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Wayne Toups: Zydecajun Legend

Man, is it steamy out here this afternoon. And why not? It’s late summer in the deep south’s marshy lowlands. There’s been a blessed weeklong dry spell allowing the floodwaters from the latest vicious storm to recede. I’m swatting away another ravenous, hummingbird-sized mosquito and keeping an eye on the raggedy thicket of brown grasses off to the left. If that isn’t the perfect home to a horde of gators, then I’ve never seen one.

The iced beer goes down like life-nourishing holy water. A palpable sign there’s a God after all. I’ve changed shirts twice and I’m soaking through a third. Most of the guys don’t even wear shirts. Of course, most of the guys aren’t sixty. I misplaced my six-pack decades ago. A few too many six-packs, I suppose. The girls aren’t wearing much either. Their glistening contours are everywhere I turn. Milton was right about ‘silver linings.’

The energy is picking up in the joint, the crowd thickening, the din intensifying. The tall pole lights emit their wavelike, flickering beams through the stifling heat. A fog has settled into the towering pines and moss-laden oaks making for a ghostly, cathedral-like setting. This neck of the woods is known as SEC country. They grow ‘em big, tough and nasty around here – it’s home to more NFL players than anywhere in the U.S.A.. But that’s for another time. The deeply-bred tradition I’m about to experience has been around generations longer than pigskin. The lights go down hard to the beat of a drum and shiver of a cymbal. The stage ignites. It’s time for the celebration to begin.

The Roots

Next to jazz, no musical tradition is more associated with Louisiana than ‘Cajun.’ The Acadians, or Cajuns, found refuge in Louisiana after being exiled from Nova Scotia in 1755 and made a new life in the harsh southern environs. Using their button accordions, fiddles, and French language, Cajuns have been keeping their traditions of folk music, storytelling and dance alive and true to its roots.*

We’re also in ‘Creole’ country, the term broadly used to describe Louisiana’s native-born descendants of 19th century imperial Spanish and French rule. Blend in the offspring of African slaves, Native Americans, and Appalachians, and you have a more accurate picture of today’s exotic Creole population. Their music is ‘zydeco,’ a derivative of Cajun.

Originally, Saturday night dance parties were the rural poor’s way to lighten the load of another week of hardship. They would dress up for a night out and express themselves on the dance floor with both style and joyful abandon. ‘It’s Saturday night,” they’d say, “so let’s forget all that, thank our good Lord, and celebrate our blessings – family, friends and life itself.” Talk about grace and resiliency in the face of harsh reality.

Today, several artists are mixing traditional Cajun music and zydeco music with blues, soul, jazz and rock influences. And nobody does it better than Wayne Toups, the Louisiana household name and inventor of the musical genre, “Zydecajun.”

Zydecajun Ascends

In seeking to reach the 1980s MTV generation, Toups rolled out his innovative, high-energy style on stage while wearing colorful outfits and singing mostly in English. As to the music, he created a blend of traditional Cajun and Creole, along with the African-American traditions of R&B, blues, jazz and gospel. Throw a dollop of guitar-driven Southern rock in for good measure, and you have a Toups-inspired ‘zydecajun’ dance party. His plan worked, as younger fans have been pouring into his exhilarating festival shows for over three decades.

Born in 1958 into a Crowley, Louisiana family of rice farmers, Toups has taken an all-too-familiar rocky pathway to the stardom he enjoys today. Adept at the accordion at an early age, by his mid-twenties he was appearing at festivals such as ‘Acadiens’ to rave reviews. He began cutting well-received albums, including the ground-breaking Zydecajun in 1987.

His early successes included ‘song and album of the year’ awards, appearances on movie and television soundtracks, including Dirty Rice, Steel Magnolias and Broken Badges, and playing a 1990 Super Bowl show. He also collaborated often with several  of Nashville’s biggest country stars, including Alan Jackson, Mark Chesnutt, Clay Walker, George Jones and Garth Brooks.

A Legend Nearly Destroyed

Maybe it had all come a little too easy for Toups? His frenetic touring, oftentimes over two hundred shows in a year, and his rabid, celebrity welcomes at each stop came with a common downside. Toups developed a serious substance abuse problem: alcohol, drugs and women. Just how serious? How about spending most of 2005 in prison for his arrest and conviction on a drug distribution charge? That’s the definition of serious. There were other clear signs of his unstable, risk-taking personality, such as burning through four marriages by the time he was fifty. The intoxicating life of a rock and roll star obviously got the best of him. Suffice to say his maturing didn’t come easy.

In the solitude of prison, he had time to consider his life and how much he’d nearly thrown away. He cleaned up his act, completed his high school degree and upon his release, when he finally stood up at a meeting and said, “I’m Wayne Toups and I’m a drug addict,” his healing began. He’s been drug and smoke-free for over a decade.

Just Rewards

Since his sobriety, here are a few of his just rewards: Induction into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame in 2010 (the first of several ‘Halls’ he’s entered); a good, stable marriage since 2012 to his wife, Casey; becoming a first-time father in 2015; winning his first Grammy Award in 2013 for ‘Best Regional Roots Music Album’ (The Band Courtbouillon); and becoming a passionate activist for the ‘Coastal Vision Foundation,’ a non-profit whose mission is to restore America’s eroding shorelines, including healing the crisis underway in his home state.

That’s a pretty impressive string of hits. He’s also been recording “the best music I’ve ever written,” he says, and continues to drive crowds to frenzied, joyful dancing at his live performances. The difference is, now he remembers and treasures every moment and expresses his humble gratitude every blessed day.

Wayne Toups been called ‘the Cajun Bruce Springsteen,’ to which he says, “Nah, I’m just an old, raspy, rhythm and blues soul singer.” In his humility he left out, “one of the best who’s ever graced a stage,” so we’ll say it for him.