The Cajun Roots Run Deep
By Justin Morris
Oft-forgotten and unsung heroes of the musical world are the men and women on the “one and twos” — flipping vinyls, sliding pots or punching buttons or touch screens. This is your disc jockey and, while the role has changed dramatically through the years of broadcasting, a few key elements remain the same.
And not only that, the DJ’s effectiveness and benefit to musicians of all shapes and sizes remains critical and ever so valuable. As one who spent plenty of years behind the mic himself, it really makes me happy to see one of Lake Charles’ own “mic maestros” getting some proper love and a very special honor for his work and efforts as a broadcaster over the last 3 decades.
That man is Mike Soileau, a longtime friend, former co-worker and veritable roommate, as many of that radio family became in the weeks following Hurricane Rita.
Prior to the storm, I was co-hosting “Drive Time Live with Susan Kirk and Jay Morrison” on 1310 am KEZM out of Sulphur, but I had started with the (at the time) Apex Broadcasting crew as a board op running Jennings and Barbe football games and Sunday morning church feeds and programming, so even before I was the cluster’s news director, I was working on Mike’s very own Cajun Radio 1290/1470 am. Though my role there changed dramatically in the wake of the storm, Mike was always good ol’ Mike, and I honestly can’t recall a cross word between us in all the years we’ve known each other.
So, with some key moments in my career tied to this very station, and with genuine happiness for my good buddy, I took a recent announcement very much to heart.
It turns out that good ol’ “Sweh-low,” as I am wont to call him, is about to find himself in a Hall of Fame, and to top it all off, he’ll be joining his very own father in sharing that honor.
On Sunday, Nov. 12, Mike will join his father, Dave Soileau, in the Lake Charles Chapter CFMA Hall of Fame, so I took some time to catch up with my old friend to talk about the induction, his dad, and decades worth of Cajun Radio.
Justin: So, how deep are the Cajun roots?
Mike: Deep, brother. My grandfather and great grandfather are from the Grand Prairie/Ville Platte area. My grandmother was a Joubert. My great grandfather was Claubert Joubert. My grandfather was Allen Soileau, and my grandmother Barbara Soileau is still alive at 92. She’s outlived five of her children, her husband and a grandson.
My dad went to Ville Platte Elementary through the third grade, and he couldn’t even speak English until he was in the second grade. And my grandfather and great grandfather spoke fluent Cajun French.
JM: So, coming from a family that had that much of a French background, you grew up surrounded by the sounds and the culture. What are your earliest memories of really embracing Cajun music?
MS: When I was born, my grandparents had already moved to Lake Charles. I remember sitting with my grandfather when I was 7 or 8 years old listening to Iry Lejeune records on his old eight-track player in his “playhouse,” that’s what those old Cajuns called their sheds back then.
But we’d listen to Iry and Nathan Abshire — all that old Cajun stuff. Every Saturday, all the family and relatives got together, and we’d play while the adults cooked during the day, drank and boiled crawfish or whatever; but by about 7 pm, after dinner, the women were cleaning the dishes, and the kids would have to go get a bed sheet, put it across the table, and tie it as tight as we could to the legs of the table, because the adults were about to play booray.
And growing up, things like the booray games were where we really learned how to speak French. They’d be talking to each other and bust out laughing, and we were all wondering if they were talking about us or something, so it really helped us to pick up a lot of those words here and there.
JM: So, despite a wealth of childhood influences, I know personally that the single biggest inspiration for you was your dad, Dave, and he was a huge factor in bringing that music to the airwaves in Southwest Louisiana, wasn’t he?
MS: Back in the ‘80s, there were two guys playing that music on the air here, and one in Jennings, Jerry Dugas, was on 92.9 over there, but here it was my dad and Terry “Teddy Bear” Broussard who did back-to-back shows on 1400 am KAOK, back at its 15th St. location, and that’s where I would go to watch him do his show. He taught me so much about the music and not just the “this is this song” or “this is this artist;” he would teach me the history of the songs, and the meanings and stories behind those songs and those artists.
For me and my dad, Iry Lejeune was like the Cajun Hank Williams. But he really helped me get deep into the music. We’d hear a good hook in a song, and he’d translate it for me and tell me all about it, and it made me love the song 10 times more. He was a master music history buff, and he really tried to instill all that in me. That gave me a better understanding not just of the music, but the culture, language and heritage that goes with it.
JM: So, he’s how you ended up behind the mic?
MS: Absolutely. One day back in 1990, right after I graduated high school, he got sick, and told me that he couldn’t do his show. He was doing a show from 5-7 Monday-Friday before he went to work at the police department, but when he got sick, he asked me to do it.
I’d seen him do it so many times, and I had worked the board a bit, but I was still so nervous when I finally got on the air I ended my first break with “Thank You” for whatever reason.
But it got to the point that the cancer he’d been fighting since 1989 cost him one of his lungs, and that was 18 years before he passed away, so I started doing it five mornings a week, which led to the chance for me to do overnights on, then, LA 99.
JM: So not only was your dad a pioneer in that regard, he was also instrumental with you in making Cajun Radio a reality.
MS: So in January 2005, he and I were both on air on KLCL doing our shows back to back on Saturdays, just like he and Teddy Bear did back in the day. The operations manager at what was the Apex Broadcasting cluster at the time (now, Townsquare Media) came to us and said that they were interested in starting a 24-hour Cajun music station, exactly what we’d always wanted to do, but dad was back to working, now for the CPSO, so he couldn’t put in the full-time hours to run the station, so he recommended that I be the one to do it, since he’d taught me everything that I knew.
So, it was March 7 of 2005 that Cajun Radio was born, and we’re 12 and a half years on now, so we’re still rolling it.
JM: So your upcoming induction is into the Cajun French Music Association’s Lake Charles Chapter Hall of Fame. What does that mean to you as someone who isn’t a musician or a songwriter, but a broadcaster?
MS: The thing that means the most to me is that my dad was inducted into the Lake Charles Chapter CFMA Hall of Fame many years ago, and now I’ll be joining him. In August of 2007, A month before he died, he was also inducted into the Louisiana CFMA Hall of Fame, so maybe I can join him there one day, as well, but to just be in there next to the man who was not only my dad and my best friend but also the man who taught me everything I know about the very thing we are in there for doing is just incredible, and I wish he was here to share this with. My next goal is to get into the Louisiana CFMA Hall of Fame, so I can join him there, too.
JM: So, how long have you done this now?
MS: I’ve been doing Cajun music on the air, on the same two frequencies, in the same town for almost 28 years. I did do a four-year stint with 92.9 in Jennings, when it was Cajun Country, but even that is now part of the Townsquare family, too, so these stations and these people have always been home to me.
JM: How big of a role do you think radio plays in the development and life of our regional music?
MS: I think that radio does its thing on the air, but with technology nowadays we can spread our heritage, our culture and our music worldwide.
With our website, cajunradio.com, you can log in from anywhere in the world and listen live, and I think we’re the only Cajun radio station in the world that streams it live for free.
That means that we’re not just regionalized anymore, we’re global, and radio’s ability to do that has also opened up doors for the artists that we play — guys like Geno Delafosse, Kevin Naquin, Chubby Carrier and Steve Riley. They all play from California to Florida. Steve is really big in the northeast. Geno has a massive following in California. So even those fans can log on and listen to that music and buy it much easier via Google, iTunes, Spotify and the like.
You don’t have to go to the Saturday night French dances to buy a CD anymore, you can just buy and download the album, but if you want to hear a good mix of all of it and discover new music and artists, then cajunradio.com is there on your mobile device, tablet, desktop or laptop.
Even if you don’t want to listen to the sounds of an AM radio broadcast, pull up the app, and you’ve got it in stereo. That’s best thing about radio as a medium for this regional sound. We’re helping to globalize it.
JM: Is there anything else you’d like to say about the award or what you and the crew are doing over there at TSM?
MS: I want to tell our listeners we couldn’t do this without them. The people who love the music, the people who are passionate about the music. The people who tune in, the people who come to the fairs and the festivals that support the artists that we play, without them, no one would know who Richard LeBoeuf is, or know what Empty Glass was.
My dad was actually the first person to play that song after Richard brought his new CD to him at the radio station in Jennings.
But, again, to the listeners, thanks for all the support. For the 40 years my dad did it, and for the now almost 30 years that I’ve done it, thank you so much. It’s great to see listeners all come out to the fairs and the festivals, and know even the more obscure songs that I know we’re playing on the air.
I love meeting and talking to those listeners. For years it was always “putting a face to the voice,” but now it’s more requests for pictures, or signing the occasional autograph. It’s almost like back in the ‘40s and ‘50s, when DJ’s were genuine celebrities. Now in the age of Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat, people want to engage with you a lot more, it seems.
But I love them all, because I do what I love for a living. Not many people can say that they actually love what they do for a living, but I can, and it’s because of them that I get to do it.
Having had the privilege to work with both Mike and our beloved Dave, I can tell you that these two men have forged their own unique family legacy in the history of the music of South Louisiana.
Never have I met any others who were as committed to the growth and development of that music and not be musicians themselves. I’m certain I’m not the first, but I certainly want to extend my most sincere congratulations to ol’ “Sweh-low” and tell him how genuinely proud so many of us are, not just of the induction, but even more so for the passion, commitment, tenacity and genuine heart and soul that both you and your father have put into this music and this culture. You’re a veritable staple of the Southwest Louisiana airwaves, and it genuinely wouldn’t be the same without you.
Congratulations to you, my bro.