American musical legend Stanley "Buckwheat" Dural Jr. (November 14, 1947 – September 24, 2016) —along with his band, Buckwheat Zydeco—was the preeminent ambassador of Louisiana zydeco music. The New York Times said, "Stanley ‘Buckwheat’ Dural leads one of the best bands in America…a down-home and high-powered celebration, meaty and muscular with a fine-tuned sense of dynamics…propulsive rhythms, incendiary performances."
Over the course of his five-decade career, Dural had over 25 albums to his credit, five Grammy Award nominations and one Grammy victory. He and his band performed non-stop all over the world, playing with everyone from Eric Clapton and U2 to Robert Plant and The Boston Pops. The band played at the closing ceremonies of the 1996 Summer Olympics and entertained President Clinton twice, celebrating both of his inaugurations. They appeared on The Late Show With David Letterman, CNN, The Today Show, MTV, NBC News, CBS Morning News and many other programs. They also played the final episode of The Late Show With Jimmy Fallon.
In 2009, Buckwheat Zydeco marked the band’s 30th anniversary with the release of their Grammy Award-winning, Steve Berlin-produced CD, Lay Your Burden Down on Alligator Records. Living Blues said, "The entire work is a vibrant testament to Buckwheat Zydeco's spirit, reminding us that Louisiana's musical heritage has taken all the hurricanes could give. This is an album that can introduce a new generation of music fans to the world of zydeco music and serve as a wonderful reminder about what a great zydeco band can do."
After hearing Lay Your Burdon Down, Scott Simon, on National Public Radio's Weekend Edition Saturday, called Stanley "Buckwheat" Dural, Jr., "the go-to guy for zydeco music…a master of accordion and organ," and described his music as "feel good, get-up-and-dance music, slow R&B grooves and brooding blues."
Stanley "Buckwheat" Dural, Jr. was born in Lafayette, Louisiana. He acquired his nickname because, as a child with his braided hair, he looked like Buckwheat from The Little Rascals. His father was an accomplished, non-professional traditional Creole accordion player, but young Buckwheat preferred listening to and playing R&B. He became proficient at the organ, and by the late 1950s was backing Joe Tex, Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown and many others. In 1971, he formed Buckwheat and The Hitchhikers, a 15-piece funk and soul band. They were a local sensation and found success with the single, "It's Hard To Get," recorded for a local Louisiana-based label. Never a traditional zydeco fan when growing up, Buckwheat nonetheless accepted an invitation in 1976 to join legendary zydeco master Clifton Chenier's Red Hot Louisiana Band as organist. He quickly discovered the joy and power of zydeco music, and marveled at the effect the music had on the audience. "Everywhere, people young and old just loved zydeco music," Buckwheat said. "I had so much fun playing that first night with Clifton. We played for four hours and I wasn’t ready to quit."
Buckwheat’s relationship with the legendary Chenier led him to take up the accordion in 1978. After woodshedding for a year, he felt ready to start his own band under the name Buckwheat Zydeco, and began his recording career with the small Blues Unlimited label. By the mid-1980s there were more offers to perform than he could possibly accept. Recordings for Black Top and Rounder followed before Buckwheat befriended New York-based journalist Ted Fox, who championed Buckwheat to Chris Blackwell at Island Records in 1986. Buckwheat Zydeco signed a five-record deal and Fox became and remained his manager and frequent producer. The success of these records kept Buckwheat Zydeco on the road and in constant demand.
In 1988, Eric Clapton invited the band to open his North American tour as well as his 12-night stand at London’s Royal Albert Hall. As even more doors opened, Buckwheat found himself sharing stages and/or recording with Keith Richards, Robert Plant, Willie Nelson, Mavis Staples, David Hidalgo, Dwight Yoakam, Paul Simon, Ry Cooder and many others, including indie music stalwarts Yo La Tengo on the soundtrack to the Bob Dylan bio-pic I’m Not There. His music was featured in films ranging from The Waterboy and The Big Easy to Fletch Lives and Hard Target. BET’s Comic View used his live version of "What You Gonna Do?" as theme music for the program’s 10th anniversary "Pardi Gras" season. He co-wrote and performed the theme song for the PBS television series Pierre Franey’s Cooking In America. Buckwheat won an Emmy for his music in the CBS TV movie, Pistol Pete: The Life And Times Of Pete Maravich. During the 1990s and 2000s Buckwheat recorded for his own Tomorrow Recordings label and maintained an extensive touring schedule. Along with his remarkably talented band, he brought his joyful Louisiana music to fans all over the world for over 40 years. It’s no wonder People magazine said Buckwheat’s music was "a propulsive, rollicking, swamp-boogie joy ride."
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Lay Your Burden Down marks a multiple milestone for Buckwheat Zydeco, the great band led by accordionist Stanley “Buckwheat” Dural, Jr. Deeply rooted in Dural's heritage—the dance music of South Louisiana's black, French-speaking Creoles—Lay Your Burden Down also shines as Buckwheat Zydeco's most ambitious, eclectic and contemporary recording to date. This inspired blend of homage and innovation befits a Louisiana legend who brims with youthful energy as he celebrates his band's 30th anniversary.
Dural started his career as an R&B organist, and then spent two years with accordionist Clifton Chenier before forming Buckwheat Zydeco in 1979. Besides learning zydeco from Chenier, its universally acknowledged king, Dural also absorbed his mentor's maxim that music with real substance must be based on real-life experience. "I like to hear something with ideas," Chenier once told this writer. "See, a lot of young people don't understand that, they cut a record but they don't tell a story—and you know why? They ain't got no story to tell, 'cause they ain't been through nothin'."
Dural is bursting with ideas, and, with three decades on the road, he has been through plenty. So, of late, has his beloved Louisiana. Lay Your Burden Down reflects that long journey with tales of travail and resilient optimism alike. Consider his powerful rendition of "When The Levee Breaks," by Memphis Minnie and Kansas Joe McCoy, which described the Mississippi River flood of 1927. When Led Zeppelin popularized this song decades later, who imagined that it might again have topical relevance? Then came hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Gustav and Ike, battering the Gulf Coast, including Dural's hometown of Lafayette, Louisiana. With special guest (and former Chenier band mate) Sonny Landreth on guitar—and Dural on Hammond B3 organ—the band delves into the breached levee's ominous, roiling depths. Then Dural picks up his accordion and leaps into an upbeat two-step that celebrates Louisiana's life-affirming, jazz-funeral philosophy of renewal.
Another great guitarist, Warren Haynes—of the Allman Brothers Band, and Gov't Mule—trades licks with Dural and lays down an impassioned solo on the soulful title track. Haynes' original composition, “Lay Your Burden Down,” underscores this album's theme of redemptive hope vanquishing adversity. There are also heartfelt songs by such diverse writers as Bruce Springsteen, Jimmy Cliff and Captain Beefheart, and Dural puts his personal stamp on them all. (Zydeco has always been a stylistic hybrid, from Chenier's Creole French covers of Louis Jordan hits to Buckwheat's reggae romps to recent experiments with hip-hop, so the selections here extend that path of tradition.) What's more, JJ Grey's “The Wrong Side” mirrors Dural's hardscrabble childhood and prodigal-son relationship to Lafayette so closely that it sounds like he wrote it himself. But Dural did in fact write or co-write nearly half of this album's songs, from the reflective "Time Goes By" and the poignant "Don't Leave Me”—with a great solo by New Orleans' brilliant young Trombone Shorty—to the positive-message blow-out “Ninth Place.”
All the members of Buckwheat Zydeco are in top form here, as is the masterful producer and baritone saxophonist Steve Berlin, who also produced the band's Five Card Stud back in 1994. Lay Your Burden Down pulses with music that tells a story, music that has been through something. Since it's zydeco, this fine new album will naturally get feet to moving. But Lay Your Burden Down speaks with equal eloquence to the head, and the heart.
Ben Sandmel is the author of Zydeco!, with photographer Rick Olivier, who shot this album's photos. Sandmel is also the producer of The Hackberry Ramblers' Grammy-nominated Deep Water. He is currently writing a book about the New Orleans R&B singer Ernie K-Doe.
STANLEY “BUCKWHEAT” DURAL, JR.: Accordion, lead vocals; LEE ALLEN ZENO: Bass and background vocals; SIR REGINALD MASTER DURAL: Rubboard and background vocals; KEVIN MENARD: Drums; OLIVIER SCOAZEC or MICHAEL MELCHIONE: Guitar; CURTIS WATSON: Trumpet
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