He was, after Iry LeJeune, too soon deceased (in 1955), the pope of traditional Cajun accordion, and, today, he remains a reference for numerous artists such as Jo-El Sonnier or, even more recently, Wilson Savoy, lead accordionist for the Pine Leaf Boys. He held a dominating position in the 70’s during the big revival of Cajun music, due to his very long association with the Balfa Brothers (Dewey, Rodney and Will). His most-widely known track, « Pine grove blues », first put on wax in 1949, and re-recorded several times later on, was a big regional hit, and even made a mark on people such as Steve Cropper and on the debuts of Memphis soul music : « Last night » by the Markeys is directly inspired from it.
Thus, get ready for a long story spanning over more than sixty years, which begins near … Gueydan, Louisiana, on June 27th, 1913 (almost 100 years ago).
Nathan was of Cajun (his father was called Lennis) and Indian (he was proud of it) ancestry. We know little about his childhood and even his life. He was never prolix, even with people close to him, for instance Chris Strachwitz, Arhoolie’s boss, who greatly contributed to his rediscovery in the 60’s. Abshire probably came from a poor rural family of small sharecroppers, who composed the majority of the farmers of Southwest Louisiana. Life was hard in those times and the only way to escape its burden was playing porch music. Although several members (father, mother and an uncle) of the family played the accordion, none encouraged him or taught him to play.
He was self-taught on the instrument, but that cost him many a thrashing : an uncle, who lived at their home, had a « three and a half-piastre » accordion, which he stored in a cupboard. Nathan, six years old, took it out to have a go at it as soon as the uncle had left for work. But, when the latter came back for lunch, he noticed that the instrument had been moved, so he took out his belt and gave the culprit a good whipping. But Nathan had another try in the afternoon, and thus got another thrashing in the evening! It was eventually the uncle who gave up and gave him the instrument as a present (a beautiful illustration of « Lâche pas la patate »!).
This explains why Nathan could play the accordion from age 6, appearing for his first live gig at the ripe age of 8, at Tee-Gar Guidry’s ballroom in Mermentau Cove! He quickly turned pro and played all the « bals de maison” and “fais do-dos” in the area throughout the years 1920-1930.
His biggest influence then came from legendary Creole artist, Amédé Ardoin. On Saturday afternoons, Nathan would go to John’s Foreman’s, where Amédée came too, and thus they began to play together. Nathan often shared the bill with Amédé in those times, alongside fiddler Lionel Leleux. Ardoin recorded from 1929 on in New Orleans, and his songs, that have become standards, can be found on the « Cajun Dance Party – Fais Do-Do“ anthology (Columbia 01-475703-10), released ca 1990 and still available.
By 1935, Abshire teamed up with guitarist Leroy ‘Happy Fats’ LeBlanc and his Rayne-Bo Ramblers, whose line-up was a fluctuating one (Joe Werner, Moise Sonnier, Norris Savoy, Roy Romero, Louis Arceneaux, Eric Arseneaux, Doc Guidry, or Simon Schexnyder, Warren Storm’s father), and began to record with them, as an accordionist – vocalist on 4 songs. This New Orleans session (the only place in the state where an itinerant studio was set up by the technicians of Bluebird, an RCA subsidiary, in a time when the majors of the recording industry were showing an interest in ethnic musics), on Saturday, August 10th, 1935, split between Fat’s Rayne-Bo Ramblers and the Hackberry Ramblers, gave, among others, « French blues ».
« La valse de Riceville« , stemming from the same session, shows a lively Nathan brimming with energy. His accordion playing is mature and his voice full of energy.
But already, under the influence of nearby (Oklahoma-Texas) western swing, and of the invasion of western English speakers, after the discovery of oil fields in Southern Louisiana, Cajun culture was overshadowed, and its symbolic instrument, the accordion, pushed away into oblivion. Abshire had to set himself at the fiddle ; Joe Falcon, one of the pioneers of Cajun music, settled down behind a drum kit to survive : the only sound heard around was Texas fiddle music, by Bob Wills, Bill Boyd, Milton Brown and the likes, respectable musicians, for sure, but who suffocated the young Cajun.music. Times were hard for a quasi-illiterate Abshire, who hardly understood English!
Then came 1942, Pearl Harbor and America went to war. Young people (Nathan was 29 then) were massively drafted to go and fight in the Pacific and in the Philippines (the Anglos, who usually despised them, were, all of a sudden, very glad to use Cadians as interpreters during the landing in Normandy and the Battle of France). Nathan’s analphabetism and incapacity to speak English put him aside. But, as he was run over by a tank in Texas during his training (as his « Service blues« , based upon that event, testifies), getting a broken leg as a result, he was discharged as unfit and sent back home. For several years, he worked at a sawmill until an accident (he was a musician, not a sawyer!) forced him to repair oil-fired stoves. That took place in the late 40’s.
In 1948, Clobule and Ernest Thibodeaux asked him to join the Pine Grove Boys, houseband of the Pine Grove Club, in Jennings, Louisiana ; the group already ncluded Dewey and Will Balfa on fiddle, and, under the influence of Will Kegley and Nathan, quickly became the New Pine Grove Boys, who played six out of seven days, alternating between both Quincy Davis’ clubs (Quincy was also the owner of the Avalon in Basile, from which « Avalon waltz » was inspired) in Lake Charles, the Crystal Grill and the Broken Mirror in the evening, and on KPLC radio for a daily broadcast in the daytime.
Eddie Shuler, who worked for the station, but was too busy with the promotion of Iry LeJeune, put them in touch with businessman Virgel (Virgil) Bozman (Bozeman) (there are 2 spellings found for his first name and surname, but it is Virgel Bozman that is more often found in the recording credits), based in Westlake, Texas, who signed them on his rising O.T. (Oklahoma Tornadoes, whose advertising slogan was Hits of Louisiana) label.
At first, Oklahoma Tornadoes was the name of the group formed by Virgel as the studio band for the Opera label run by James Bryant and Bennie Hess, based in Houston, Texas. Their fiddler being Floyd LeBlanc, of Mermentau (who recorded on Opera), with whom Nathan had played earlier on, he might be the one who put Nathan in touch with Bozman.
According to Eddie Shuler (South to Louisiana by John Broven), Bozman’ recording methods were very strange : « He kept the pot boiling by selling cowhorns (the famous Longhorns) and it is how he landed in Lake Charles one day. He discovered fast how I managed to get artists recorded by a third person and he decided to follow my steps. He arrived at the station studio, gave a bottle of booze to the sound engineer, asked him to cut an acetate, left with it and got it pressed somewhere else« .
Virgel gathered them in KPLC studio, on Monday, May 23rd 1949, to cut 8 tracks, the first of which was the legendary « Pine Grove Blues« , inspired by Columbus Frugé’s « Tite négresse » (maybe a relative of Atlas Frugé, Nathan’s steel-guitarist) and sung in Cadian, of course, a song which would later become his anthem. “Hey, Négresse (here, in the meaning of my baby), où donc t’as passé hier au soir ? T’arrivais le matin, ta robe était toute déchirée, ça m’fait de la peine pour toi…“, shouted more than sung by Nathan, cheered by the interjections of his band members, the same type of calls to his musicians used by Bob Wills in western swing. The accordion is hypnotic – not that it puts you to sleep, of course – and bewitching, relieved by a weft of fiddle and rhythmic guitar, the whole propelled by a powerful double bass.
It was a big hit (3,200 copies of the single were pressed, while other Cajun 78’s usually reached a pressing figure of 500 all over Cajun country), and Nathan and his Pine Grove Boys were called everywhere to entertain at dances with their two-steps and waltzes. A happy period of his life, which is reflected in his recordings : exuberant voice, tonic accordion (of course!) and lively band. The waltzes are played in major and the fast blues in minor (do 7th).
In 1950, Nathan definitively settled in Basile. Quincy Davis became the band manager, buying them a brand new Mercury 1949, usually driven by Ernest Thibodeaux, to go to their shows, especially in the southeast fringe of Texas (Beaumont, Orange, Port Arthur, Winnie), where many Cajuns, attracted by the oil industry, had settled.
O.T. records being distributed in Cadian country (Cajuns call themselves so) by George Khoury, another business connection and a friend of Shuler, who owned Lyric / Khoury’s records in Lake Charles, and a sponsor of Bozman, whom he had helped financially, quite naturally Abshire started recording for him in 1954 : 18 tracks in all, the quintessence of Cajun music. Nathan gave up the vocal duties to other singers to concentrate on his playing : Roy Broussard (« Pine Grove Boogie« ) or his guitarist Ernest Thibodeaux, who both sang short stories in French, with delightful funny, good natured lyrics : “T’en as eu, mais t’en n’as plus, t’en as eu des peaux d’lapin, mais t’en n’as plus“ (“Step it fast“), or lamenting about female cheating (« Jolie, petite Juliette« ). Poor Cadians !
Nathan and his group played extensively the Shamrock in Lake Charles. Dewey Balfa (born in 1927 near Mamou) joined him in 1958 on fiddle and vocal on « L.S.U. French waltz« , and both partners would form, about twenty years later, a strong association. All these colorful tracks are gathered on an Arhoolie CD (CD 373, « French Blues« , still available).
Nathan’s discography went to a stop for some years. It was at the beginning of the 60’s that he recorded again, this time for J(ay) D. Miller, in Crowley, some twenty songs over 2 or 3 years, for Miller’s Kajun and Cajun Classics labels, and in very different registers. His most rock ‘n’ roll outputs are « Popcorn Blues« , pushed by an electric rhythmic and a very efficient drummer, and a remake of « Pine Grove Blues« .
« Popcorn Blues » is another fast blues, evoking the aftermath of a drunken bout. No doubt that Nathan, who wrote most of his songs, except the traditional ones, was inspired by what he saw from the stage (and practiced himself) : “J’étais au bal hier au soir. On a mangé des tac tac, (Cadian name for pop corn), on a mangé des grillots (grilled crickets)“ and, probably Dewey Balfa, answers : “Comment t’as fait ça, mon nèg’ (which means my buddy in Cadian), t’as pas de dents“. Nathan goes on : “J’m’étais saoulé hier au soir“ – “Ah, tu d’vrais arrêter de boire, mon nèg’“. This kind of scene would inspire another Abshire song (written by Eddie Shuler), « Lemonade song » : “Passe-moi un verre de limonade, j’ai mal saoulé hier au soir“.
He recorded in all sorts of styles for Miller (don’t forget J D was responsible for the discovery or for the launch of swamp blues by Slim Harpo, Lightning Slim, Lonesome Sundown, Lazy Lester among others), and it is with Lazy on the harmonica, that we can hear Nathan on the U.K. Flyright album FLY 535 « Nathan Abshire & Pine Grove Boys« . « The la la blues » (a term first used to call the music of the French-speaking Creoles, which would be rechristened zydeco with Clifton Chénier’s advent) is an unclassifiable song, in a blues vein, sung by a Black (La La Laverne), in French, on a Cajun backing (accordion, fiddle and steel-guitar) and a swamp rhythm. What a mixture!
Instrumentals (« Pine Grove Stomp« , « French Two-step« ), waltzes, and Amédée Breaux‘s cover, « Hey Mom« , from the late 20’s, complete the album. We miss the original, sung by drummer Robert Bertrand, of “La Banane A Nonc’Adam“ (banana has a double entendre here!), that Michael Doucet would cover in the 90’s (“…c’est comme les pistaches à tante Nana, mais c’est pas la même chose“).
Meanwhile, folk revivalists began to develop an interest in what we call world music nowadays. Chris Strachwitz (himself an immigrated German after WW II), founder of famous label Arhoolie, in California, and long-time collector of 78’s, wanted to discover Cajun music. He flew to Louisiana and recorded Abshire for his label, pulling him out of the Cajun Frontier, the Basile club where he was confined.
In 1964, Nathan was chosen to be on the bill of the prestigious Newport Folk Festival, where Dewey Balfa joined him at the last minute. His music was then pejoratively called chanky-chank by the Anglos who did not know about Cajuns, their music and culture at the time, so the organizers expected a flop. It was a triumph in front of 17,000 spectators ! The recording of the concert remains unissued to this day …
From then on, Nathan and his band, now regularly including the Balfa Brothers, were in great demand. But, if the latter would come and play in Europe, they made it with another accordionist, Nathan having a visceral fear of flying.
Floyd Soileau, of Villeplatte, signed them, in 1966, for two albums (reissued on Ace CD 329) ; Abshire shows he was at the height of his artistry, and it is hard to select the best from the least good. Another version (4th or 5th !) of « Pinegrove Blues« , the one found on all the anthologies, but also memories of the war years (“Offshore Blues“, “Service Blues“), with new vocalists (Thomas Langley or Will, the third Balfa brother) ; Abshire even ventured on the commercial side with his cover of Joe South’s « Games People Play » (in English).
Henceforth he became recognized as THE icon of Cadian culture. His main rival in accordion, Iry LeJune, had disappeared in 1955, and he was thus approached respectfully. He was featured in movies (“Dedans le sud de la Louisiane“, a DVD by Jean-Pierre Bruneau, 1972, a real must, the documentaries “Spend It All“ by Les Blank, 1971, « The Good Times Are Killing Me« , by PBS TV, 1975), he was recorded in the traditional style which he liked : without drums, but with a triangle, « like in the good old days » (La Louisianne records, in 1973 and 1978 : two essential albums, fortunately reissued on Ace CD 401).
Nevertheless, Nathan was sick. He had always lacked showmanship, preferred the company of ‘ti-monde’ (= pals) to drink and have a good time, and could never make a real living from his music. In the 70’s, he was a scrapmonger and an alcoholic. « Good Times Are Killing Me« , was the premonitory title of his second album for La Louisianne.
He died at 68, on Wednesday, May 13th, 1981 (the same day of the attack against Pope Jean-Paul II in Rome) in his hometown of Basile.
It was only in the 90’s that people began to realize his importance, and that the major Cajun artists referred to him.
Nathan and his wife were not able to have children, but they adopted, at an already advanced age, a boy, Ray. As a consequence, from that day on, Nathan stopped drinking. Ray became a Cajun accordionist / singer, cutting two albums (Swallow SW 6173 « For Old Time’s Sake » in 2003 and SW 6193 « Arrête Pas La Musique » in 2005)
Bernard Boyat and Xavier Maire, January, 2009, with invaluable details given by Roger Morand (who knew Nathan well in the 70’s)
revised article November 11th, 2011 (Xavier Maire)