Story By Justin Morris
Photos By David Simpson
Our nice little corner of the Bayou State has certainly seen its share of talented and influential musicians over the decades, many whose name and influence can only be remembered by those that inhabit this place. Some names stand out more than others: Nellie Lutcher and Phil Phillips reached a broad audience. But others, such as maestro Bill Kushner, Lamar Robertson and Fred Sahlmann, are lesser known treasures.
Among the latter set of names is another long-time fixture of the local music community whom I’ve had the pleasure of knowing, learning from and working with professionally over the years. That man is Chris Miller, who is not only the long-standing and celebrated choir director at Barbe High School, but is also an independent song writer, multi-instrumentalist and producer, whose most recent album, Le boute s’approche, just netted him and the crew five Cajun French Music Association Le Cajun Awards. These included Best Accordion Player (Chris Miller), Best Fiddle Player (David Greely), Traditional Album of the Year, Song of the Year (“Le boute s’approche”) and Band of the Year.
While these aren’t Miller’s first CFMA wins, they certainly constitute his biggest showing yet. They were awarded for an album that was particularly personal to him and made differently than any he’s made before.
Knowing this made me all the more interested to find out more about these songs and the story and places from whence they came. According to Miller, it all comes from his youngest of days. Being raised on a soybean, rice and cattle farm nestled between Laccasine and Fenton, Miller grew up surrounded by the sounds and instruments that are implicitly South Louisiana. Trips to Jennings for piano lessons gave him a musical foundation from an early age that eventually led him to an accordion and a bevy of other instruments that he handles soundly.
He says that this recent record was designed to share the sounds and stories of that specific place and time of his most formative years.
“There’s a certain spirit and way of life that influenced me throughout my childhood. And I wanted to be able to represent that in a recording project. So the first song on the record was one my uncle Nolan used to play. And he’s what I hear in those opening notes every time I play it. And that was the sound that I grew up around. So that one represents him and that time of growing up out there.
“I was trying to really reflect all of those elements of my childhood on this record. I have a song called the ‘Bell City Bounce’ and one called the ‘Hayes Hop.’ I have a version of the ‘Opelousas Waltz’ that just reminds me of listening to old AM radio on KVPI out of Ville Platte while I was out working on the farm. And I’ve got the ‘Laccassine Special’ on there because, if you grew up near Laccassine, Iry Lejune, Iry Lejeune, Iry Lejeune … That’s all you’d hear.”
But it’s about much more than simple geography. Miller went on to say as much. It’s about certain people and their stories; these things helped shape his story and life, and many of them played a direct role in the creation of many of these songs.
“I have a song called ‘Sayso’ that has a very important story to me. Growing up, we had a black family that lived nearby that was always very close to my family. They were more my parents’ age. One of the ladies of the family was always called Sayso. So I asked her sister one day why they called her that, and she told me it was because of ice cream. I had to look this up. Sayso is in the Louisiana French Dictionary as a term for an ice cream cone, but no one actually knows its origin. So, when she was young, she always pestered her father to go to town and get a ‘sayso,’ and then sit on his shoulders and eat it with the ice cream dripping all over his head. So he decided that that would be her new nickname. (Laughs). So, in the song, my daughter Camryn joins me as Sayso, and I’m voicing her father, and it’s really more of a dialoge or spoken word than it is a sung song, you know.
“As it turned out, Sayso Senegal passed away in June of last year and the day of her wake was the day these CDs actually came in, so I was able to play the song at her wake and tell her friends and families about the song and why I wrote it. That was a really moving and special moment for all of us. She was one who just loved to dance, so hearing that music and that story, you could see her dancing in your mind. We all could.”
And while many of these stories are reflections of days gone by, Miller notes that new stories are always being written. It was a request from one of his daughters that led to a new twist on a very old favorite.
“‘Jolie Blonde’ is another one that I kind of made a little more special to me. When Camryn was getting married, she told me that she wanted the father-daughter dance to be to ‘Jolie Blonde.’ I told her that’s not really a good song for that, you know? (Laughs.) I mean, it’s about a blonde woman leaving her man and all. But after I got to thinking about it, I realized that she was my ‘Jolie Blonde,’ and in getting married, she was kind of ‘leaving me’ after all. So, I made up some new lyrics that are along the lines of ‘My pretty blonde daughter dressed in your veil, today I have to give you away. But know that I’ll always love you. You got married and left me to make a life far away with your husband. And me and momma are always going to be lonely …’ Man… it’s just perfect for a Cajun song! (Laughs.) I just made it about my life and my little girl and her wedding day.”
Another bit of “new” on this project came in the form of a whole new production process and some not-quite-so-familiar faces working on the songs themselves. Normally, you would see the name Chris Miller followed by “and Bayou Roots” — a project he started the better part of a decade and a half ago. This record was intended to be something a little different, though …
“On the first Bayou Roots CD, we all went into the studio as a group and worked on it together, for the most part. This one started out just as myself and my friend David Greely, and I thought it was going to be this stripped down, very organic thing — just voice and fiddle and accordion. So, we went to Lake Charles Music and recorded the tracks live. But after that, I started adding things. (Laugh.) You know, [I was thinking] maybe I’ll put a guitar track on this one. So, I put an acoustic guitar track down. And then another one, you know, maybe we should put some drums in there. So, I did a drum track. (Laughs.) Then, it was call Tim in to add a bass line on another track. And that gave it a nice Western Swing feel. So, I figured I’d call in Layne Thibodeaux for some pedal steel. (Laughs.) So, it just kind of grew and spiraled out from there.
“There are still some tracks that were stripped down. We have one instrumental that’s a fiddle piece that I did go back and add another fiddle part over it. But it’s still pretty true to the original idea. We took another one, and Tim and I put two accordions on it. But there is plenty of stuff that was much bigger and more produced than I ever thought it would be. And just by me toying with it, I wound up playing most of it myself; like, over half the sounds on the record. (Laughs.) So, it wasn’t really a Bayou Roots record, certainly, since I was bringing in some other friends and often Bayou Roots guest musicians. So, it wound up being something new and completely different.”
Miller had more to say about changing the recording process …
“It’s nice being limited only by your imagination. This way, you can really work both sides of the recording process as both performer and producer. It allowed [me] to be creative on the go and hear what [I] want[ed] to add and who [I] want[ed] to bring in to do it.
“Instead of everyone discussing what we were going to do and doing just that, this enabled me to work on all the components of each track and focus on who and how to do them best. That kind of creative control is the definite pro. The cons would be that it takes so much longer, and therefore it’s way more expensive — so much so, that while I enjoyed it, I’ll probably never make a record like that again. (Laughs.)”
“A few years ago, Milton Vanicor, whom I’ve known forever, wanted to make a CD. I took my digital recorder over to his house and started recording different things at different times. And then to finish it up, he got his daughter and his nephew and his grandson and we all got together in the living room and we all played. After that, I put the tracks together and he had the CD.
“Well, that CD was nominated by the CFMA for Album of the Year and got him a Best Fiddle Player nomination. He was 96, and I was there at the awards ceremony with him. But he didn’t win, and sadly, he passed away not long after, just a few days shy of his 97th birthday.
“But one of the songs we did didn’t make it to the record, and that was ‘The 99 Year Waltz.’ It was really an accident that it didn’t. It had become somewhat of a signature song for him, with him always saying that he’d be singing it when he was 99 himself. But we were in such a rush to get it done that we accidently left it off.
“So I included this ‘lost’ track, if you will, on this record. And when I was called up for one of the awards, they played ‘The 99 Year Waltz’ while I was walking up to accept it. And it hit me, right at that moment, that if he was still with us, he would be 99 and he would have won right there with us. I was thinking to myself, ‘You made it anyway.’ So I was so happy, even just for his sake in that moment. It was almost one of those weird Twilight Zone things. But it was so very special.”
While Miller says that he isn’t working on another record quite yet, he’s got plenty of musical endeavors to keep him busy. With the return of the school year, his attention has already shifted to choral music for all the choirs at Barbe and on getting ready for a school year’s worth of concerts, including the annual favorite, the madrigal dinner — an interactive concert, show and feast that audiences can expect to return this holiday season.
No matter whether he’s behind the podium with a baton in hand or behind a microphone pulling away at on old squeeze box, know that this man is a fundamental and critical part of the performing arts community that is Southwest Louisiana and that he’ll bring that same passion and enthusiasm to any and every musical venture that he is a part of. He truly is an honor and a tribute to the places, the stories and the people that made him the man and musician he is today.
The award-winning Chris Miller’s Le boute s’approche — The End is Near — is available now at bayouroots.com. I hope you all enjoy it!