BeauSoleil: Exploring and Expanding the Cajun Tradition

Band's Latest Album, Gitane Cajun, Grabs a Grammy Nomination

The concept of being the most successful act in a particular musical genre conjures up visions of Learjets, excessive lifestyles and infinite dollar signs. For the members of BeauSoleil, however, it means they’re not forced to hold down full-time jobs to finance the luxury of playing the music they love.

Fiddler-vocalist Michael Doucet, who has fronted the Cajun band for almost three decades, has had brushes with the mainstream, including an appearance on Keith Richards’ 1988 solo album, Talk Is Cheap. They’ve been frequent guests on the national radio program, A Prairie Home Companion, and they’ve performed at least twice in every state. After attending one of their live shows, Mary Chapin Carpenter was even inspired to write a song about BeauSoleil and got the band to perform on the track. The song, “Down at the Twist and Shout,” peaked at No. 2 on the country charts.

Still, Doucet and the other band members have remained fiercely committed to traditional Cajun music, a style that began when the Acadians were exiled from France to Nova Scotia some 400 years ago. And although BeauSoleil specializes in the sounds that evolved after the Acadians later moved to what is know known as Louisiana, Doucet is adamant about letting the music continue to grow.

“Traditional, to me, means change,” Doucet tells CMT.com. “It doesn’t mean staying the same. If a tradition continues, it has to adapt.”

At the moment, BeauSoleil’s latest Vanguard album, Gitane Cajun (“gitane” translated as “gypsy”), is nominated for a Grammy for best traditional folk recording. The band previously won a Grammy for the 1977 album, L’amour Ou La Folie.

“Gypsy is a folk culture, but then it’s an adjective, also,” Doucet says in explaining his exploration into gypsy music. “Look at the Acadian people: They’ve been shuffled around from France to the New World to being deported to Louisiana. They kind of had to roll with the punches and maintained their own identity amongst the whole steamroller of Americanization. Gypsies always have a strong family tie. So it just seemed to go together, as far as I could see. This music continues to evolve and can take on anything, like gypsy music or blues or jazz. It’s basically the music of North America.”

If you ever attend one of BeauSoleil’s energetic live shows, be prepared for virtually all of the lyrics to be sung in French, but also be prepared to be moved by the music.

Doucet says, “People have told me, ‘I didn’t know what Cajun was. I just happened into this concert. I felt like I’ve heard this before. I want to go to Louisiana.’ Another person says, ‘I didn’t understand a word you said, but I felt like I understood it. It’s like opera: I don’t understand Italian, but I love opera.’”

Asked why the music continues to possess such a power over people, Doucet says, “These songs are sort of tried and true. The emotions and the way they’re put together tap into a source in us that goes beyond language … because music becomes language. It becomes language in a way that art can totally envelope you, both intellectually and emotionally and morally — and just take you somewhere else. That has a great power. That power can go through walls. It goes beyond skin color. It goes beyond everything. It’s just a magic gift that happens.”

After touring on weekends for approximately 11 years, the members of BeauSoleil became fulltime musicians in 1986.

“I gave it six months to see how it goes,” Doucet says. “And we’ve been doing it ever since. People ask me about this, like I planned it. But there was no plan at all. Basically, it was on our terms. We were going to live in Louisiana. We weren’t going to move to Nashville or New York or L.A. or Canada. This is where we live. This is how we get the source of what we do. You can’t be separated from the source and represent the source. Then it becomes a facsimile.”

Thanks to “Down at the Twist and Shout,” Doucet still occasionally hears his band on the radio, as well as some less likely places.

“I mean, how many times do you have people writing songs about you?” Doucet says of Carpenter’s hit. “It was wonderful meeting her and going to record the album and just hanging out. The whole thing we did — from the CMA Awards to the Grammys to the Super Bowl — was amazing. … She heard us play at this place called the Twist and Shout, and the whole song was a true story.

“It showed a different light on our music and elevated our music. I think it shows the vitality of our music, if we can cross those boundaries. We ate at the Cracker Barrel about a year ago and they piped in the song. Even the blue-hairs were dancing.”

Calvin Gilbert has served as CMT.com’s managing editor since 2002. His background includes stints at the Nashville Banner, Radio & Records and Westwood One.