Livin’ high on the zydeco hog

When it comes to beating unhappiness, Nathan and the Zydeco Cha Chas prove that Creole kicks Prozac’s butt. You can’t frown over a hot jambalaya, it’s impossible to cry into your remoulade sauce … and you certainly can’t sulk in the presence of a piano-accordion played by Nathan Williams.

“It’s enjoyable music to make people happy,” Williams said of his beloved zydeco, in a recent phone interview from on-the-road in New York City. “That’s a gift from God,” he added, “making people happy.”

Nathan and company’s live I’m a Zydeco Hog (Rounder, 1997) opens with the rollicking “Tante Rosa” and doesn’t let up, right on through to the rocking “Zydeco Road,” an hour later. Williams’ thick vocals and accordion finesse (yes, for all you doubters — accordion finesse) blends seamlessly with the screaming alto sax of Allen “Cat Roy” Broussard and the rub-board of Mark “Chuckie” Williams. Nathans’ jazz-inspired older brother, guitarist Dennis Paul Williams, adds another dimension — swapping riffs with bassist Wayne Burns and complementing the inspired drumming of Gerard St. Julien, Jr.

But it’s clear from the CD that Nathan is the “zydeco hog” in question, as he earthily and repeatedly urges the crowd at the New Orleans Rock ‘n’ Bowl, where the disc was recorded, to “take off your shoes … now.”

Much of Nathans’ early musical experience involved singing along to songs by the Commodores and Al Green, but Clifton Chenier — the late, great zydeco artist and legendary accordionist — was his greatest inspiration.

“When we were kids, we weren’t old enough to get into the club [where Chenier played],” remembers the Louisiana native. “We’d ride our bikes to the back of the place and stand on top of the washing machine owned by the woman who lived behind there. We looked through the window of the club to see him play, [but one day] the lady got mad and we had to go to the police station to get our bikes back.” Soon thereafter, Nathan happened into Romero’s Music Store (not far from his home in Lafayette, La.) and fell in love with a green accordion significantly larger than the one without piano keys on which he’d been practicing. He had found both his sound and the accordion that would bring him his first success.

“I would listen to Clifton Chenier’s album all the time, but I wouldn’t play behind it as I listened to it,” Nathan recalls. “I would hear the music in me and just play it [my way]. I kept experimenting and creating my own style.”

Brother Sid “El Sid O” Williams opened a club — with encouragement from contemporary zydeco star Buckwheat Zydeco — and Nathan was soon a regularly featured performer. With support from Sid and Buckwheat — plus lots of hard work — his dreams of becoming a bona fide, professional musician were eventually realized. Nathan used the green accordion to record two ’45s and his first full-length release, Steady Rock (Rounder, 1989).

Before Chenier’s death, Nathan joined the zydeco master on stage one night at the urging of Harry Hippolite (Chenier’s longtime guitarist, and Nathan’s uncle). “He bon, he bon,” was Chenier’s reaction to the young musician. Since then, thousands of Nathan’s fans and a host of music critics have drawn the same conclusion.

This month, Nathan played Austria — demonstrating that the infectious happiness inspired by zydeco knows no geographic bounds. “I’m lasting long in the zydeco business because I’m creative and I’m always doing things that other people haven’t done,” he reasons. Nathan cites his efforts as a “zydeco ambassador,” which have taken him from Istanbul to Tokyo. “A lot of times when I play, people say, ‘I’ve never had that much fun before.’ I tell people, ‘You don’t have to know zydeco; just come out and have a good time, any way you know how. Dance like you want to dance, holler like you want to holler. Ain’t nothing but a party’.”

“La musique, c’est moi” might be Nathan’s motto. His obsessive desire to deliver joy to his audiences instills every single one of his songs with sheer delight. But if he’s always exuberant on stage, he’s sometimes cool and philosophical in conversation. “We’re not promised that we’re going to have a good time in life, you know what I’m saying? It’s dealing with life, period. It’s gonna be good times and bad times: Make the best of what you got in life,” he advises.

Nathan plays triple accordion (three rows of buttons on one side, piano keys on the other) on his new, soon-to-be-released CD. “Everything I pick up, I just do it,” he says simply of his knack for mastering new instruments. “It’s a gift, there’s no doubt about it. But I do practice; I always try to learn something new, always be ahead of the game. For example, if you’re ‘A’ and I’m ‘B,’ ‘A’ says, ‘I’ve tried hard, I did what I could'; ‘B’ says, ‘I’m gonna keep going, give it that extra punch.’ Life is a challenge, so you have to keep pushing.”

After 11 years on the road, Nathan shows no signs of slowing down. “I’ve got over a million miles on me, man, and I’m still working,” he says. “I’m enjoying it, too, as I’m doing it. Tell the people in Asheville to come on out and bring their dancing shoes — then they can take them off and have a party.”

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