Sounds Like . . . Cajun Country

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By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 21, 2003

You know that episode of "The Andy Griffith Show" where the stranger gets off the bus and already seems to know everybody in Mayberry? And it turns out the fellow had been reading the Mayberry Gazette by mail and became so charmed by the little town he came to see it for himself? Remember that one? (Season 1, Episode 10, "Stranger in town.")

Well, I remembered it as soon as I started listening, via the Internet, to KBON, a 25,000-watt FM station in Eunice, La. My wife picked up the KBON vibe first. "You gotta hear this," she said, sending along the link to www.KBON.com.

Click. " . . . at the Tire Store," boomed a broadcasty male voice. "We're located right across the street from that Texaco that sells the good cracklin." And then a woman, soft-spoken, Southern: "Big news for the Landrys in Breaux Bridge -- little Morgan Landry was born last night. Seven pounds! Congratulations to y'all." Lawtell Community Grocery, we learned, is where to find turtle meat, video poker, plumbing supplies "and rubber boots for adults and children." And at "E.J.'s Cracklin House, call ahead and E.J. will have your order ready for you."

Then the morning man again, speaking in a fast French patios, segued neatly into the opening accordion notes of a wheezy Cajun waltz. "Rufus and Tony Thibodeaux!" he crowed. "The Lonesome Night Waltz!" Chanky-chank. Chanky-chank. Chanky-chank.

Wow. This was no test-marketed format. This was no committee-scripted patter beamed by satellite from corporate HQ and squeezed between certified safe hits. This was . . . radio. From a real place. With real people doing the talking, who clearly knew the people doing the listening.

Except for us, of course. We were just eavesdropping from 1,200 miles away on "Louisiana Proud, K-B-O-N, 101.1 FM -- Mamou, Eunice, Ville Platte, Opelousas." And that little Cajun patch of south-central Louisiana became our workday Muzak, a background of Thibedoux birthdays and Fontenot anniversaries, gumbo cook-offs and Creole gossip. From our cubicles floated the inimitable spicy soundtrack of Acadiana: classic Cajun fiddles, party-time swamp pop, Zydeco turbo accordions.

Eventually, of course, listening in wasn't enough. So we, like the stranger bound for Mayberry, got on a bus. Or in our case, a plane. We were heading to Cajun Louisiana to see some radio.

On-Air Welcome

This has happened before.

"Oh, you're not the first," says morning DJ Lynn Bertrand as she opens up KBON's storefront door to two sheepish parents and two little girls from suburban Washington. "Come on in. Lord, I've never worked for a radio station where more people show up to visit. We just let everybody wander around."

It's early on a Friday, and only a lone Ford pickup is parked beside our rental car on Eunice's main street. Most shops aren't open yet and many are vacant. KBON has helped rejuvenate Cajun music in central Louisiana, but the constant jet stream of accordion from its sidewalk speakers hasn't revived Eunice's handsome but anemic downtown. But the streets are neat and there are spots of vigor. A few blocks away is the modest Cajun Music Hall of Fame, right next to the Eunice Museum in an old depot. And on the corner is the Liberty Theater, a restored red-brick movie house that now serves as a Cajun Grand Ole Opry, with popular Saturday-night shows broadcast live on radio and television.

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.


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© 2003 The Washington Post Company

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