The Road Dog:
C.J. Chenier

October 6, 2001
By William Schrickel

In a way, C.J. Chenier inherited the family business. When he was only 20 years old, C.J.'s accordion-playing father, zydeco legend Clifton Chenier, asked C.J. to join the elder Chenier's famed Red Hot Louisiana Band as an alto sax player. In 1985, Clifton, in declining health, asked his son to take up the accordion. When Clifton died in 1987 from diabetes-related causes, C.J. took over leadership of the band.

C.J. and the Red Hot Louisiana Band have just released a new CD on the Alligator label entitled Step it Up!. Last week, on his 44th birthday, C.J. spoke about his life in music and his new CD.

"Road dog" is the title of a song on Step It Up! So, what exactly is a "road dog?"
(Long laugh) Hey man, a road dog is somebody who can eat fried chicken that they bought yesterday, cold pizza that they've had for a day and a half, baloney sandwiches-that's a road dog! You don't have the conveniences of home when you're on the road!

And I'm guessing you qualify as a road dog?
(Laughs) Oh man, I qualify again and again and again!

[an error occurred while processing this directive]

How many weeks a year are you out on the road?
I'm not out as much lately as I used to be. I used to be out at least a couple of hundred days a year. Now it's down to like a hundred or so.

(Zydeco bands feature a stainless steel instrument called the rubboard. It's worn like a baseball catcher's chest protector and has horizontal grooves down the front. You play it by scratching spoons or other metallic items over the grooves.)

Tell me about the invention of the rubboard.
"The Invention of the Rubboard!" Now there's an interesting story! The rubboard is an instrument that my daddy designed. Before, everybody used to play those old wooden washboards that you'd wash your clothes on, but when daddy was working at the Gulf refinery in Port Arthur, he drew a picture of the rubboard in the dirt, and he asked an iron worker if he could make one, and the guy said "Yeah." It all got started from a picture in the dirt!

What's it played with?
Different people play with different things. My Uncle Cleveland played with six bottle openers in each hand. Some people play with spoons. Some play with screwdrivers.

Step it Up! is your third CD on Alligator, and you put out three earlier albums on other labels. How has your approach to recording changed over the years?
On my first album, I was fresh out of playing in my father's band. I'd been playing with him for nine years, listening to him and thinking that I needed to be just like him. I think I was raw on my first album. I was so excited — I was ecstatic about being in the studio, but I was raw! On my next couple albums, I was settling down, paying more attention to things like tempo and trying to correct any mistakes. You know, back when my dad went into the studio, it was like "do a take, go on to the next song!" When I went in to record The Big Squeeze, also on Alligator, I was really gung-ho. I wanted things to change. I grew up in the funk era, and I wanted a little bit more of that to come out. I didn't want to abandon what I'd done before, but I wanted it to be different. For Step it Up!, I even went into the studio for the mixing sessions, which I'd never done before. I wanted a funkier sound, more like the music I like to listen to. I like fusion, and I like the funkier stuff.

When you're on the road, what CDs do you travel with?
I'm into Stanley Clarke, I bring Spyro Gyra, Hiroshima-I might bring War, something like that.

You play the accordion for hours at a time. How much does that thing weigh?
It weighs between 25 and 30 pounds.

Why do you play a Baldoni accordion?
I'd been playing another brand and I had to take it in to be repaired. Baldoni's representative said, "We need people like you to let people in the zydeco field know about our instruments." Baldoni was already well established, but wanted to expand their business. We did some talking, and he showed me how much lighter it was than the one I'd been playing. It's about five pounds lighter, and that makes a difference when you're holding it all day!

Before your father "drafted" you into his band, where were you going with your life?
I was born and raised in Port Arthur, Texas, and went to Texas Southern University. I was there for one semester. I had a scholarship. But when you're at college, your mama isn't there to wake you up to go to class. There's nobody there to make you do your homework. I had to be in the marching band because I was there on a scholarship, but they were practicing at like 4 or 5 o'clock in the morning. Needless to say, I missed my theory class about every day, because that was at 7:30 in the morning! (Laughs) So after my first semester, even though I had the scholarship, I figured I shouldn't be wasting people's money. Being there wasn't the thing for me to do. So I went back to Port Arthur, and I started working — I did sand blasting, worked on the railroad, worked at the fish mill, worked long shore, worked at the refinery, busted concrete-I did all of that stuff, man, for a year and a half before my daddy called me to go out on the road with him.

You started playing music at a young age. Did you ever think you'd have a career as anything other than a musician?
Well, you know, coming from Port Arthur, everyone I knew wanted to graduate high school and go to work at the Gulf or Texaco refinery. I thought I was going to wind up somewhere with a big ol' pot gut, doing the nine-to-five routine every day, because in Port Arthur, that's what just about everybody did. I got saved from that, thank God.

Today (Sept. 28) is your 44th birthday. What do you hope to be doing on your 50th?
(Laughs) I'd like to be performing in some arena, some stadium, for some awards show. I want to see zydeco progress, and I want the public to see that this music is too good to suppress. I want to be out there in front of a whole lot of people!

What does "C.J." stand for?
Clayton Joseph. I was named after my mother's father and my father's father.

So much zydeco music feels cheerful. Is there such a thing as a sad zydeco song?
There are sad songs that can be played by a zydeco band. "I'm Coming Home" is a sad song, but it's not a real zydeco song. If you're talking about pure zydeco songs — no! They're all happy.

Step it Up! includes some of your original songs, some of your father's songs, and covers of songs by other writers. Do you structure your live performances the same way?
I always like to play some of my daddy's songs. When I come on stage, I don't make a set list. If a song pops up in my head and seems right, I'm going to play it! I play what I think is going to make people feel good at that particular moment. I'm always going to incorporate the new songs, too, of course. It'll always be a mix. It's always going to be a jambalaya. That's one of the things I learned from my daddy that I liked-he played a mixture of stuff. He played waltzes, he played boogie, he played blues, he played zydeco-he played whatever he wanted! So that's what I do.

You and your band play all over the country. Is there a difference between audiences?
Sometimes a concert may start off with a little different feel to it, but they all end up the same-everyone is having a good time, from New York to Salt Lake City to Alabama to California.

William Schrickel is the assistant principal double bass of the Minnesota Orchestra and the Music Director of the Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra. He lives in Minneapolis.

Interview Archive

Old Sweet Songs: A Prairie Home Companion 1974-1976

Old Sweet Songs

Lovingly selected from the earliest archives of A Prairie Home Companion, this heirloom collection represents the music from earliest years of the now legendary show: 1974–1976. With songs and tunes from jazz pianist Butch Thompson, mandolin maestro Peter Ostroushko, Dakota Dave Hull and the first house band, The Powdermilk Biscuit Band (Adam Granger, Bob Douglas and Mary DuShane).

Available now»

American Public Media © |   Terms and Conditions   |   Privacy Policy