The Road Dog:
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
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?
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(Laughs) Oh man, I qualify again and again and again!
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
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
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.
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
What does "C.J."
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
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
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