This article originally appeared as a cover story for Where Y’at magazine in 2009 and reprinted here on the day of Stanley “Buckwheat” (Buck) Dural’s passing.
Now that zydeco music is established with the Recording Academy as an official GRAMMY category, it is only fitting to reflect back on one of its master practitioners and foremost international ambassadors. Stanley “Buckwheat” (Buck) Dural, Jr. and his band Buckwheat Zydeco celebrate their 30th year as one of the most renowned artists of the genre with a new CD, Lay Your Burden Down.
Once considered a regional musical phenomenon, zydeco music has garnered international attention, thanks in large part to Buckwheat Zydeco’s ambitious schedule. The band was formed in 1979, and began touring Europe in the early 80’s.
Thirty years later, the band boasts a list of accomplishments would have been difficult to envision at the outset. Presidential inaugurations, Olympic ceremonies, national television commercial and motion picture recordings, talk show appearances, and GRAMMY nominations top the exhaustive resume. Not bad for a band leader who was reluctant to embrace the music early in his career.
Throughout his childhood, Buck was inspired by Little Richard, Fats Domino, and Jerry Lee Lewis. “There was so much energy. It was very inspirational.”
“When I first played music, there was nothing like it,” recalled Buck. “I just knew that this was what I wanted to do. I knew that from an early age.”
Buck was always very appreciative of the opportunity to play music, and getting paid to do so was simply lagniappe.
“I’d make four or five dollars, and I thought I was the richest guy on my block,” he laughed. “A little kid making that kind of money! Just to see people dancing. It still touches me now.”
Buck’s father had an affinity for zydeco music, and encouraged him to explore the music of Clifton Chenier, one of the iconic performers of the genre. Buck remained steadfastly opposed to that notion, preferring to stay true to his early R&B influences and his Hammond B-3 organ.
“Clifton Chenier and my father were best of friends,” Buck explained. “My dad would always tell me that I needed to play accordion like Clifton Chenier. I was invited to one of his gigs to perform as an organist.”
He approached that gig convinced that he would remain stubbornly opposed to opening his eyes to the music.
“I stayed over two years with Clifton,” Buck admitted. “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” he added. “I had never seen a washboard like that (played by Clifton’s brother Cleveland). At the house, my dad would always play with the same washboard that we washed clothes with – the one with the wooden frame. This cat had that thing strapped around his shoulders like a bullet-proof vest. He played with bottle caps on all fingers.”
It was Chenier’s command of the accordion, his vitality, and his ability to integrate other influences that really hooked Buck on the potential of zydeco music.
“The music was of his own invention,” said Buck. “We played four hours non-stop. That’s how you play with Clifton. That was inspirational to me.”
After his run with Chenier, Buck knew that he wanted to learn to play the accordion. That transition took about nine months and was not without its challenges.
“It gave me the blues,” said Buck of the learning curve that came with his newfound instrument. “You’ve got to inhale, exhale, pull and push, pull and push – The coordination with the left hand and the 140 buttons. I flipped it over, turned it around, put it down, and got so upset.” On the verge of quitting, Buck issued an ultimatum to that accordion and threw down the gauntlet. “It’s you or me,” he said, and eventually he conquered the beast.
Buck continued to bring both instruments to his gigs but found it too easy to revert back to the Hammond B-3 organ as somewhat of a security blanket. It wasn’t until he eventually “parked” the Hammond B-3 that he began to really embrace the accordion.
The band’s commitment to tour internationally exposed their music to a broader audience. Doors began to open up for Buckwheat Zydeco, most notably a major record label deal that was a breakthrough for both the band and for the genre.
“You always keep your fingers crossed and you hope and pray that good things will happen,” said Buck. “My manager Ted Fox called and said, ‘How would you like to record for Island Records?’ I dropped the phone. I said, ‘What do you think? Man, that is great.’”
Buck was aware that Bob Marley had been discovered by Chris Blackwell of Island Records, and knew of the label’s commitment to roots music.
Buckwheat Zydeco is also known for their affinity for allowing kids to join the band on stage during live performances, a trait that only enhances their reputation for appealing to a broad audience.
“We have to give something to our children,” said Buck. “There’s so much corruption and destruction leading them the wrong way. When I [bring kids on stage], these kids always remember. My music is for all generations. Mom and dad don’t have to leave kids home. They can take their kids with them.”
While numerous generations and artists contributed to the lobbying efforts to have zydeco music recognized as a GRAMMY category, it is understandable that it’s a source of pride for Buck.
“It’s a good feeling,” he said. “I’d like to think that I had something to do with it – Taking my inspiration from Clifton Chenier and all of the older generation guys that played before me. I’ll just hand it down to the younger generation.”
The band tries to maintain a healthy balance by integrating multiple influences into a synthesis that is uniquely their own. “Everybody likes different things,” Buck explained. “That’s why I put so many different things in my repertoire. But I’m never going to get away from the roots of my music. It’s like a gumbo. You have to put all of your ingredients in.”
The band’s new album is a perfect representation. “I’m doing some cover tunes and some of the Buckwheat Zydeco repertoire,” he said. “I like to take that challenge to arrange and make sure that I do a good job with anybody’s music that I cover. Whatever you do, you can’t just be a copycat.”
Lay Your Burden Down is produced by Steve Berlin of Los Lobos fame, with guest appearances by Sonny Landreth, Warren Haynes, JJ Grey, Trombone Shorty, and Berlin himself.
Buck had only one thought for those coming to see the band live at Jazz Fest. “When you come to a Buckwheat Zydeco concert, bring two pairs of shoes, because you might burn one pair out.”
As for the irony that he has accomplished so much in his career by playing music that he was particularly reluctant to embrace, he closed with a universal lesson.
“I knew that I should have listened to my dad a long time ago. I’m very stubborn. I learned what you don’t understand, you don’t criticize.”