In the 1990s, Pat McLaughlin was a regular part of the New Orleans music community, making the nine-hour drive from his home outside Nashville, Tennessee, once or twice a month to play with local musicians.
The guitarist, singer and songwriter became such a part of the scene that when Susan Cowsill, Russ Broussard, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation’s Scott Aiges and his wife, Lisanne, and their daughter needed a place to stay during Hurricane Katrina, McLaughlin volunteered his house.
McLaughlin will play Chickie Wah Wah Saturday night.
He has a few acres of land in Franklin just south of Nashville — nothing big, but enough room for a couple of horses and a few goats. He’d played host to many New Orleanians over the years before his Katrina crew arrived.
As an Iowan who’d lived in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston and Nashville, he had no background with hurricanes.
“The weather was uncharacteristically beautiful,” he recalled of those days at the end of August and beginning of September 2005. “We don’t get a lot of dry weather and sunshine at the same time. We were focused on making people comfortable in our house. It was very flattering that they came and felt comfortable doing that.”
Cowsill got a phone message calling for help from her brother, Barry, who stayed in New Orleans. She got his voicemail when she called back and spent a day on a road at the edge of McLaughlin’s property — the only place she got cell service — waiting for a call that never came. Shortly after Christmas 2005, his body was identified in a Baton Rouge morgue.
“At the time, we weren’t certain by any means that Susan had lost her brother,” McLaughlin said. “She just didn’t know. It’s such a horrible tragedy.”
Unlike many displaced New Orleanians, those at McLaughlin’s house weren’t glued to CNN. They spent more time poring over photos they found online.
McLaughlin did what he could to help the Katrina evacuees not only because they were friends, but because he had, and still has, deep musical ties to the city. He met The Iguanas’ Rene Coman and guitarist John Fohl in New Orleans, and the three will play with him Saturday night.
It’s also where he formed Tiny Town with drummer Kenneth Blevins and subdudes Johnny Ray Allen and Tommy Malone.
Allen got Malone interested in the project by promising that it would be a country band. McLaughlin had written or co-written songs for Tanya Tucker and Delbert McClinton, Alan Jackson, Trisha Yearwood, Gary Allen, Don Williams and more, so that sounded possible, but when the band convened at his place to start working on songs, they got a surprise.
“When we got together, it wasn’t 10 minutes before we realized none of us really knew anything about country music,” McLaughlin said, laughing. “We started writing the same old chonka-chonka-chonka stuff.”
These days, McLaughlin spends part of his year playing mandolin in John Prine’s touring band, and he has a weekly gig in a Nashville bar. When schedules allow, he also plays in the band The World Famous Headliners with songwriters Shawn Camp and Al Anderson, formerly the guitar player in NRBQ. He’s enjoyed the social and professional camaraderie that comes with playing with other songwriters, and it has other advantages.
“Collaboration and co-writing in rock ’n’ roll is sometimes a process one engages in to ensure that there’s a product,” McLaughlin said carefully.
As the 10th anniversary of the storm approaches, he still has a hard time getting his head around Hurricane Katrina.
“It was unimaginable,” he said. “It took me five or six years to go back to New Orleans after Katrina.”