Todd Mouton, a longtime presence in South Louisiana music, knows as much about the late King of Zydeco Clifton Chenier — who received a lifetime achievement Grammy award in 2014, just under 25 years after his death — as anyone. But in his new book, “Way Down in Louisiana: Clifton Chenier, Cajun, Zydeco and Swamp Pop Music,” he lets others, in part, tell the story.
Along with newly written chapters that focus on Chenier, the new book collects about 20 years’ worth of Mouton’s reporting on Louisiana music. There are previously published features on everyone from Paul “Li’l Buck” Sinegal and Buckwheat Zydeco’s Stanley “Buckwheat” Dural, who played with Chenier, and on acts like Beausoleil, Zachary Richard, Sonny Landreth, C.C. Adcock, Roddie Romero and others. Through their recollections of the man himself, or of his influence, a unique picture emerges.
“Clifton Chenier has always been such a towering presence,” Mouton said. “It was exciting to get inside the story, and retrace his path.”
Mouton has, in a sense, been inside the story for years. For more than 20 years, he’s documented the music of South Louisiana, as a journalist for outlets like Offbeat, the Times of Acadiana and the Daily Advertiser in Lafayette; he’s also supported it as a participant, producing records and events, solo and in partnership with culture-driven organizations like the Acadiana Center for the Arts and Louisiana Folk Roots, of which he is currently executive director.
The stories Mouton tells are interspersed with a gorgeous visual package crafted by Megan Barra, a Lafayette-based artist whose design work on Sonny Landreth’s “Levee Town” album earned a Grammy nomination in 2002. There are over 100 new and archival photos of Chenier and the many other musicians, plus images of vintage concert posters, album covers and even ticket stubs for long-past dances, festivals and parties.
In between stories and photos there are lyrics — traditional, Chenier’s and others — and, innovatively, suggested playlists.
A rare hour-long concert film of Chenier and his Red Hot Louisiana Band performing in 1977, at Baton Rouge’s Kingfish and Jay’s Lounge and Cockpit in Cankton, Louisiana, is also available on DVD via the site.
The music covered in “Way Down In Louisiana” is a hybrid, multifaceted product itself: zydeco, Cajun music and swamp pop are all long-honed combinations that combine elements of rhythm and blues, rock and roll, country, Acadian ballads, early Creole music and more. The book examines and illuminates those intersecting and overlapping musical byways, of which Chenier is a significant hub. (“I do think Clifton Chenier created modern zydeco in a recording studio in Houston, on May 11, 1965,” Mouton said, referencing the famous Arhoolie Records session at Gold Star studios, during which Chenier’s group waxed all 18 songs on the groundbreaking album “Louisiana Blues.”)
Clifton Chenier only gave three proper interviews during his lifetime. Mouton’s years of conversation with those who knew him or were inspired by him amount to significant musical detective work, racking up a solid collection of knowledge. But the straight facts — though plenty are in there — are not the foremost point of “Way Down in Louisiana,” and the book is more special for it.
“It’s about a place and a way of doing things, an art form and a culture. It’s that combination of mystery and history,” he said.
“The idea was to wrap his story in the stories of the living artists who connect, directly or indirectly, to the same things,” Mouton said, “to try to trace the journey of discovery that every artist goes through.”