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Pine Leaf Boys' Wilson Savoy balances performing with teaching

Wilson Savoy had plenty to be excited about after he showcased at the recent Association of Performing Arts Presenters (APAP) conference with his Pine Leaf Boys Louisiana Cajun band.

The Pine Leaf Boys showcasing at APAP, with Wilson Savoy, center.
Jim Bessman

The Lafayette-based group, which consists of Savoy on accordion, fiddle and vocals, and Courtney Granger (fiddle, accordion and vocals), Drew Simon (drums and vocals), Jon Bertrand (guitar) and Thomas David (bass), is now set to perform a tune on national television during the NBA All-Star game on Feb. 15 in New Orleans. And according to the band’s booking agent, the Pine Leafs have already landed four gigs from their APAP showcase.

“That’s unbelievable!” says Savoy, who won a Grammy last year with fellow Cajun music superstars Steve Riley and Wayne Toups for their Best Regional Roots Album The Band Courtbouillon.

Hard to believe, too, is that following his New York trip, he returned to Lafayette to continue teaching Cajun accordion at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette’s (UL Lafayette) School of Music’s Traditional Music program.

“You can get a degree in traditional music, which is anything from Irish music to old-time and Cajun,” says Savoy. “There are a lot of local teachers besides me, including Mitch Reed, who teaches Cajun ensemble, and [Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys'] David Greely, who gives fiddle lessons. I don’t’ think any of us are college grads, and we’re all teaching Cajun music at at the University of Louisiana!”

Savoy has been with the program from the beginning, after ethnomusicologist Mark DeWitt, professor of music at UL Lafayette, was appointed to the Dr. Tommy Comeaux Endowed Chair in Traditional Music within the School of Music.

"He was hired to oversee it and sign local guys to teach,” continues Savoy. “I’ve been teaching Cajun ensemble for three years. Any instrument is allowed so long as you can follow Cajun music: Some girl even came in with a flute!”

Savoy’s teaching credentials involved his ability to play fiddle and accordion.

“You have to guide them,” he says. “An ensemble has everything from guitar, fiddle, bass, accordion. They were looking for someone who could play, and I started my career busking on the University of Louisiana at Lafayette campus.”

Ironically, however, Savoy had been kicked off that campus for busking Cajun music.

“I’d moved to Lafayette with no job, to play music on the street,” recalls Savoy, son of Cajun music legends Marc and Ann Savoy, who grew up on the family farm in nearby Eunice with stellar siblings Joel, a Cajun music musician and producer, Sarah, a Cajun musician and cookbook author, and Gabrielle, a Louisiana artist and photographer.

“One day I was playing with Cedric Watson and Jon Bertrand, who plays guitar with me now, and Drew Simon on drums—the original lineup of the Pine Leaf Boys—on the street. It was a nice spring afternoon and a cop came up to us and said we were disturbing the peace, ‘Don’t come back!,’ and I took that as an opportunity to write letters to the papers. They pride themselves on being ‘the Rajin’ Cajuns' [at UL Lafayette], and they don’t allow traditional Cajun musicians on campus? People drive by with loud rap boomboxes, and we’re playing quiet fiddles and guitars!”

Savoy did indeed succeed in securing major local media coverage, along with more professional gig opportunities.

“All these venues in Lafayette were calling me and saying, ‘Look. Play at our bar! The [major roots music venue] Blue Moon Saloon was relatively new, and the owner, said, ‘Y’all come down the road to my bar!’ and that’s where we started the Pine Leaf Boys. The irony is that five years afterward, UL started its traditional music program—and I was the first one hired!”

Savoy acknowledges that he didn’t want to accept the position at first because of the “bad blood.”

“But I’ve loved every moment!” he affirms. “I’ve taught ensemble maybe six semesters, anywhere from 18- to 22-year-old students who look like they wouldn’t care about Cajun music--like an Asian-looking punk rock guitar player with spiky hair who took the class four times, he loved it so much.”

He submits the flutist among other young female students who likewise wouldn’t be considered likely candidates for learning “the rough, drunken bar room kind of music,” then notes that in the past year, because of the “buzz or whatever” about the program, gals as well as guys are not only learning accordion but fanatically coming out to Cajun dances.

“The Blue Moon Saloon is the place where we all meet,” says Savoy. “It’s a haven for all the young people who dance and play music, and right now the scene is really rocking with new blood--and I attribute a lot of that to what UL offers as far as school credits for having fun jamming out on accordion and fiddle.”

Savoy, who now teaches private solo Cajun accordion lessons after having passed on the ensemble post to BeauSoleil avec Michael Doucet’s fiddler Mitch Reed (who, incidentally, gave Savoy his first fiddle lesson), also credits the funding raised for the Dr. Tommy Comeaux Endowed Chair in Traditional Music, which pays students a stipend for taking class, in addition to earning college credit.

A medical doctor, the late Comeaux was also a multi-instrumentalist, who played in numerous Cajun bands including BeauSoleil.

“I didn’t know him, but he literally left behind the future of Cajun music in what the foundation has done with his name and vision,” says Savoy. “People raised over $1 million through fundraisers to pay guys like me to teach Cajun music to kids, and it’s so cool to go to a campus where 10 years ago you played it and they thought it was funny, now it’s cool.”

“Because of the Dr. Tommy Comeaux Endowed Chair, Cajun music will be around for a very long time,” Savoy concludes.

[The Examiner is an honorary citizen of Eunice, Louisiana.]

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