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Sounds Like . . . Cajun Country

At the studio, Bertrand leads us back, past the wall where visiting musicians mark their KBON pilgrimages in felt-tipped pen. Zachary Richard was here, Marcia Ball, Geno Delafose, Rafus Neal. Accordion ace Steve Riley, a homeboy from nearby Mamou, apparently comes often.

In the small broadcast booth, Paul Marx rattles away in English and Creole French. Marx, a veteran Louisiana DJ, opened this station in 1997 and invented its homegrown format against the advice of many a radio bean counter. Now he's hailed as a savior of the culture. He waves us in and, as he does with many out-of-towners, puts us immediately on the air.


DJ and KBON founder Paul Marx fills the airwaves with the sounds and news of Cajun Country in south- central Louisiana. (Ann Hendrix-jenkins)

"Bonjour! Have you had any crawfish yet?" We had, fortunately, the night before, and so we spent 10 minutes on the special joys of having crawfish essence dripping off your chin, your fingers, your elbows. "Did you suck the heads? You did?! Ohhhhhhhhh, cher!" he exults, and off he goes in French, leaning into the foam-covered mike. I pick up the words "Washington" and "petite filles" before he cuts to a commercial:

"Baby chicks! Baby chicks! Baby chicks! Ms. Emily at Fisette's Feed and Garden Center in Opelousas has just received a large shipment of baby chicks. Get your baby chicks now and by this winter they'll be just the right size for the gumbo pot."

Cajun Prairie

We had arrived in Eunice the afternoon before, after a few days acclimatizing in New Orleans and one night at the Chretien Point Plantation, an antebellum B&B just north of Lafayette. Chretien Point is an enclave of long verandas and big trees, a grand old manse that saw a piece of the War Between the States spill into its front yard and has the cannonball-pocked columns to prove it. Five minutes away in Grand Coteau, we found Catahoula's, a Cajun-fusion restaurant with the best crabmeat cheesecake you'll ever inhale.

"You see many tourists here?" I asked Tiffany, our waitress. "Oh yeah," she said. "We get people all the time from Lafayette and Alexandria. There's really nowhere to eat in Alexandria."

Alexandria is all of 75 miles due north. But it's just above the unofficial northern frontier of Cajun Country. "That's pretty much the Mason-Dixon Line for the Acadian people," said Gilbert "Winky" Aucoin, a Cajun lawyer who would serve as one of our many tour guides. "That's where you stop finding Fontenots and Boudreauxs and you start finding Clarks and Chadwicks and Kings, all Anglo-Saxon names."

Eunice, though, just north of Opalousas, is in the heart of Acadiana. KBON beams its signal from the center of the so-called Cajun Prairie, a big-sky expanse of cattle pastures and rice fields. This is higher and drier terrain than the swamplands of the Atchafalaya Basin farther south, where bayou Cajuns are more likely to be fishermen and trappers than their rancher/farmer cousins on the prairie. All are descendants of the same French Acadians (long corrupted to "Cajun" in these parts) who were booted from Nova Scotia and settled in Louisiana in 1755. And all have an increasingly firm grip on the mother customs -- the language, cuisine, music and perpetual hospitality -- that makes this one of the few genuinely bicultural areas in the country.

We pulled through Eunice -- a scattered, low-rise collection of storefronts and warehouses -- and found Seale Guesthouse in a pretty stand of pines just outside town. If Tennessee Williams had written "The Wizard of Oz," then this bumpy lane into the woods would be the yellow brick road. The guesthouse, a tin-roofed, turn-of-the-century farmhouse with a wraparound porch, is settled into a nest of vintage washing machines, old Coke signs, fanciful wrought iron. It's not junk, though, because it's so obviously assembled by a southerner with a reverence for old things. Lizards scamper over ancient newel posts, vines twirl on shaky railings.

Out back, the reception hall is an old country store, moved from northern Louisiana and filled with rural nostalgiana. The "bridal cottage" is another restored farmhouse that was half-crushed by Hurricane Lili in 2002. And the main house, where owner Mark Seale lives, is a semi-restored, semi-wreck of a plantation mansion surrounded by tropical fountains and piles of lumber. Donkeys and horses graze around the yard at the feet of large Greek garden statuary.


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