Cajun against the machine

To the casual listener, Louisiana's two major roots music styles, Zydeco and Cajun, probably sound like similar servings from the same pot of gumbo. It's an understandable misperception; both Zydeco and Cajun accent the accordion and dancing, and the two genres share many of the same riffs and even songs, as well as similar Creole expressions and themes. But for the most part, they are complementary styles that have far too frequently been quite separate, Cajun music being made by and for whites, and Zydeco being the same for African-Americans. Anyone who has visited Cajun Country in Louisiana knows that the Cajun and Zydeco music scenes are two vastly different worlds.

That great divide within Louisiana music has been closing some as younger generations of musicians--who have been raised appreciating both styles, as well as the popular music melting pot--have made it a point to intermix stylistically and personally. Zydeco's Geno Delafose and such Cajuns as Steve Riley and Christine Balfa have been chipping away at the wall. And one Louisianan who has taken a hearty kick at that barrier is accordionist Wayne Toups, whose band name, Zydecajun, announces his mission. Toups has not only tried to mix up the two styles but at the same time walk the precarious line between being traditional and commercial. For the most part, he's succeeded at all tasks.

His latest album, Little Wooden Box, is illustrative of the breadth Toups aims for. It includes songs by Cajun music founding father Iry LeJeune and Zydeco progenitor Clifton Chenier, as well as tunes that summon up the flavors of The Band ("Oh Louisiana") and even The Allman Brothers ("Southern Girls"). For the 41-year-old Toups, it's an entirely natural process to blend all the musical styles he enjoys, one that he hopes will continue to invigorate Lousiana's home-grown sounds to boot.

"I like to think it's giving our tradition a breath of fresh air by bringing some excitement to it," he says. "It's definitely turned on a broader and younger generation." The renaissance of traditional Louisiana cultures at home has also won over adherents in the rest of the world. "It continues to build," Toups continues. "It's getting stronger and stronger and more popular than ever, man. More people are being fascinated from out of state. They're fascinated with our food, our music, and how we like to have a good time. It's like a whole different country. They want to taste it at least one time, and some of them never leave. Some of them get a taste of it, and they have to come back. I think it's wonderful."

Though raised in a dirt-poor farm family near Crowley, Louisiana, Toups is nothing if not a positive thinker. That stands to reason, as his music won him a major-label record deal in the mid-1980s and took him to such far-flung realms as South America and the Far East on tours sponsored by the U.S. Information Agency. He found those experiences to be "so educational, man. I was raised real poor, and none of my family has ever seen anything like that. Different cultures really amaze me," Toups says. In the process, he discovered the truth in the adage that music is the universal language. "A lot of times they probably couldn't understand what I was saying, but they could understand the feel of the music," he adds, noting that the language barrier works both ways with this Cajun. "Hey man, I can't understand Bob Dylan. I really can't. And he's singing in English."

Toups is the closest thing there is to a superstar in Cajun music, where he is often tagged as the genre's Bruce Springsteen, or "Le Boss." The nickname does generously describe the energetic and engaging presence Toups injects into his stage shows, even if Toups and Springsteen are all but musical and lyrical opposites. If anything, Toups is more a mixture of all he grew up on: Cajun, Zydeco, swamp pop, soul, and Southern rock. The final result of that recipe is something he feels is all his own. "Back in 1985, when I formed Zydecajun, I wanted it to be a style of music, and my destiny was to be Wayne Toups and play a style of music that Wayne Toups created," he says with disarming modesty. "And so far it's been a very pleasant ride."

No kidding. Toups not only enjoys a healthy touring schedule but has also become a fairly busy session player. He started guesting on albums with an unlikely artist. "The first time I ever got a call as a sideman was for Thomas Dolby, for an album called, I think, Heroics or something like that [actually 1992's Astronauts & Heretics]. I ain't never even heard it," Toups says with a laugh. "Then I became friends with Mark Chesnutt and went up to Nashville and recorded with him." He appears on two No. 1 hits by the Texan country singer, "Gotta Get A Life" and "It Sure Is Monday."

Since then, Music City has taken to Toups in a big way, inviting him back to cut tracks for George Jones, Alan Jackson, Clay Walker, and fellow Louisianan Sammy Kershaw. For Toups, the thrill of playing with the stars is equaled by making a dent in the competitive country session musician game. "In Nashville, they don't have time to wait on you," he says. "If you can't cut it, you're gone. 'Who's next? Let's get the next guy.' I think that's why I fit in. I'm still on top of my game, and I think I keep getting better. I've had a lot of fun. It's definitely a pat on the back to go in and work with those guys. But I can also take it on the road, and some of them can't."

Unlike some observers of the current country music scene, the optimistic Toups thinks there are positive changes in the wind in Nashville. "I think country music is fixing to come back around to doing that old sort of two-stepping deal instead of this country-pop stuff the record industry is trying to control," he predicts. "But they have a few of the big country stars who are throwing their weight around, such as George Strait and Alan Jackson. That's country music. When George Jones can't get played on country radio, then it ain't country radio."

Even though Toups is in many ways a commercially minded progressive in his approach to Cajun and Zydeco, he maintains a reverence for tradition in his approach. "We always listened to Cajun music. My Daddy listened to it on the radio all the time," he recalls of his childhood. Hence the sounds of his youth, both white and black, remain paramount. "Iry LeJeune. Belton Richard, Clifton Chenier, I love Buckwheat [Zydeco]. Those guys all did something special." But the era's other styles also affected him. "We also listened to Otis Redding and people like that, really soulful music all the time." He later enjoyed Southern rockers like The Allmans and Lynyrd Skynyrd.

For Toups, it's all part of the big musical melting pot below the Mason-Dixon Line. "I think the South has produced the best musicians in the world, especially when it comes to singing songs really passionately," he says, rating the Dallas-born Stevie Ray Vaughan as "the best guitar player ever." He's also a fan and friend of Fort Worth native Delbert McClinton, regularly appearing on McClinton's annual Winter Sandy Beaches sea cruise. "We get to jam with everybody. That's what's fun."

Toups is certainly an accordion player par excellence, something he feels is a natural proclivity. "My brother played a little bit, and I wanted to be like big brother--I guess that's the way it goes," he explains of how he first started playing the accordion at 13 years old. "Hell, man, I guess it's a gift, you know. One person just doesn't pick it up and learn just like that, but after nine months, I knew enough songs to play on a job. And that's four hours of music. I guess the good Lord blessed me with a good ear, so he helps a lot."

After hitting the major leagues of the music game early in his career through a deal with Mercury Records in the late 1980s (which produced Zydecajun, 1988's Blast From Bayou, 1990's Johnnie Can't Dance, and 1991's Fish Out of Water), Toups seems wiser for the ride, and happy now to be recording for the larger indie Shanachie Records. Besides, for Toups, the label has been carving out a Louisiana roster with rising Zydeco star Keith Frank and the Cajun and swamp pop supergroup Lil' Band O' Gold.

Although Toups was launched to success via the efforts of legendary Louisiana music hustler Jay Miller--who in the past recorded Chenier, the Kershaw brothers, and Cajun country singer Jimmy "C" Newman, and also gave bluesman Lazy Lester his nickname--Toups found that the arrangement hindered his progress. "The major-label thing with Mercury didn't go so well, because I was signed with the Millers in Crowley," he explains. "I think the people with Mercury didn't want to have any dealing with them."

For all his accomplishments, Toups feels he's only beginning to hit his stride. "I think my best years are yet to come," he concludes. "I think we're still only scratching the surface. We want to play and put 15,000 people in the seats every night." He might be the Cajun Bruce Springsteen after all.