Check out the Zydeco

by Ryan Snyder

CJ Chenier preps for new album, hits Greensboro with his local guitarist


It’s a reasonable assumption that most would scoff at a boss who makes them work on their birthday, but when you’re Greensboro guitarist Tim Betts and your boss is heir to the Zydeco crown CJ Chenier, working and playing are one and the same. When Betts isn’t leading his eponymous blues trio to gigs around the state, he’s served the last 12 years as guitarist for the Red Hot Louisiana Band, accordion maverick Chenier’s smoking accompaniment. Chenier is no ungracious chief, however. When the band is pounding the dance floors for a Sunday night gig on Betts’ birthday, Chenier made sure it would happen in Betts’ hometown and his home venue, the Blind Tiger.


Betts first met Chenier upon a referral from North Carolina Zydeco great Mel Melton, with whom Chenier played in a band called Bayou Rhythm. He was looking for a guitarist to tour Europe when Betts’ name came up. “He said he knows a lil’ cat in Greensboro that can play,” Chenier said in his gravelly deep South drawl. “Turns out he worked out pretty good.”

While Betts’ strength at the time laid in his keen feel for the blues, Chenier said he was quick to adopt the much more highly syncopated rhythms that being a Zydeco player demanded of him.

“Zydeco certainly has its differences. Tim was a blues player,” Chenier said. “He just had to grab hold of what the rhythm was all about because its not all about how much soul you got, it’s about being musical.” Betts’ recollection, however, is a little less pragmatic about the shift.

“Altering my playing really came from just kind of getting thrown in to the mix and doing it. I’m sure if I could hear those first few years on tape they would be comical to me cause I really had no clue what to do,” Betts said. “In the end you just play what feels right in that particular style of music. It’s a feel thing for sure. That’s where the attention always goes, the feel.”

Twelve years and numerous tours across Russia, England, France, Spain, Italy, Germany, Norway, Macedonia, Azerbaijan, Turkey and Canada later, Betts just recently braved the 15-hour car ride to Houston to begin recording on Chenier’s next album, his first in nearly five years, to be released late in 2010.

Though Chenier admits that five years between albums is a bit of a long time, even for a self-avowed slow writer like himself, there is a heightened sense of purpose as he and his four-man back-up head into the studio. This release will mark the first occasion that Chenier and his band will be eligible for a Grammy in the genre which his father, Zydeco pioneer Clifton Chenier almost single-handedly brought into the national consciousness. The Grammy Award for Best Zydeco/ Creole Album was created in 2007, though Chenier has been hon ored

for a French Grammy and his father’s album I’m Here was the recipient of the award for Best Ethnic or Traditional Folk Recording in 1984. Betts says the topic of a Grammy is certainly on the band’s mind as they start recording and says it’s always been a dream of his to actually win one.

“The past two have gone to friends of ours, Terrance Simien and Buckwheat Zydeco, but now that that’s a possibility for us, it would be a big thing,” said Betts.

While Zydeco music hasn’t approached anywhere near the level of popularity it enjoyed under the elder Clifton’s reign, his son sees firsthand how it’s being incorporated into contemporary music coming out of Louisiana. Both the rhythmic elements and instrumentations have been woven into newer genres such as bounce music and even in recent hip-hop trends, and though the staunch traditionalist Chenier can appreciate the impact his and his father’s music has had on younger generations, he wishes more would acknowledge the influence.

“Newer generations don’t mention Zydeco, period. Newer generations are playing hip hop with accordion in it, which is fine. It’s kind of misrepresenting what it really is though,” Chenier said. When you go back and check out the history, Clifton Chenier named Zydeco. When you give a specific music like rock-n-roll and name, it’s a name that’s attached to a certain type of music. When you start branching off a bit its something else.”

Either way, we all move to the same beat, and that’s something CJ Chenier knows all too well.

CJ Chenier & The Red Hot Louisiana Band will perform at the Blind Tiger this Sunday.