Flatt and Scruggs and Ralph Stanley, and we did a lot of western swing later on, too. ...That went on for four or five years until our guitar player died in an accident. We kinda shut it down then.
When did you finally start playing Cajun music?
It was funny. After Cornbread broke up, I lived in Nashville and played in clubs around town. I had a family and didn’t want to travel. So I never got on the bus and did all that stuff. Left there and went to Texas, hoping to find some good swing musicians to play with. Found out they were pretty rare in the part of Texas I was in. Eventually got myself a gig as a solo artist in a restaurant called Boudreau’s in San Antonio. Bluffed my way into that gig by saying I knew how to play Cajun music. Got the gig, and since I was supporting myself and my family with music, my obsessions had to take a back seat until then. When I got the Cajun job, then I could get obsessed with Cajun music. I had the time. I’d always wanted to play Cajun music because my grandfather, whose name is Eddie Theriault from Ascension Parish, Louisiana, was an amateur Cajun fiddler. And my family was always really happy I took up the fiddle because that was my grandfather’s instrument, even though I never heard him play. So when I first heard Dewey Balfa, I just went nuts for it. It was the perfect music for me. …Nothing really suited or satisfied me like Cajun music because now I get to play songs. And I get to do variations on songs… So for me that’s perfect. And I’ve been doing that full time since the early eighties.
What did it take to become comfortable playing Cajun music? There’s a groove that’s often difficult to pick up, but maybe you’re playing with these people all the time, so you could feel it...
That’s exactly it. You gotta get completely immersed in it and completely soak yourself in it. Once I stopped being a dilettante and focused on one thing, it still took a while. I listen to the early recordings that I did and I wince, you know. I saw a video of the Mamou Playboys playing at this festival in ’89 and I’m talking to myself on the screen, going “Can’t you hear what he’s doing? What are you thinking!” One thing that really helped me a lot was to get to apprentice with Dewey Balfa. When he sat me down in the living room and he pointed out the things that I was doing that sounded foreign to him. And just sit there and witness the power of his rhythm. And how it wasn’t the drummer, it wasn’t the guitar player, and it wasn’t the bass player that was the force in this music. It was his right hand. The power was in Dewey Balfa himself and that fiddle. That’s when the light started coming on for me.
One of my crusades personally, I like to bring forward the old, old melodies that we find on field recordings that weren’t commercially popular. Because of commercial recording, it’s as if Cajun music passed through the eye of a needle. The people who made those records, to modern ears, it seems like all that Cajun music ever was or ever can be. And I don’t really agree with that. I love that music very much and I’ll always play it, but I like bringing the older styles along, too, and creating new music and putting all that together again.
With Steve Riley you do a lot of nice trio harmonies. Would you consider that untraditional?
Yes. The Balfa Brothers did a style of harmony singing but it usually would be one person singing the fifth all the way through a verse and the other person singing the melody. Because earlier on in the Playboys’ history, as a result of my bluegrass influences and Peter Schwartz’s old time and country music influences -- he grew up singing with his dad, Tracy Schwartz -- we were able to real easily put three part harmony on these songs. You find the right people and that chemistry happens. So it’s that background that we brought into Cajun music. And there’s nothing unusual about that. Cajun music, if it weren’t able to absorb influences and recycle them as Cajun, our music would still be reels and jigs from France. It would sound very European. But because we absorbed all this Caribbean music from the French-speaking blacks here, and all the blues, and whatever was on the radio in the thirties, we absorbed that and recycled it and made it Cajun.
...In the old days there were a lot varieties and styles of dances and songs that people would play. They would play what’s called a “round of dances.” They would include mazurkas, which is like a waltz in straight eight time. There’s something called a “varso-vienne” and I don’t even know what that is. They would play a polka. They would play a “Jim Crow,” whatever that was. I heard story-tellers talking about this. Somewhere along the line, I guess through the commercialization and commercial recording of Cajun music, it got distilled down to waltzes and two-steps. I think a lot of it has to do with the climate here. They used to have step dancing -- rhythmic, percussive dancing. But it’s just too hot.
[For this rest of this interview, purchase the Winter 05/06 issue of Fiddler Magazine!]
[Peter Anick, co-author of Mel Bay's Old Time Fiddling Across America, plays fiddle with the Massachusetts bluegrass band Wide Open Spaces (www.wideospaces.com).]
Photo by Peter Anick: David Greely (left) and Steve Riley.