Grammy-nominated guitarist heads to Chicago

by Ryan Snyder

There`s almost a cruel irony to it.

Zydeco heir apparent CJ Chenier, at last working in a period where there was a Grammy to be won for the style of music his father Clifton singlehandedly made popular, goes about his usual, methodical process of conceiving new music. It was three years into the lifespan of the Grammy for Best Zydeco or Cajun Music Album before Chenier and his Red Hot Louisiana Band, featuring Greensboro native Tim Betts on guitar, got to the studio to record what would eventually become Can’t Sit Down. The album had developed into a collection of originals and sophisticated covers given a breakneck Zydeco treatment when it saw its release in the fall of 2011. By that time, the Zydeco Grammy no longer existed.

The Grammy retooling of early 2011 claimed more than 30 categories, erasing some outright and consolidating others. Can’t Sit Down nonetheless received a well-earned nomination; only it came in the newly created Regional Roots category opposite blissed newcomers and disgruntled heavyweights alike. Among the artists opposite Chenier and his band are fellow Louisianans Steve Riley & the Mamou Playboys and New Orleans jazz/ funk institution Rebirth Brass Band, the latter of whom finally received their first nomination after difficulty finding their stylistic niche in the awards. Then there is polka king Jimmy Sturr, winner of 18 of 24 possible Grammys for the defunct Best Polka category.

“They may have gotten rid of a few things, but now they’re giving a lot of people the opportunity to get involved. That’s the way they were trying to sell the whole thing,” said Betts, who shares in the nomination with the rest of the band. “Rebirth never would have had the chance to win a Grammy before.”

It’s been nearly 13 years since Betts was introduced to Chenier by Durham bandleader and chef Mel Melton as a tour guitarist. Chenier recorded two albums over that span prior to Can’t Sit Down, though neither featured Betts. Their second foray onto record together, however, finds Betts well entrenched into the album’s sound. It’s also a return to Zydeco after Chenier’s previous album, The Desperate Kingdom of Love, was heavily tinged in soul and R&B. At the forefront of Can’t Sit Down of course is Chenier’s lively accordion, his style rooted in jump blues and his father’s unique interpretation of boogie, while Betts’ tends to hold down the album’s heavily syncopated pulse.

Then there are the moments Betts is unleashed through a series of crisp, soulful solos.

His wah-wah is dirge-y and affecting on their cover of Richard M. Jones’ “Trouble In Mind,” while he sounds closer to his own blues-rock leanings as he weaves the bridge to John Lee Hooker’s “Dusty Road,” just one of the many unique perspectives the band brings to classics.

“I think I probably picked four or five of the tunes; the John Lee Hooker, Curtis Mayfield and Tom Waits songs. It took years to get [CJ] to do ‘Clap Hands,’ Betts said. “We talked about doing ‘Hot Tamale,’ which we always play in our live shows, but had never got around to recording it.”

With a move to Chicago to immerse himself into its blues scene already finalized, Betts won’t be bringing any of the material off of Can’t Sit Down this Saturday when he plays his farewell show with his trio the Tim Betts Band at the Blind Tiger (missing the all-important accordion). It also won’t necessarily be his last with Chuck Cotton, his musical accomplice of nearly 20 years, however. Betts, Cotton and bassist AJ Diggs will open for CJ Chenier & his Red Hot Louisiana Blues Band on Feb. 15 at the Blind Tiger, three days after the Grammys in Los Angeles and by the time that night comes, it could very well be as Grammy-winner Tim Betts.