Steve Riley is a global ambassador for Cajun music and culture. For the past three decades, through shows and workshops, Riley and his band the Mamou Playboys have introduced their culture to audiences with their rollicking dance tunes and soulful ballads.
But Riley’s musical vision doesn’t limit itself to one genre. Although trained as a traditionalist, learning fiddle from the hands of Cajun legend Dewey Balfa, Riley and the Playboys have always shaken things up musically. Zydeco, swamp pop, originals and traditional Cajun tunes all commingle on Riley’s records and shows.
And as fans have come to expect of Riley’s ever-evolving musical presentations, he’s ready to throw a change-up once again.
“The past few years, I’ve been home more and traveling less, just playing shows around here and teaching and doing workshops,” he said last week by phone from his home in Lafayette, La. “We still like to travel, and we’ve done it a little bit this summer — taken one trip a month since June — and we’re gonna be busy at the end of August and September as well.”
Riley’s workshops, as he demonstrated at Duke University a few years back, are full-blown Cajun tutorials with Riley and the band taking questions on the culture and music, interpreting from the original Cajun French and demonstrating their versatility on instruments as well.
When Riley heads to Greensboro for the N.C. Folk Festival, he won’t be with the Playboys, but he’ll still be representing the culture with his band Racines.
“The band’s been together for probably 15 years,” Riley says. “It just kinda started casually one winter. We just got together and started playing at clubs here in Lafayette on a regular basis, made a record.”
Newest Playboy member /fiddler Kevin Wimmer, who replaced Playboys co-founder David Greely when he had to leave to preserve his failing hearing in 2011, was one reason Riley started Racines. Matching up Wimmer with fiddle veteran Mitch Reed (Beausoleil, Charivari) created a chunk of old-time fiddler’s heaven for Riley, who often joins in for a fiddlin’ threesome.
Riley is also excited about Racines guitarist Chris Stafford. “He’s just the top musician of his generation here in Lafayette,” Riley says.
He also heaps praise on Creole drummer Jermaine Prejean. “He has an amazing feel and approaches the drums in a way that’s unique,” Riley says. “Most drummers in Cajun and Creole music see the drums only as a rhythm instrument. Jermaine sees it and approaches it like it can be a lead instrument, so it ends up being some really cool jams going on where people are just playing off of one another. And even though we don’t play together much, everyone is so musical that it’s just exciting. You’re not quite sure what’s gonna happen, but its always rockin’.”
Racines translates as Roots, and Riley promises there’ll be plenty of tangled roots to explore with this bunch. “We do Cajun, Creole, blues, swamp pop — it’s a lot of interesting twists and turns.”
Swamp pop is basically Louisiana’s version of rock and roll, rooted in the ’50s. Riley and the Racines have the signature swamp pop anthem, “Cookie and the Cupcakes” ’59 hit “Mathilda” on their set list. And on the Playboys’ most recent release, “30 Years Live,” they perform Phil Phillips’s (aka Phillip Baptiste) ’59 swamp pop classic “Sea Of Love.”
And even though Riley says he wants to stay around home more, that doesn’t mean he won’t be busy spreading Cajun/Creole culture with his various musical projects. The Playboys’ latest release celebrates their three decades as a band, and even features a guest appearance by co-founder Greely.
“He was on the show, and he’s on the record. He comes back on a regular basis to play with us,” Riley says of his former fiddle partner, also mentored by Balfa.
The record, recorded live at a club in Lafayette, is no retrospective, Riley insists, but a sampling of the band’s diversity. “Freetown” is an original inspired by, but not based on a tiff with his wife.
“I was (mad) one day, so I just picked up my guitar and banged out the riffs, and I was like, ‘That’s pretty good!’ So I asked my wife, ‘You ever hear that riff anywhere before?’ And she’s like, ‘No, I don’t think so.’ I said, ‘Well, thanks. I think you just helped me write a new song.’ ”
But for the subject matter, Riley used an account he was reading about the history of the Freetown neighborhood in Lafayette, where governor Alexander Mouton had an estate. Before the Civil War, he freed most of his slaves and allowed then to work for their own land and money on his estate.
“And everybody started hearing about that, so they all started coming to Freetown, all these other men of color — Spanish, Irish-African Americans — they started hearing about it and came to Freetown and set up there and worked for their own land,” Riley says.
He also brings a family member into the 30-year celebrations, though she’s thinly disguised. “Tante Lily” is a rollicking Cajun dance hall ditty about a rambunctious aunt.
“An uncle of mine who’s a barber, who always has funny things to say, said, ‘Steve, there’s two types of people in the world. There are people who live for a long time, and people that live for a good time,’ ” Riley said. “So I have an aunt, who is single, never been married, doesn’t have any kids, and she knows how to have a good time. She travels with us a lot, so I didn’t want to use her real name, so I just used Lily. But the song is about her.”
Swamp pop fans will be offered a more diverse palette by yet another Riley side project, Riley’s newest version of the now defunct swamp pop group Lil’ Band of Gold. With collaborator C.C. Adcock and swamp pop vet Tommy McClain and some special guests he won’t name yet, Riley will soon have a record out that he says will be a smaller version of the Band of Gold.
“That’s the great thing about down here, there’s so many great musicians,” Riley says. “I just wanna make music with them. That’s why I have these other projects and just wanna hang out and make that happen.”