A triple swamp pop music threat, Don Rich sings, writes songs and plays seven instruments. As popular and talented as the fifth-generation musician and lifelong Pierre Part resident is, he’s resisted his record label’s designation of him as the king of swamp pop.
“I asked my label, ‘Why are y’all calling me the king of swamp pop, when you still have all those legends out there?’ ” Rich said.
“We still have Van Broussard, Tommy McLain, Johnnie Allen, T.K. Hulin,” Rich said of his swamp pop predecessors. “It’s hard for me to get used to, because I’m just an average guy, but the label just titled me that and it just stuck with me.”
Years ago, Rich and Broussard, the classic swamp pop singer-guitarist from Prairieville, had a good-natured disagreement backstage about who was more popular.
“Van said, ‘I just want to let you know, they come to see you here.’ I said, ‘Bull. They come to see you, too.’ ‘No, no, no. They come see you.’ I was flattered when he told me that.”
King of swamp pop or not, Rich is Friday night’s deserving headliner at this weekend’s 17th annual Swamp Pop Music Festival in Gonzales. He’s played the event many times and especially enjoys the chance it gives him to see his swamp pop heroes.
“A day like that, that’s when we go early and get to see the legends, those guys I grew up with,” Rich said. “Warren Storm, Willie Tee, Tommy McLain, all them guys who played before me.”
Like his reluctance to accept the swamp pop crown, Rich doesn’t let headlining status go to his head.
“I’m just like everybody else,” he said. “I’m just having fun. If you’re not having fun, it’s work. Not too many people can say they love what they do, but I really do. And I wouldn’t want to do anything else.”
A professional musician for 47 years, Rich plays swamp pop festivals throughout Louisiana and east Texas.
“Of course, towards the west, they mix it with the zydeco, which is a good blend,” he said. “Swamp pop and zydeco are like first cousins.”
Rich won’t pick a favorite among the festivals he plays.
“I have fans all over,” he said. “Everybody treats me right and I love everybody who supports swamp pop music.”
Rich’s late father, Golen Richard, performed in a popular Pierre Part band, the Richard Brothers. A guitarist, Richard was ahead of his swamp pop and country musician peers in becoming a fan of the Beatles.
“When I was 9, 10 years old, 1964, the Beatles were pretty hot,” Rich recalled.
“I remember my daddy playing ‘She Loves You,’ ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand.’ I was amazed. And he was the only one in the band who could play the Beatles’ music.”
Rich became a Beatles fan, too. He made his performance debut, at about 12, with “Oh! Darling,” a Beatles song inspired by Louisiana swamp pop.
“The Beatles had these unique chord progressions and harmonies, which nobody else had around here in America at that time,” Rich said. “And they rocked it out. There was no stopping them.”
Of course, rhythm-and-blues from New Orleans is another big influence on Rich. Like many swamp pop performers, he often performs Fats Domino songs. He also met Domino, New Orleans’ biggest-selling recording star, in a recording studio about 24 years ago.
“He was so nice, so friendly,” Rich recalled. “And he complimented the song I was doing. Fats Domino, Dr. John, Frogman Henry, I like all that stuff.”
The classic soul of Otis Redding, Percy Sledge, Wilson Pickett and Motown also helped shape swamp pop.
“Swamp pop,” Rich explained, “evolved when the earlier Cajun people put down their fiddles and accordions and picked up keyboards and saxophones. It’s really R&B from the bayou, but with a Cajun spice to it.”
The Ville Platte-based Jin Records has released 11 Rich albums, the latest of them being 2012’s “Kinda Sorta.” Another album is on the way, Rich promised, and it will be a first — a collection of swamp-pop sacred music.
“I incorporated saxophones into it and the Hammond B-3 organ, the piano, just like we do now,” Rich said. “It’s music that you’re going to able to dance to, if you like, but it’s about Jesus.”