It started in the kitchen, like so many good things do in Louisiana.
There might have been biscuits in the oven, or gumbo on the stove, or a pot of coffee or tea on the countertop. Children would float in and out, or a telephone might ring, but that was OK. This was informal, natural, organic, and the distractions were part of the reality.
Two women sat at the kitchen table. They had lived their separate lives 2,000 miles apart, but when their paths happened to cross several years ago, they found in each other a kindred spirit, steeped in similar traditions of home and family, love and friendship, music. Especially music.
Sitting at that table, they would sing, each in turn pulling out one obscure song after another, ballads rooted in this ethnic musical experience or that, often melancholy but always, always, about love.
It was all about the songs, and the singing. Just two voices — feminine, but not frail; soft, but not shallow; well-worn, but not worn-down — negotiating delicate harmonies and powerful lyrics about the highest highs and lowest lows of the human condition’s most powerful emotion.
It could have ended there in that kitchen, and both women would have been perfectly content. But somewhere along the way, one suggested to the other that they record those songs together.
Thus did Ann Savoy and Linda Ronstadt commit their inspired, magical and very personal collaboration to compact disc to share with the world outside the walls of a sturdy, century-old Acadian farmhouse on the prairie of southwest Louisiana.
“It was a very heart-felt project, ” Savoy said. “We felt that we were in a neat position to sing songs we loved. It was all about the way we sounded together and the material we were doing.”
“It really is a record about two friends sitting around in their pajamas singing together in the kitchen,” Ronstadt said last week by phone from her home in San Francisco. “It’s not pretend. It’s not like, ‘Doesn’t this sound homey?’ It’s what we did.
“And we did it for so many years, we finally recorded it. And when we first recorded it, it was in the kitchen in one of the houses on Ann’s farm. We just set up the mikes on the kitchen table and we were singing around that table. We recorded one of the French songs there, and it came out so sweetly that we went, ‘OK, then, it’s for real.’ ”
Grammy hoopla is nothing new to Ronstadt. Counting albums and singles, vinyl and CDs, the pop superstar has sold more than 30 million records and won 10 Grammys since she first hit the charts 40 years ago as the lead singer for the Stone Poneys, whose single “Different Drum” reached No. 13 on the Billboard music charts in January 1968.
Savoy doesn’t have that kind of national profile, but she too has spent a meaningful lifetime in music. In Acadiana, she is an icon in her own right.
She wrote the first great book about Cajun music almost a quarter-century ago. For many years she oversaw the Saturday night performances at the Liberty Theater in Eunice, booking the talent for the Cajun equivalent of National Public Radio’s “A Prairie Home Companion.” She conducts seminars on Cajun music history, traditions and performance techniques. She is an integral part of four musical groups. She has recorded more than a dozen albums.
“Basically, Ann has brought the feminine aspect back into Cajun music as a performer rather than an adjunct listener or dance partner,” said Michael Doucet, fiddler for the Lafayette-based band BeauSoleil, the only Cajun band to win a Grammy among the handful that have garnered nominations.
“Ann’s niche seems to be popularizing Cajun music.”
Her husband, Marc, is a living legend as Louisiana’s pre-eminent builder of the Cajun-style diatonic button accordion and is a master of the instrument. He also is a staunch defender of the at-risk folkways and values that have typified rural Cajun culture since the exiled Acadians gained a foothold in Louisiana more than two centuries ago.
Their Savoy Family Band — a mainstay of the Audubon Zoo’s Swamp Fest every autumn — has included, at times, all four of their now-grown children, which was only natural since Joel, Wilson, Sarah and Gabrielle were exposed to the music since they were in the womb.
“We’d have all these really great parties at our house all the time with all the greatest Cajun musicians, like Dennis McGee and Wade Fruge and Cheese Reed and Dewey Balfa and D.L. Menard,” Savoy said. “All those people were at our house a lot, and the children got so exposed to the best of that.”
The successful passing of that cultural and artistic torch to all four children has been “the thrill of our lives,” according to their mother.
“To be on stage with your own children who you work well with, that’s such a gift,” she said. “Usually there are so many conflicts when people become young adults. They’ve been really great children. They love our lives and they want to keep our lives going.”
These days, Joel is gaining acclaim as a recording engineer after a lengthy run as a fiddler for the Red Stick Ramblers. He and his mother contributed to the movie soundtracks for “Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood” and “All the King’s Men, ” and he was one of many Louisiana musicians who played on “Adieu False Heart.”
Wilson is the accordion-playing lightning rod for the Pine Leaf Boys, a raucous young quintet that exploded out of Lafayette in 2005 as The Next Big Thing in Cajun music. Like his brother, he is already proficient on several instruments.
Sarah lives in Russia but has her own Cajun band in Paris. Gabi lives in New Orleans, and her current musical interests are more eclectic.
Ann, a Virginia native who had majored in French and lived in Europe, had never seen Louisiana before she met, at a national folklife festival in 1976, the French-speaking accordion player she would eventually marry.
“She brought a lovely sense of tradition with her to that relationship,” said Barry Jean Ancelet, folklore professor at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. “Of course, Marc also had a fierce sense of tradition as well. She and Marc have continued to champion the value of traditional music and culture over the years. They both understand that the music doesn’t exist in a vacuum, that it is part of the larger culture, that Dennis McGee played what he played because of how he lived. It’s not just notes, it’s an expression of life.
“With that in mind, it is not surprising that they have gently nurtured musicianship among their children. It is all part of a consistent philosophy.”
Ronstadt first met the family “16 or 18 years ago” when a mutual friend brought her to their farm outside Eunice for one of their boucheries, the traditional Cajun hog-butchering that also served as a social event for rural families.
“I was so impressed that they were playing music without any amplification,” Ronstadt said. “It wasn’t what some people might think of as a ‘barn dance, ‘ but this was really dancing in a barn. People were really sitting on bales of straw or whatever, and they were playing right there as we were dancing and there were no microphones. There was no show business. It was neighbors dancing. I just loved that.”
The camaraderie was for Ronstadt a throwback to her own music-infused upbringing on her grandfather’s cattle ranch in Arizona. She and Ann became fast friends and visited each other many times in the ensuing years.
“We drove through south Louisiana, looking at old architecture and stuff, and it was just so fun,” Ronstadt recalled. “We’d sing stuff, because she plays and sings, and we found that we had such similar taste in music — our private taste, what we like to listen to for ourselves, you know, not necessarily what we play publicly.”
She described Savoy as “a real unusual kind of singer. There’s nothing show-offy about it. It’s very firmly rooted in good musicianship.
“But there’s a plainness about her that reminds me of Shaker furniture. It has beautiful proportions, it’s very solidly designed and it’s without frills. It’s real honest. At the same time there’s a feminine grace to it. . . . It’s got a softness to it that keeps it from being so severe. It becomes a thing of simple, elegant beauty. That’s how I think of her.”
They first recorded together on the 2002 album “Evangeline Made,” a collection of old Cajun songs reinterpreted by rock and country stars such as John Fogerty and Rodney Crowell. Savoy and Ronstadt sang two duets on the album, which earned Savoy her first Grammy nomination as the album’s producer.
When most people in the New Orleans area put the name “Linda Ronstadt” and the word “collaboration” in the same sentence, they’re more likely to think of Aaron Neville. That pairing owes to a chance encounter in 1984, while Ronstadt was in New Orleans to perform at the world’s fair.
“Whenever Aaron and his brothers or the Meters or any combination of that bunch of folks would come to L.A., the word would get around the music community really fast and we’d all run out to see them,” Ronstadt said. “I’d seen him play many times. I was a huge fan.”
On the night of her concert at the world’s fair amphitheater, Neville was scheduled at Tipitina’s, and as soon as her show ended, she rushed over to catch his. During his performance, he called her out from the audience and invited her onstage to sing with him.
“I had no idea that he would know who I was,” Ronstadt said.
She said she never joins another singer onstage like that unless she has had a chance to rehearse at least a little bit. But this was Aaron Neville.
“I went up anyway, like a zombie, and we sang some doo-wop song together, ” Ronstadt recalled. “The next morning I woke up thinking, ‘We sounded good together, ‘ but then I said, ‘You idiot, everybody thinks they sound good when they sing with Aaron Neville.’ ”
Some time later, Neville invited her to take part in a New Orleans Artists Against Hunger and Homelessness event.
“We were trying to figure out what to sing,” she said. “Well, we were both raised Catholic and one song that we both knew all the words and music to was Schubert’s ‘Ave Maria.’ Aaron sings that, so I put on a harmony, because my brother, that was his solo when he sang with the Tucson Boys Choir. He sang it all over the world and I knew the boy’s chorus part. So I sang these harmonies in my best little-boy soprano, over Aaron’s counter-tenor. It sounded really nice.”
That prompted them to consider recording together.
“I began to work to find some songs,” Ronstadt said. “The record company was kind of, ‘Huh?’ but they helped me do it and we had some success with it.”
Did they ever. Neville and Ronstadt shared a 1989 Grammy award for the duet “Don’t Know Much” and won again the next year with “All My Life.”
“Whenever I sing with a different artist, I can get things out of my voice that I can’t do by myself,” Ronstadt said. “I can do things with Aaron that I can’t do alone. And the same with Ann — I can make sounds with Ann that I can’t do by myself, and we make a sound together that isn’t anything like what we do when we sing by ourselves. When that happens, then you’re going someplace.”
Ronstadt is all about going places. In recent years, her muse has taken her from a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta on Broadway to lushly arranged pop standards with the Nelson Riddle Orchestra to Mexican roots music to an album of rock songs reconfigured as children’s ditties and lullabies. She already had been all over the map, and this was one more place she was drawn to but had yet to visit.
Those familiar with Savoy’s work, though, might have come away more surprised.
“Adieu False Heart” finds her singing in English, after recording a dozen French-language albums with the Savoy Family Band, the Savoy-Doucet Cajun Band and the Magnolia Sisters, and years of belting out Cajun dancehall tunes at clubs and festivals all over the country.
Furthermore, it’s hard to find any vestige of Cajun music in the songs and interludes that comprise this album’s 16 tracks. Although three of the works contain French lyrics, most of the collection is roots music in the Anglo-American sense, skewing toward Appalachia, not the Atchafalaya.
Still, “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” would be just as out of place here as the “Mamou Two-Step.” The album’s tone is much too somber for that.
“We got to use our artistic impulses,” Savoy said. “You know it’s a lot of very sad songs. It’s a definite mellow, heartbreaking record in a lot of ways. A sad song really brings out a wonderful quality in people’s voices when they’re singing in a heartfelt way. I love that emotional quality.”
Savoy picked most of the songs from her vast collection of largely obscure roots music, adding for good measure the 1966 pop hit “Walk Away Renee” and the Creole dirge “Marie Mouri” by Mamou Playboys fiddler David Greely. They cut a demo at the Savoy family studio near Eunice, with musical assistance from the Red Stick Ramblers, and sent it on to Vanguard Records, which bought into the project.
Tracks were laid down in Acadiana, then Nashville, then Sausalito, Calif. The album was released last summer.
While the songs of “Adieu False Heart” cut against the grain of what Louisiana music fans might have come to expect from Savoy, their themes and imagery effectively cross the boundaries of place and time. The emotional import of these lyrics is as true to the Acadian and Creole experience as any other, conveying its own genetic resonance.
“It’s got such a tradition to it,” Ronstadt said. “It’s got such a long trail of emotional baggage, of people just struggling through adversity, from one century to another — not people you knew personally, but people that maybe were your great-grandmothers.”
In the end, these are love songs, just not in the conventional sense.
“We’re looking back on some things and also looking at more mature kinds of love that we’ve gone through: love of dear friends and love of family and old lovers and new lovers and ones that have left and ones that haven’t,” Ronstadt said. “There are all different kinds of love that you can celebrate, and these songs, I think they celebrate that, those kinds of love in that way — in the context of this friendship where people just sit in the kitchen and sing in their pajamas.”
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Originally published in The Times-Picayune, February 11, 2007.