Interview: Ann Savoy

Adopted Cajun, Ann Savoy of the Savoy Cajun Family Band is carrying on the region’s age-old tradition of music and way of life through her work. Savoy, married to accordionist and accordion builder Marc Savoy, is a fine lead vocalist, fiddler and accordionist plus she is one of the finest rhythm guitar players in Cajun music. Recording act, book author and workshop teacher, Savoy has earned the right to be recognised as one of Louisiana’s true treasures. As T-Bone Burnett enthuses, Savoy is “A  trusted keeper of the flame – the kind of girl Duke Ellington had in mind when he wrote Sophisticated Lady – she doesn’t imitate the past, she animates it. She makes dead men walk along a crooked line from the paddocks of Virginia to the swamps of Louisiana. She is a blues singer in French.”  Americana-UK’s Maurice Hope shares a plate of biscuits and gravy with the Cajun legend.   

What currently is taking pride of place in your workload?
The Savoy Family Band has kicked into first place. We have done a lot recently and going to be doing a lot more. The Magnolia Sisters are just waiting to get back into action because we have not done much recently. In October 2016 we did a really big thing on PBS TV in Los Angeles where they have the Grammys on the stage there. There was a Grammy Tribute to a Lifetime Achievement, and we got to play on that show. It was to honour Chris Strachwitz, the founder of Arhoolie Records, where most of our work has been released. It was a really big deal for us. It was with Ry Cooder and Don Was (now). That was really special.

Chris did much to promote Cajun music and enhance its reputation through Arhoolie; releasing a host of traditional old music and veteran artists steeped in Cajun history, music that would otherwise not have been heard. 
That is absolutely true. He virtually saved a lot of music forms. He took chances on the label. Chris likes things with a raw edge. He doesn’t like them too slick. He likes them in the pocket, and hardcore traditional in the most part. He is a good radar for that and doesn’t like things too arranged. He is pretty tough and I love that about him.

One thing I have found over the years is the best music is often that which is on the edge of one genre reaching into to another – a place where unexpected things can happen?
Yes, you get a little chill. There is excitement in that too, it is also interesting when you get a couple of generations together because you get a certain youthful young energy when the two combine. When performing traditional music it is very dynamic.

You must be pleased the way your daughter and sons are making such a mark performing the music? Not only playing the music but they do a lot in the recording studio with other people?
Yes, they have. Wilson has the Pine Leaf Boys and also has a Ray Charles-like new blues band. It’s a thing that he does on the side. You have to do a little bit of everything these days. Joel does a little bit of everything, mainly Cajun. Sarah Savoy, our daughter, she lives in France and has a Cajun band and plays in England a bunch.

A little while ago I met Jim Miller from the Western Centuries and he had recorded in Joel’s studio?
I really like Jim and have known him for a long time. Unfortunately, I was out of town the time he was with the Western Centuries at Joel’s studio, and sad that I missed him. He is a great singer and I like his style a lot.

He has a superb voice, is a great supportive talent and frontman too.
Yeah, I know. I am glad he is coming to the forefront. He was in a band (Donna The Buffalo) with his ex-wife, Tara, and they were great. It’s fun that they are both out doing their individual things. I believe Jim has a lot to offer. I really do.

Talking about the recording studio. Do you have anything in the works?
We are working on another Savoy Family project if we can get everybody home at the same time. It would be a miracle!  We have about half of it completed. I have a follow-up to the record I made with Linda Ronstadt but it won’t have Linda on it. It is going to be Americana, more English type songs. Maybe some old Virginia stuff. A few old favourite pop songs from the past revisited, according to my vision, like “Walk Away Renee” that I did with Linda. So that is going to be really exciting. I think Dirk Powell is going to produce it. He said he would if he ever comes home from the extensive touring he’s currently doing with Rhiannon Giddens. Like on Adieu False Heart where we used a lot of the Louisiana primo musicians, we will also record it here with all our wonderful local musicians. It’s going to be great.

Have you anyone lined up to help with the vocals?
At this time I am probably going to use my daughter-in-law, Kelly Jones Savoy. Her father is an old-time musician, Carl Jones. He is pretty famous over here. His daughter is married to Joel, a beautiful blonde she is probably going to sing on it. I have not got that far as yet. I was going to make a record with Linda Thompson and Patty Griffin that I was so looking forward to but it didn’t work out. Linda has some trouble with her vocals right now.  It is public knowledge so I am not speaking out of place. She has been having a hard time singing but that is not to say it might not happen in the future. I hope it will. That was going to be a fun project. I am not going to tell you what it is, she laughs, because someone might steal the cool idea we have for the song project.!

Despite her slight stature, Patty Griffin is one strong performer?
Yes, she is. She has a lot of power in that little body.

People will be still looking back at her albums thirty years from now for inspiration, the way she keeps is sharp and clean never ceases to impress and amaze me.
I love her material and the way she sings.

You, of course, aren’t a Louisiana native but were born and raised in Virginia?
That is correct. I got into Cajun music, I guess when I was in college. Around that time I was at the National folk festival and a Cajun girl I knew in Richmond said you have to meet Marc Savoy because he’s here. I met him and that was it. The rest was history. We really hit it off. He told me to come to Louisiana and I was so impressed he spoke English because he was speaking French with a bunch of Cajun people he was with. I was totally unaware he could speak English. I met him and Michael Doucet the same weekend and became great friends. We formed the Savoy-Doucet Cajun Band a bit after that.

That was a really hot band.
Thank you. We still play together, actually. Thing is everybody now has so many irons in the fire. At that time there were hardly any other women playing Cajun music besides Cheryl Cormier. I was one of the few women here playing Cajun music. It was very exciting to have the dynamic – Michael on fiddle and Marc my favourite accordion player. We had a lot of fun and covered a lot of ground!

Marc not only plays great but also builds beautiful accordions. One of the fascinating things about his music is how little effort and movement as he projects this terrific sound. 
He is moving his fingers like lightning,  but his hand,  like you say, it doesn’t move. While his fingers are all over the keyboard he is otherwise absolutely still. It is a magically the sound he makes. He is a stickler for that. He says none of the traditional players he knew ever jumped around on stage or anything. You will notice that yourself.  All the old-time musicians, the Tex-Mex and Cajuns from the past,  they were very straightforward as they played. But they would play the heck out of their instruments and sing with so much soul.

When you first came down to Louisiana I guess you quickly dropped into their way of life? With Cajun music there is more than just the music, it is a way of life. It is so, so different down there.
Yes, it is a very different place from where I am from. Virginia is more like England, an American Southern version if that is possible to imagine. Louisiana – my mother called it northern Niagara – It is kind of wild, hot, humid and tropical with hurricanes, the food is spicy and hot too. I think the Cajuns usually have the card of who is boss. Their culture takes over whatever it comes in touch with it because it is very strong. It is a living culture. There is the food aspect – they are cooking all the time and preparing these amazing meals while you are playing music. It is a very homey powerful thing the Cajun scene.

After Been Down There I got the impression fishing, music and dancing is pretty much what their lives revolve around?
Yes, all that dancing keeps these people quite young. As they go out and in some places dance till dawn still.

Do you do any recording work other than on your own records in the studio?
Only on my own records, and yes there is a new live album by the Savoy Family at the Jazz Fest in France, 2017 that’s out. I have not even heard it but it is for sale on Amazon. Plus, I also made a record (Plays The Music Of Cleoma Falcon) of Cleoma Falcon because she is my heroine. It is an eight-song EP. those two records are my newest projects.

Where are the main Cajun strongholds today, apart from Eunice where you live?
At this point, something sad has happened. The emergence of casinos has made a lot of the dance halls die. Because a lot of the Cajuns like to go to the casinos. I would say Breaux Bridge still has some good old dance halls. Lafayette has a lot going on. The young Cajun musicians there are incredible. It is really happening there. Eunice still has stuff going on. We have the Liberty Theatre that is a really good scene, and we also have the jam sessions at Marc’s Music Store where he builds accordions every Saturday. So we have a good stronghold here in Eunice.

You also made two Cajun tribute albums?
Yes, I have. There was Evangeline Made (2002) and Creole Bred (2004). They were both on the Vanguard label. It was a tribute to Cajun music with pop stars.  The idea was when we would travel we would meet people who loved the music and would say, let’s get together and play. For example Richard Thompson, when we were in London, he would get up on stage with us. So we thought this would be fun and we should get them to record with us. We play with these people anyway. On Evangeline Made, Linda Ronstadt wanted me to sing with her on the record and that is what kicked-off the record (Linda Ronstadt With Ann Savoy; The Zoro Sisters Adieu False Heart) we made together.

Linda has a great love of Mexican and Spanish music?
Yes, she became hugely popular and loved doing it and was great at that.

Was there already a love of the music prior to the two of you becoming friends?
She did not know much about it but she loved the music and this part of the world. She would come and visit and stay with us. She visited the jazz fest and was dating the man who runs the festival. That is how I met her. She also got to become good friends with my husband and she would come visit us at our farm here.  She just loves Cajun food and the culture. We recorded a lot of our record in Louisiana with Dirk Powell who played on a lot of it. Although he did not produce the record, it was made in his studio (Steve Buckingham was the producer)

Do you see much of Linda now?
I do although it has been a few months since I have seen her. We talk on the phone and email a lot, and are good friends. She is doing good and still lectures about her book and does book readings and stuff.

Talking about books, it is something else you have done?
Yes, I wrote Cajun Reflections and I am working on Vol2 and it is about 85% done or more. I am really having too much fun playing music to settle down to the part where I have to start editing, to do the hard work!

You need to be snowbound in the mountains for a few days to finish it.
Yes, exactly. I probably need to be locked up somewhere with my stuff.

There was a film Divine Sisters of The Ya-Ya Sisterhood?
It was interesting because it was supposed to have been recorded in Alexandria Louisiana and T-Bone Burnette, the music director, wanted to have a Cajun band at an outdoor party in the movie. And he wanted it to be Cleoma Falcon songs and someone told him about me loving to do her songs so he called me up. The next thing I know I am on three songs on the Sony Soundtrack, T-Bone produced the record and I am proud of his production.  He did an interesting job.

He has done a wide range of musical styles over the years
He was wonderful to me. He also included me as the associate musical director of the movie All The Kings Men with Sean Penn, and my Django jazz band, Ann Savoy & Her Sleepless Nights, wrote a song that is in that movie.

Is the group still active?
Yes, it is. I played Friday night with them. We played New Orleans a bunch, and Los Angeles, but is a large bunch to travel far with. I am trying to find a way to have fewer pieces in the band because to travel has become so expensive. So we don’t get too far but I would love to come over to Europe with the band.

On stage, you play this wonderful rhythm guitar.  How long did it take you to master the Cajun playing style?
Actually, I played all kinds of guitar before I came to Louisiana. It’s complicated guitar, so when I got to Louisiana Marc said, forget that complicated thing and just think of the downbeat. It is just about the groove. We had a really good guitar player called Gary Morode come over and teach me the dancehall style that Marc wanted me to play. He taught me and I got it. But it is definitely hard work. There have been a lot of long dances but it’s been a lot of fun.

What year did you move to Louisiana?
I moved here in 1977.

Dewey Balfa would still be going strong then?
He was one of our best friends. Marc toured with Dewey a lot. Dewey hung around at our house a lot after his wife died (1980). He was a dear, dear friend. DL Mennard and Marc toured a lot back then and I would go on all the trips.

D.L Mennard was something else. Known to many as the Cajun Hank Williams, he possessed a distinctive personality?
He did. He was quite a showman. He was definitely the Cajun Hank Williams. He looked like him too! There was something about him. Nobody else sounded like him, his whole tone.

Dewey’s daughter, Christine Balfa,  is still on the road carrying on the family tradition.
She is in the other all-woman Cajun band besides the Magnolia Sisters and it is called BonSoir Catin.

You also play fiddle?
I play a lot. In fact,  Jane Vidrine, one of the Magnolia Sisters, and myself play twin-fiddle a lot. We do a lot of the old a cappella ballads, singing together. I think the British and Irish particularly understand the old songs and words. That is one of the things I most love about the people there. They also like duets.  It’s not ‘blast your brain out rock’n’roll’ all the time.

I hope you are back over soon! 
Yes, we will. We loved our time touring there last summer.

Author: Maurice Hope

Work for CEF, live in Hexham, Northumberland. Americana, country, folk and bluegrass Journalist since 1988 and currently write for Americana-UK.com, Flyinshoes and live reviews for Northern Echo and Jumpin' Hot Club. Enjoy photography, walking, natural history, travel, reading and writing poetry.

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