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Sounds Like . . . Cajun Country
Eunice, La.'s, KBON is a tiny station with a big signal (thanks to the Web). At first you just listen. Then you go.

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.

"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.

We'd made a reservation, but no one was around, no note pointed us to a room. But the door was open, so we went in. The interior was more of the same, a glorious clutter of faded elegance, comfortable and clean. A life-size statue of an elderly waiter loomed over the living room, and the warren of bedrooms was heavy on Mardi Gras colors and harlequin patterns.

We called Seale on his cell phone. He answered with a good-time ruckus in the background. He was on Bourbon Street in New Orleans. "Y'all just pick whatever room you want," he said. "With kids, you might like the Peach Suite." We did, but the bed wasn't made, so we found clean sheets, got some fresh towels and settled in to our delightful Cajun base. Seale told us where to leave the cash when we left two days later. "You don't need to lock it."

Later that night, steered by KBON, we drove out to D.I.'s Restaurant. D.I.'s rose like an oasis on the Acadian Serengeti, pickup trucks surrounding it like wildebeests at a watering hole. Inside, a band of five gray-headed musicians sawed away on the old songs while a dozen dancers two-stepped around the dining room. I watched a father in a New Orleans Saints T-shirt dancing instructively with his teenage son. It was a lovely floor show as we manhandled a huge platter of scarlet crawfish from D.I.'s own crawfish ponds.

The next day, as soon as we got off the air with Marx, Bertrand handed us a note. A listener from Ville Platte had called to invite us to a Cajun heritage festival the following morning. Winky Aucoin (pronounced Aw-KWAN) and his wife, Margaret (but everyone calls her Chicken), arranged to meet us Saturday morning at Savoy Music just outside of Eunice, the site of a popular weekly Cajun jam session. And so we were adopted by Winky and Chicken.

Being kidnapped by locals has happened before, too. Peta Waddington, a music-loving graphic designer from Winchester, England, showed up unannounced at KBON one day last fall, seeking an inside look at small-town radio. Marx and Bertrand put her on the air and, before the first commercial break, she was fielding invitations to étouffée contests, concerts and fais-do-do dances. She ended up staying a month.

"I was always absolutely booked up," Waddington said by phone from the U.K. "People would ring up and Paul would say, 'No, sorry, she's busy then. Can you do Wednesday?' The whole Cajun experience really captured my heart. They are just gorgeous people."

Waddington went through a Cajun indoctrination. "Lynn would ask me on the air, 'Peta, have you tried gumbo yet, or cornbread or boudin [pronounced boo-DAN, a spicy pork sausage]?' And if I said no, soon there would be a ring at the doorbell and somebody would drop off some gumbo or cornbread or boudin," she said. "I've traveled over much of the world, and I genuinely feel this is the most foreign place I've ever been, even though they speak English and it's in America."

It's easy to find Savoy Music on a Saturday morning, everyone tells you, just look for all the cars parked along the highway. Marc Savoy (pronounced Sav-WAH) -- a grandmaster accordion player and maker -- opens his modest workshop each weekend for a come-one, come-all acoustic jam session. When we arrive early, there are already half a dozen musicians of various ages, playing in the gloom of a power outage -- two fiddles, a guitar, an old cowboy on the spoons. More people mill around the coffee pot and the platters of boudin. " 'At boy's from Iota, a real good git-tar player," an elderly fellow whispers as a high-school boy in a baseball cap comes in. "So's his daddy."

Savoy himself, a big black-haired man with a mustache, pumps away on the accordion, nodding to newcomers. He's known locally as a lion of Cajun culture, long unforgiving of those who ignore or besmirch the heritage.

"He was Cajun before Cajun was cool," says Winky after we pull away. Chicken is driving. We're heading toward Lake Fausse Point State Park in bayou country. Winky -- trim and middle-aged in shorts and a T-shirt -- is also a champion of the "Acadian people," as he calls them. That's why he wants us to see the climax of the Dewey Balfa Cajun and Creole Heritage Week, one of a series of Cajun boot camps where folks come to learn Acadian music, cooking and crafts.

Heritage Week ends, of course, with a party. We get there just as Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys are setting up. And Gino Delafose is coming later -- both acts are headliners at Wolf Trap and jazz festivals all over the country, but here they're just beloved local boys at a neighborhood picnic. "Cookin', dancin' and visitin', that's what the Acadian people love," Winky says as we walk between the big pots of étouffée and a fellow grinding dried sassafras leaves into filé powder. In the dance tent, the boyish Riley works the accordion for a handful of sweaty waltzers. All over the grounds, folks have set up coolers and chairs (the folding lawn chair being the official furniture of the Cajun nation).

We stay too late to catch the famous Saturday-night show back at the Liberty Theater in Eunice. And we linger over dinner at Cafe Des Amis in Breaux Bridge too long to catch any of the other dozen or so live acts and VFW dances going on in the area. I feel as if we're falling short. But Winky and Chicken have invited us for an extended family gathering the next day, and we still have a score of other tips and invites to sort through and, well, not doing everything is a survival skill around here. So we point the rental car toward Eunice. With two girls asleep in the back seat, my wife and I drive silently through a prairie sunset in KBON country. We flip the radio on and listen to a world go by, strangers no more.

"And one final announcement before we go," DJ Todd Ortego says at the end of KBON's Thursday-night "Swamp and Roll" show. "If you know David Thibodeaux and his fiancee. Dana, they want you to come to their wedding this Saturday. They said they didn't have time to get out all the invitations. So if you know Big David and Dana, come on out.

"It's gonna be a good party."

Steve Hendrix will be online to discuss this story Monday at 2 p.m. during the Travel section's regular weekly chat on www.washingtonpost.com

Details: Cajun Country

GETTING THERE: Eunice, La., the heart of Cajun prairie country, is an hour's drive north of Lafayette. Flights from Washington to Lafayette start at $230 round trip; fares from BWI to New Orleans, about three hours from Eunice, begin as low as $167.

WHERE TO STAY: In Eunice, the Seale Guesthouse (125 Seale Lane, 337-457- 3753, www.angelfire.com/la2/guesthouse) will charm if you have a taste for eclectic antiques and don't mind hospitality that's more fun than precise. We paid about $80 a night, including breakfast. Potier's Prairie Cajun Inn (110 W. Park Ave., 337-457-0440, www.potiers.net) is in downtown Eunice, near KBON and the Liberty Theater. Rooms are $75 a night, including a breakfast basket. Nearby Opelousas, 20 miles away, has half a dozen chain and local motels.

WHERE TO EAT: The area is peppered with modest places serving outrageously good Cajun food, from the boiled crawfish at D.I.'s Restaurant (Highway 97, Basile) to the excellent gumbo at the Pig Stand in tiny Ville Platte (318 E. Main St.) to the boudin (Cajun sausage) and the cracklin (pork rinds) sold at gas stations and roadside stands everywhere. For a gourmet take on Cajun, try Catahoula's in Grand Coteau (234 Martin Luther King Dr.) for creative seafood in a restored general store.

WHAT TO DO: Each Saturday night, the Liberty Center for the Performing Arts (200 W. Park Ave., 337-457-7389, www.eunice-la.com/libertyschedule.html) in Eunice holds a Rendez-Vous des Cajuns, a weekly radio show broadcast from a restored 1924 theater. Tickets are $5. But there is live Cajun music to be had just about every night of the year at numberless clubs, restaurants and joints in surrounding towns.

Additionally, Eunice is home to the Cajun Music Hall of Fame (240 S. C.C. Duson St., 337-457-6534; free) and the Prairie Acadian Cultural Center (250 W. Park Ave., 337-457-8490; free). And KBON's downtown studios (109 S. Second St., 337-546-0007, www.kbon.com) is uncommonly welcoming to guests. But forget itineraries; the joy of visiting Cajun country is being swept up in the local whirl. Be flexible, and the locals will provide more options than you can fulfill.

If you really want to immerse yourself, Louisiana Folk Roots holds twice-yearly, weeklong Cajun camps that end with a big party. At the Dewey Balfa Cajun and Creole Heritage Week, learn Cajun and Creole music, dance, language, cuisine and culture with some grand masters of Acadiana. The next one is Nov. 2 -8 at Chico State Park, near Ville Platte. Fees begin at $570 for non-Louisianians, not including accommodations. Info: 337-234-8360, www.lafolkroots.org.

INFORMATION: Eunice Chamber of Commerce, 337-457-2565, www.eunice-la.com. St. Landry Parish Tourist Commission, 877-948-8004, www.cajuntravel.com/coteau.html.

-- Steve Hendrix

© 2003 The Washington Post Company