CJ Chenier is known as “The Crown Prince of Zydeco.” But the son of the man known as “The King of Zydeco” said the music he plays isn’t technically zydeco.
“When you ‘go to a zydeco,’ you’re going to hear a variety of music,” said Chenier from his home in Houston. “You’re going to hear blues, boogie, waltzes, and ballads. But a natural zydeco song is stripped down to drums, accordion and washboard.”
When Chenier plays the Castle Theatre on Saturday, Jan. 19, his “zydeco blues” band will include those elements, as well as guitar and saxophone. It’s a life he didn’t envision growing up in Port Arthur, Texas, in the 1960s and 70s when saxophone was his instrument, jazz was his muse, and father Clifton Chenier was living in another city.
“The only time you’d hear a few artists like my daddy and friends were while traveling around. So if they didn’t pound the pavement, nobody would know what zydeco was,” said Chenier, who said he learned to mix up the music from his father, who encouraged his son to follow his own musical path when he assumed leadership of the band toward the end of his father’s life.
“So that’s why I describe myself now as ‘zydeco blues,'" said Chenier. “I want my style to be known as mixed with blues, as my daddy was. He played zydeco, but he’d tell you in a New York second he was a bluesman. But the style he created, the washboard, drums and accordion only is what a zydeco song is.”
Chenier’s “The Desperate Kingdom of Love” album is now 12 years old, but sounds as fresh as the day it was released. It includes four songs written by his father, including the staples “Bogalousa Boogie” and “Black Snake Blues.” But it also includes the PJ Harvey song that became the title track. It’s not a song one would associate with either zydeco or blues.
Oh love, you were a sickly child
And how the wind knocked you down
Put on your spurs, swagger around
In the desperate kingdom of love
Holy water cannot help you now
Your mysterious eyes cannot help you
Selling your reason will not bring you through
The desperate kingdom of love
- from "Desperate Kingdom of Love"
Chenier said he was introduced to the song by his booking agent, and since the post-Katrina album was meant to be more somber than usual for him, he thought it a good fit.
“I’m listening to it (the first time) and said, ‘Wow, that’s different,’” laughed Chenier. “And it kind of grew on me after a while and after we started playing it a little bit … you can feel it man, you can do it. And I just decided to go with it.”
Chenier has experienced his share of hurricanes, including Harvey in 2017 that hit his now hometown of Houston, as well as his boyhood home of Port Arthur. He said Katrina and Harvey gave a beating to his hometown, which is still recovering.
“Port Arthur almost got washed away,” said Chenier. “It was like a big old lake or something with rooftops sticking out the top. You still see blue tarps on top of the houses today where the roofs got blown off. On top of that, it’s been hit by a couple more storms since. It’s almost like it’s trying to wash the city away, but it’s hanging in there.”
Chenier himself is more than “hanging in there.” He has appeared on the Jon Stewart show and CNN, performed at major festivals across the world, and has played on albums by Paul Simon (Rhythm of the Saints) and Gin Blossoms (New Miserable Experience). He’s getting to an age where the honors are now coming his way, and with the passing of Buckwheat Zydeco, who also once played in his father’s band, the pressure could be on him to carry on the music his father invented.
“I look at carrying on the tradition is to just continue to perform. I’m going to be here as long as I possibly can performing. To me, that is carrying on. If they call me to play, I’ll be there, wherever it is,” he laughed.
“I’m always ready to continue the zydeco tradition.”
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