From the April 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar | BY KENNY BERKOWITZ
On a different night, Ann Savoy might be playing button accordion with the Magnolia Sisters, singing jazz standards with Ann Savoy & Her Sleepless Knights, or strumming guitar with powerhouse fiddler Michael Doucet in the Savoy-Doucet Cajun Band. She might be working on the second volume of Cajun Music: A Reflection of a People, 31 years after publishing the first, or on a new episode of her radio program Duet, where she and Linda Ronstadt share their love for musical families, or on the backlog of negatives waiting in her darkroom.
She might be in Eunice, Louisiana, playing music in her living room with her husband, Marc, and their four children—Sarah, Joel, Wilson, and Gabrielle—plus any friends and neighbors who happen to visit. But on this one moonlit July night in 2016, she’s 1,500 miles away from home, playing guitar with the Savoy Family Cajun Band at the Finger Lakes GrassRoots Festival, in upstate New York, where a crowd has gathered in the dance tent for a set of two-steps, blues, and waltzes.
Marc sits center stage, switching between a pair of his own hand-built Acadian accordions and shouting encouragement to the dancers. To his right, Wilson pounds out a Cajun version of barrelhouse piano, while fiddler Joel calls out changes to his friend Chas Justus, who’s sitting in on lead guitar for the first time. Standing at Marc’s left, Ann is the one holding it all together, playing what Ronstadt calls “slammin’ rhythm guitar” with a handful of perfectly timed, boom-chick barre chords that provide all the drive this music needs.
“It looks simple, but it’s not,” says Ann, talking after the show. “It’s ’60s dancehall guitar style, where there’s a boom and then a lot of dampening, like a snare drum and a bass drum, which are the sounds it’s trying to create. The accent is on the first beat, and it’s all barre chords, because you’re always dampening strings. Always. Up and down the neck. Basically, you just use the bottom three strings, and that’s how you get your Cajun sound.”
Marc adds, “It doesn’t come easy, because you’ve got a different beat to accent.” He picked up accordion at age 12 and is still unmatched at 76. “In Cajun music, the rhythm-guitar player is the timing chain for the whole band, and if the timing chain is not right, the motor won’t run. If I don’t have a good rhythm-guitar player, my fingers won’t do what I tell them. They’ll start balking like an old mule. Over the last 60 years, I’ve heard a whole bunch of people who can play a whole bunch of notes, but very few people can play Cajun rhythm. I could probably name, well, all of them on the fingers of my right hand.
“And Ann is one.”
‘In Cajun music, the rhythm-guitar player is the timing chain for the whole band, and if the timing chain is not right, the motor won’t run.’
The only member of the band born outside the culture, Ann has been playing Cajun music since 1976, when she and Marc fell in love at the National Folk Festival in Greensboro, North Carolina. He was there to give a workshop on accordion; she was there to hear the Balfa Brothers, after finding some Arhoolie records featuring Clifton Chenier and Cléoma Falcon. Marc asked her to dance, saying, “You’ve got as many freckles as a turkey egg,” which doesn’t sound any better in French than it does in English, but it worked.
At the time, Ann was playing country-blues guitar, taking inspiration from Memphis Minnie (1897–1973) and Bessie Smith (1894–1937). All that changed when she moved from Richmond, Virginia, to Eunice and Marc asked her to sing the songs he’d known since he was a child. She took a quick lesson in Cajun guitar and they started playing around the house, with Marc on accordion and Ann on rhythm, sounding a lot like their most recent self-released album, Back to the Basics II: Il Faut Que Ça Va.
“I was a pretty high-tech guitar player, playing those funky country-blues girls, and I was studying jazz chords, learning to play Django-y guitar,” says Ann, who has been fluent in French since she was 13. “Then, when I learned Cajun guitar, I had to leave all that behind, not to lose those skills, but to put them aside, to simplify, to focus more on the groove than on the technical aspects of guitar playing. I can still fingerpick and play jazz chords, but for Cajun music, I don’t need any of that. I can just hit on one chord the whole song, and it can work, if it’s loud enough to cut through everything else.”
Like Marc, she loved listening to the older generation, hearing people talk about their lives. That led to the interviews and photographs that became Cajun Music, the definitive book on the region’s folk life, begun shortly after she arrived. With baby Sarah in tow—she was born in 1978—Ann began traveling through the countryside, digging up the history beneath the songs and discovering new tunes to bring back home. Over time, she became Cajun music’s ambassador to the world, releasing more than 20 albums, writing a chapter in Rolling Stone’s American Roots Music (2001), producing a pair of crossover tribute albums, Evangeline Made (2002) and Creole Bred (2004), and appearing with her son Joel in the film Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood (2002).
‘Before we got married, Marc asked, “Would you like an engagement ring or a really amazing guitar?” And I said I’d much rather have an amazing guitar.’
There’s a Ronstadt joke that Ann gave birth to her band, and it’s not far from the truth. The children were listening to accordion and guitar while they were in the womb, and Cajun culture continues to define them as a family. Sarah, who works as a chef in Paris, plays accordion, guitar, piano, and washboard in the Franco-Cajun Sarah Savoy’s Hell Raising Hayride. Joel has been producing and recording Louisiana music for the last 20 years, earning a Grammy and two Fiddler of the Year awards from the Cajun French Music Association; after founding the Red Stick Ramblers with Justus, he now plays Cajun traditional music with accordionist Jesse Lége and Cajun-country duets with his wife, songwriting multi-instrumentalist Kelli Jones-Savoy.
Wilson, the third-born, plays accordion and fiddle in the Grammy-winning ensemble the Band Courtbouillon with Wayne Toups and Steve Riley, plus tours the world with the Pine Leaf Boys and teaches accordion and Cajun ensemble at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. The youngest, Gabrielle, who focuses on visual art and photography, also plays guitar. At a pair of West Coast gigs this past summer, all six Savoys shared a stage for the first time.
“Everybody in our band has a very distinct personality, and each of us brings our own particular strengths,” Ann says. “Marc’s is authenticity. He played the dancehalls for years as a young man; he defines the Cajun sound. He’s our source. We’re his band. Joel listens to a lot of archival material, so he’ll bring elements from the Swing Era in Louisiana, like Harry Choates and some old, rare gems. Wilson has this vintage rock ’n’ roll feel—at ten years old, he was really into Louisiana piano styles. He could barely talk, but he could play Jerry Lee Lewis-style piano, and play so hard he broke the strings. The kids grew up coloring at the feet of [Cajun legends] Dennis McGee, Dewey Balfa, and Wayne Fruge, absorbing these sounds into their brain cells. It was the music of their lives, it was what they heard, and by the time they had instruments in their hands, around ten or 12, they could tear it up.”
They still can.
On this night at the FInger Lakes Grassroots Festival, the dancers are young and old, drifting into the tent after listening to bluegrass by Ricky Skaggs, gospel by the Flying Clouds, Afrobeat by Orlando Julius, and Venezuelan folk-pop by Jesus Hidalgo. There’s a dancer pumping soap bubbles into the crowd, with bubbles floating across the stage, from Ann to Marc to Joel to Chas, who came for a couple of songs and wound up staying for the whole night. By the close of the set, with Doug Kershaw’s “Diggy Liggy Lo,” it’s almost midnight, with only a few hours of sleep before the First Family of Cajun Music drives 300 more miles to reach the Newport Folk Festival.
For Ann, there’s no shortage of things to do next: She’s looking forward to making an all-French jazz album with Her Sleepless Knights; a folk album with the Magnolia Sisters, her band with Anya Burgess, Lisa Trahan, and Jane Vidrine; and a solo album in English, using the same approach she used on Adieu False Heart, her 2006 duet album with Ronstadt. There are old interviews that need to be transcribed and old photographs that need to be printed. There are jam sessions at the Savoy Music Center, in Eunice, Louisiana, the store that Marc has been running for 50 years, and more time to spend with family, doing what they’d be doing onstage, but without at audience.
“A friend of mine once said, ‘You’re the most egoless guitar player I’ve ever met,’” Ann says. “It’s not about me, it’s about how I fit into the band and how I can make them happy. I try to do that by making sure I’m relaxed, that I’m listening very carefully, and that I’m there to support them. It takes a lot of physical strength, because some of these songs go on for eight minutes, followed by another eight-minute song and another eight-minute song. You can’t speed up, you can’t slow down. The rhythm has to remain absolutely perfect, and to do that, you need stamina.
“You have to be strong.”
WHAT ANN SAVOY PLAYS
These days, Ann Savoy relies on two acoustic guitars: a custom 1977 Martin flattop, for playing at sit-down concerts, and a 1953 Gretsch archtop, for dances. “I believe the Gretsch belonged to Muddy Waters, because the names of the band are autographed on the pickguard with a penknife,” Savoy says. “It sounds like a Louisiana dancehall back in the 1950s or ’60s. It has this certain sound about it that’s very warm—a warm electric sound, not a plastic electric sound. It cuts through a lot, and it’s very easy on the hands.
“Then I have a Martin parlor guitar that’s all inlaid with abalone,” she adds. “It’s like a little work of art, it’s so beautiful. It’s my girl guitar, it’s so pretty, and has a very woody sound. Before we got married, Marc asked, ‘Would you like an engagement ring or a really amazing guitar?’ And I said I’d much rather have an amazing guitar. So he sent a picture of Cléoma Falcon’s guitar to Martin, and they made one just like it. It’s the most exquisite guitar. It really is. And holding it is like wearing beautiful jewelry.”
HOW TO BUILD A FAMILY BAND
The trick to starting a family band, say Marc and Ann Savoy, is not to try. “When the kids were coming up, we had a bunch of instruments in a ring around the house: fiddles, accordions, guitars,” says Marc, who plays them all, as well as being the world’s foremost builder of Cajun accordions. “The first time [sons] Joel and Wilson expressed an interest, I said, ‘You can play my fiddle, but don’t ever ask me to show you anything, because I won’t.’ And I did that for one simple reason. When I was a kid, I had such a desire, such a passion for this music and these people that played it. I would have figured out how to play if someone had put me in a straightjacket, and I wanted the kids to have the same passion for it. Because you’ll never amount to a hill of beans if you don’t.”
“We didn’t teach them anything,” Ann says. “They learned by osmosis, by watching and listening. I remember once, I tried to show Joel a little bit of Cajun fiddle when he was young, and in about five minutes, he was better than me. After that, we played together a while, and then he just took off on his own. That was it.”
It worked, and all these years later, there’s little conflict in the band. Marc likes to stick to the traditional dancehall repertoire, so that’s generally what they do. Ann and Joel like to organize their music into set lists; Marc and Wilson would rather just play whatever feels right at the time. They’re all equals, with each member giving the others the freedom they need, and for each of them, there’s very little difference between jamming at home and performing onstage. “I don’t get any more enjoyment playing for an audience of 2,000 than just playing for two people in my kitchen,” Marc says.
“I don’t do anything different than I’d be doing at home. I’m not an audience-type person, I’m only playing for the joy it brings me. When I’m onstage with my family, I look to my right and see my two sons, and I look to my left, my wife is there. That’s the ultimate. I’ve done a lot of things in my life, and some of them were rewarding and some were the opposite of rewarding. If I could go back and change those things, I would. Nothing I could have done in my life would ever bring the satisfaction, the joy that comes from playing music with my family.”
This article originally appeared in the April 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.