Ambassador of Cajun Music: Jimmy C. Newman, 1927-2014

by Michael Green

In February 1765, the first boat with French-speaking refugees from Acadia in Nova Scotia arrived in the present-day state of Louisiana, where their description of themselves as Acadians changed, just as regional dialects change, into Cajuns. Their departure was part of what one historian of Cajun culture calls an “ethnic cleansing.” The British had acquired French Canada two years before and deported the Catholic Acadians to other colonies; a group of them chose instead to head for what they thought was French territory. It turned out that the Treaty of Paris of 1763, which had conveyed French Canada from France to England, also shifted Louisiana from France to Spain. The Acadians moved into the swamps and bayous north of New Orleans, and created a new life for themselves, hoping to stay out of the way of authorities who might bother them (Bernard; C. Brasseaux; Jobb; Rushton).

Today, an Internet search for the word “Cajun” reveals the spread and influence of that culture. It covers everything from how a Cajun Mardi Gras differs from the more famous New Orleans version (it involves more music and chasing down food for a pot of gumbo) to restaurants across the country, including a fusion of Cajun and Asian cuisine, to festivals and folk remedies. It also demonstrates the popularity of Cajun music: in the first eight years in which the Grammy for Regional Roots Music has been presented, a category that also includes Hawaiian, Native American, and polka, among others, the Grammy went to a Cajun act four times (“250 years of Cajun culture in La”; Berger; Sagner).

On Friday, June 6, 2014, Cajun singer Jimmy C. Newman appeared on the opening segment of the Friday Night Opry at 7 p.m. He was scheduled for the following Friday night, but was unable to perform. He had fallen as he left the Opry the week before, and tests revealed that he suffered from cancer. He died on June 21, just as the Saturday night Grand Ole Opry went on the air, at the age of 87. He had been a member of the longest-running program in country music since August 1956; only five other entertainers ever had a longer tenure with that show. When he arrived as a twenty-nine-year-old rising country star, he was not actually Jimmy C. Newman, but he was the first Cajun to be a member of the most important show in country music, and the first Cajun to become a mainstream country recording artist. In the course of a musical career that spanned more than sixty-five years, he was an important part of country music and Cajun music, bridged the gap between the two, and helped bring Cajun culture, especially music, to national attention. One of the Cajun music Grammy winners, Jo-El Sonnier, said of him, “He was definitely the ambassador. He led us to where we are today” (CMA).

James Yves Newman was born on August 29, 1927, near the parish of Big Mamou, later the subject of one of his songs. In many ways, his life was typical of many country entertainers of his generation. He grew up listening to pioneers of the field: Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family, who were part of the “Big Bang” of country music, the “Bristol” recordings in 1927 that began major recording careers for both of them; Bob Wills, a leading figure in the development of Western swing in Texas; and, in Newman’s case, Gene Autry, the country singer and cowboy movie star. While he listened to Cajun music less often than to those performers, he also grew up amid such legendary Cajun recording artists and acts as Dennis McGee (a distant cousin) and the Hackberry Ramblers. Newman and his older brother Walter performed songs around the area to help earn money during the Great Depression. Newman’s father died before World War II began, and young Jimmy quit school after six years to work on a farm, and then serve as a welder’s helper in a wartime defense plant. There he met J.D. Miller, another worker who also was a songwriter and owner of a small record label. After the war, Newman joined Chuck Guillory’s Rhythm Boys as a singer and guitarist, recorded for Miller’s Feature Records and other Louisiana labels, and played what he called “skull orchards”—honky-tonks where many country singers of the time performed. His early performances combined Cajun French songs and stylings with country music, and learned Cajun music. He also hosted a television show on a station in Lake Charles, Louisiana (Cooper).[1]

Just as the future “King of Country Music,” Roy Acuff, had toured with medicine shows and the eventual “Father of Bluegrass Music,” Bill Monroe, had moved from radio station to radio station in tandem with his brother Charlie and then on his own, Newman was honing his craft and looking for his big break. As he began his quest for prominence beyond his native area, he sang country music, but also included Cajun numbers. He and other Louisiana musicians were influenced by Harry Choates, a singing fiddler who had a regional hit with the frequently recorded Cajun classic “Jole Blon.” Newman’s style also reflected the impact of Hank Williams, who had a national hit with his own “Jambalaya,” released in 1952. But, Newman said, “For a long time, I couldn’t get a record contract because of my French accent” (Hagan 196; see also “Jimmy C. Newman’s Legacy: The C Stood for Cajun”; “Newman Changed the Way We Listen to Cajun Bluegrass”).

Two years later, having made his accent sound less French, Newman recorded his first real hit, “Cry, Cry, Darling,” and his career took off. Newman co-wrote the song with Miller, who then brought it to the attention of Fred Rose, Acuff’s partner in Nashville’s biggest music publishing company. When Newman’s recording reached #4 on the country charts, he became a member of the Louisiana Hayride, airing on KWKH in Shreveport—an important show in its own right, and becoming known (to the chagrin of its managers) as the top farm team for the Opry. On the Hayride, Newman performed alongside another singer on the rise. He said, “I did two Texas tours with Elvis in the mid-50s. I was there when he came to the Hayride (October 1954) and there when he left (March 1956). He ran off the older crowd when he came. And when he left, the younger crowd left, too. He came to the Hayride shaking, and he left shaking. He was a very different hillbilly, if he was a hillbilly, with his pink shirt and black pants. He was as nice as could be, and very shy” (Hagan 196; see also “Jimmy C. Newman’s Legacy: The C Stood for Cajun”; “Newman Changed the Way We Listen to Cajun Bluegrass”).[2]

Newman faced a similar problem with shyness. A native Cajun French speaker, he usually thought in his native tongue and then translated, leading to a form of English sometimes associated with Cajuns, eventually prompting Newman to joke about how the show was almost over because it was “ten after twenty on my watch,” and to sign off Opry segments by saying, “We’ll see you a while ago.” His music spoke for him and, in the mid-1950s, it spoke volumes. As Marty Stuart, a country performer and historian and collector of country music, said, “If you go back to his 1950s recordings of Cry, Cry, Darling and Seasons of My Heart, you’ll witness a country music architect at work. He was a brilliant singer, a brilliant designer of country music.” Newman put together a string of four top ten country recordings, and the Opry beckoned. He arrived as a member in August 1956 (Cooper).

Newman was successful, but that success also was limited for a variety of reasons. The following year, he recorded his biggest hit, “A Fallen Star,” which reached #2 on the country charts, and he split a gold record with Ferlin Husky, who covered his recording. Husky’s version climbed to eighth on the country charts but reached the pop charts as well, and thus became better known. Newman continued recording, first for Dot and MGM Records and finally, starting in 1961, for the more widely distributed Decca label. But he often remained stuck between the country of fiddles and steel and the increasingly popular Nashville Sound, with its strings, even on his own label: Owen Bradley, his producer, also recorded Kitty Wells, a traditionalist known as the “Queen of Country Music,” and Patsy Cline, whose songs were country but sounded more like popular music. Newman reached the top ten six more times after A Fallen Star, but never had a #1 hit and often wound up lower on the national country charts. Although he continued to record for most of the rest of his life, he never appeared again on the country charts after 1970 (Cooper).

But even as he was enjoying success, Newman began reaching back to his roots. As country music historian Bill C. Malone put it, Newman “was never very happy in the role of pop singer and, largely through the influence of the urban folk enthusiasm, he returned to the performance of Cajun-country songs.” Newman had recorded Miller’s “Diggy-Liggy-Lo” back in 1954, long before fellow Cajun Doug Kershaw had a hit with it, but had stayed with country through 1961. He released a single, “Big Mamou,” named for the area where he grew up; it was in some ways a typical country lament—“Why did you go and leave me in Big Mamou?/You left me for another, left me alone and so blue”—but with the up-tempo style associated with Cajun music. In 1962, he reached #22 on the Billboard charts with Alligator Man, which became his theme song and included Cajun-style fiddling (Malone 282-83).

Then, in 1963, he released his third album, Folk Songs of the Bayou Country, which was more historic than probably even he realized. It was country music’s first mainstream album of Cajun music, and a “concept” album, which was rare for its time—and, indeed, gets too little attention historically for that status. The theme song was the decidedly non-Cajun “Louisiana Purchase” by a composer with a limited track record in country and Cajun music: Irving Berlin, who wrote it for a 1941 Broadway musical made into a film starring Bob Hope. Newman’s album featured such Cajun classics as “Jole Blon” and two waltzes, “Gran Chenier” and “Gran Basile.” The album included an emcee, Opry announcer T. Tommy Cutrer, who had known Newman in Shreveport and gave him a new middle name to replace Yves: he called him Jimmy C., for Cajun. Besides interacting with Cutrer to provide information about Cajun culture, Newman also relied on two outstanding Cajun musicians: old friend Rufus Thibodeaux, whom he always called the greatest of the Cajun fiddlers, and accordion player Shorty LeBlanc. Newman also reached #12 on the country charts with “Bayou Talk,” a combination of singing and Cajun comedy about “my good ‘frand,’ Romancey Bordeaux” (Folk Songs of the Bayou Country).

The album and single, historians of country and Cajun music agree, did a great deal to bring attention to Cajun culture. Newman remained a mainstream country performer, but integrated more Cajun music and culture into his act. Finally, in 1974, Newman took a major career step. Surveying Cajun history, Ryan Brasseaux writes, “Adaptation is a hallmark of the Cajun survival strategy.” As longtime music journalist and historian John Broven put it, with “synthetic country-pop productions taking second place to the earthy outlaw sound” in country music, Newman had “nothing to lose.” At about the same time that he joined other longtime artists in forming the Association of Country Entertainers—one of them, Bill Anderson, called the Country Music Association giving its award for outstanding female vocalist to Olivia Newton-John “the straw that broke the camel’s back”—Newman recorded an album for a small label, La Louisanne, Jimmy C. Newman Sings Cajun, featuring several Cajun standards and a new song, “Lache Pas La Patate,” a Cajun phrase that makes more sense in its rhetorical meaning—“Don’t give up” or “Hang in there”—than in its literal translation, “Don’t drop the potato.” The song sold more than 200,000 copies in Canada and earned Newman the first gold record of his career (see, for example, R. Brasseaux vii; Broven 63-64; Carlin 289; Carr 355-56; Malone).

Newman had indeed gone back to his roots. In 1974, he headlined the first concert that turned into the Festival Acadiens et Creoles in Lafayette. As one Cajun performer in the area put it, “Jimmy was the guy that brought people in, then people got to hear all this other music.” Barry Ancelet, the festival organizer and a scholar of Cajun culture and music, noted, “We figured he was going to be a big draw because of the popularity of that song and also he was a well-loved person. A lot of people from here knew he was from here and knew that he’d gone to Nashville and represented us with great dignity up there.” Other Cajun musicians agreed: as one of them, Happy Fats, put it, “Jimmy is very well thought of down here … because Jimmy has been pretty much help and he hasn’t forgotten his Cajun traditions” (Billboard; Cross; Fuselier).

Although Newman continued to sing his old hits in his shows and included some country songs in his albums, he turned almost completely to Cajun music. Thibodeaux joined him full-time, as did Newman’s son Gary, who had performed with a Cajun-rock group called Coteau, and, in 1977, Bessyl Duhon, the son of legendary Cajun musician Hector Duhon and a former member of the rising Cajun group Beausoleil, became his accordion player. Newman called the band Cajun Country, reflecting its—and his—hybrid music. Thibodeaux worked with Newman on and off until his death in 2005, while Duhon continued until Newman’s death—in fact, Duhon’s tenure as a musician as part of a Grand Ole Opry act appears to be the longest in the show’s history except for dobro player Beecher Kirby, “Bashful Brother Oswald,” who worked with Roy Acuff for almost 54 years (Broven, Cooper).[3]

For the rest of Newman’s career, his recordings were mostly albums and mostly Cajun, and his touring shows were almost entirely Cajun music—except for “Cajun Cowboy,” his take on the western songs he loved in his youth, and occasional country songs, either his hits or new material. He spotlighted Duhon and either Thibodeaux or other fiddlers. He recorded a few singles, including a minor mid-1980s hit, “Don’t Mess with My Toot-Toot.” He gained a large number of fans in Europe, especially in England, where traditional country music remained more popular than in the United States, at least commercially. He also appeared at bluegrass festivals, noting that “Cajun and bluegrass are both traditional music that runs parallel, and the same people usually enjoy them both”; indeed, Bill Monroe recorded Newman’s first hit “Cry, Cry, Darling,” and Newman’s description of Cajun music could apply to bluegrass: “It has two speeds: off and full-blast.” While the Grand Ole Opry’s management reduced most of the older acts’ appearances to monthly by the early 2000s, Newman continued weekly on either the Friday or Saturday night shows, his music providing a unique counterpoint to the other artists appearing there (“Newman Changed the Way We Listen to Cajun Bluegrass”).

Like many country singers, Newman sought influence and financial success beyond the stage, and he found it. His influence extended into the Nashville recording industry. In the early 1960s, he teamed up with fellow singer Dave Dudley and country music business executive Jimmy Key to form Newkeys Music, which became a leading Nashville publishing company. One of its biggest hits was Dudley’s “Six Days on the Road,” a truck-driving anthem that Newman also sang on the Opry, but sought someone else to record because, as he put it with his Cajun French accent, he sounded nothing like a truck driv-air. He offered it to several artists, including Johnny Cash, who expressed concern about the driver saying, “I’m taking little white pills, and my eyes are open wide”—as Newman himself agreed, an ironic statement, given Cash’s history—before Dudley recorded it (West, “Jimmy C Newman”).

But the most important writer in the Newkeys catalog was Tom T. Hall. Newman and Key brought Hall to Nashville. His first charted song was “D.J. for a Day,” which reached #9 in 1963. After that, Hall wrote some of Newman’s bigger songs, including “Artificial Rose” (#8 in 1965), “Back Pocket Money” (#10 in 1966), and two songs related to Cajun life, “Louisiana Saturday Night” (#24 in 1967) and “Boo Dan,” about Cajun sausage (#31 in 1969). More importantly for Newman, Hall also wrote “Harper Valley P.T.A.” and several other hits while with Newkeys. Newman sold his share of the company in 1970. While Key continued in the business—and went on to appear as an interviewee in Ken Burns’s documentary on country music—he had the money to fulfill a dream: a 670-acre cattle ranch outside of Nashville, where he rode his horse with an antique saddle that Hall gave him, and which he called Singing Hills in honor of a song by Autry. There he and his wife Mae, to whom he was married for 65 years, hosted, as he called them, “soirees” featuring abundant Cajun food (Braddock 202; Duncan and Burns 265; Hagan 211; Oermann, Rio 144-46).

That Newman remembered his background, both Cajun and country, reflected his awareness of his history in general. Late in life, he recalled his first home in Nashville as “a converted garage apartment,” and therefore tried to help the next generation of artists. In the early 1970s, he brought a young Louisianan, Eddy Raven, to Nashville, where he became a songwriter for Acuff-Rose and a chart-topper as both a songwriter and singer. His company published early songs by Bobby Braddock, to whom Newman offered encouragement; Braddock went on to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame for his songwriting. He provided a job as a bass player to Dana Williams, who became one of the leaders of the popular contemporary country group Diamond Rio. When Marty Stuart was trying to make it as a singer after a long career as an instrumentalist with Lester Flatt and Johnny Cash, Newman gave him a yellow stage suit so that he could look the part—appropriately, given that Newman was among those artists who wore the “Nudie Suits” designed by Hollywood clothier Nudie Cohn, with Newman’s featuring alligators. When Charley Pride became only the second African American to join the Grand Ole Opry as a member, he requested that Newman induct him (Laborde).

Newman’s most famous example of helping another artist came in 1959. A twelve-year-old from East Tennessee visited the Opry, walked up to Newman backstage, introduced herself, and said she wanted to sing. Newman walked over to the segment host, Cash, and told him that he would give up his second number to the girl, whose name he had to double-check. She replied, “Dolly Parton.” Newman later claimed not to remember that moment, but Parton included him on her network television shows and booked him into her Dollywood theme park, always thanking him for giving her the chance to sing on the Opry for the first time (Cooper).[4]

The last time Newman’s band appeared on the Opry was the week after his death—a rare tribute. Duhon played Newman’s theme song, “Alligator Man,” on his accordion, but a beat more slowly than usual, as a kind of dirge. At the time of his death, only three other artists had a longer consecutive tenure as Opry members. His name never appeared on suggested lists for membership in the Country Music Hall of Fame, but he had a distinguished career. More than that, by singing Cajun music at the national level, he helped bring it attention and popularity. Others have contributed to the awareness of the culture and food of the bayous of south Louisiana, but Jimmy C. Newman deserves to be remembered as one of them, and as one of the most important of them. As he said, “as an entertainer I consider myself a country-Cajun. A Cajun identifies very strongly with tradition.” Newman both upheld that tradition and expanded it. As one Louisiana journalist noted, “he took a distinct regional music sung in a different language and popularized it before a national audience…. Jimmy C. Newman put Cajun music on a national stage” (Laborde).

 

References

[1] Music reporter and historian Peter Cooper wrote the most extensive obituary for Nashville’s Tennessean, but I also rely on several obituaries in the wake of Newman’s death (Bernard 46; Broven 61-64; Chicago Tribune A3; “Newman Changed the Way We Listen to Cajun Bluegrass”).

[2] On these other performers, see Escott, Ewing, Schlappi, and Smith. Newman later went on to record “Jambalaya”; interestingly, Williams first offered the song to Hank Snow, who turned it down (Snow with Ownbey and Burris 371-72). Ironically, Snow was born in Nova Scotia. See also R. Brasseaux (159).

[3] The reference to Duhon’s tenure is based on much reading about the Grand Ole Opry. In addition to Kirby, harmonica and piano player Jimmie Riddle worked with Acuff from 1943 until his death in 1982, but was away during part of World War II; fiddle Howard “Howdy” Forrester worked with Acuff for most of the period from 1951 to 1987.

[4] One example of Parton telling the story was on the Opry’s seventy-fifth anniversary special in 2000. Newman told the story on several occasions, always thanking Parton but admitting that he had no memory of the event.

 

Works Cited

“250 years of Cajun culture in La,” Shreveport Times, 6 Feb. 2015, http://www.shreveporttimes.com/story/life/2015/02/06/years-cajun-culture-louisiana/22989341/.

Berger, John. “Cajun album wins again at Grammys,” Honolulu Pulse, 8 Feb. 2015, http://www.honolulupulse.com/2015/02/grammys-regional-roots-2015/.

Bernard, Shane K. The Cajuns: Americanization of a People. University Press of Mississippi, 2003.

Billboard, 22 Feb. 1975.

Braddock, Bobby. Down in Orburndale: A Songwriter’s Youth in Old Florida. Louisiana State University Press, 2007.

Brasseaux, Carl A. Acadian to Cajun: Transformation of a People, 1803-1877. University Press of Mississippi, 1992.

Brasseaux, Ryan André. Cajun Breakdown: The Emergence of an American-Made Music. Oxford University Press, 2009.

Broven, John. South to Louisiana: The Music of the Cajun Bayous. Pelican Publishing Company, 1983.

Carlin, Richard. Country Music: A Biographical Dictionary,

Carr, Patrick. ed. The Illustrated History of Country Music. Random House/Times Books, 1995.

Chicago Tribune, 18 May 1978, A3.

Cooper, Peter. “Jimmy C. Newman Dies at 86,” Tennessean, 22 June 2014, http://www.tennessean.com/story/entertainment/music/2014/06/22/jimmy-c-newman-obituary/11232265/.

Cross, Dominick. “Newman Recalled with Fond Memories,” The Daily Advertiser, 23 June 2014, http://www.theadvertiser.com/story/news/local/2014/06/23/newman-recalled-fond-memories/11292877/.

Duncan, Dayton and Ken Burns. Country Music: An Illustrated History. Alfred A. Knopf, 2019.

“E. ‘Jimmy’ Key Biography.” n.d., http://www.pbs.org/kenburns/country-music/e-jimmy-key-biography/.

Escott, Colin. Hank Williams: The Biography. Little, Brown, 2004.

Ewing, Tom. Bill Monroe: The Life and Music of the Blue Grass Man. University of Illinois Press, 2018.

Folk Songs of the Bayou Country, Decca Records, 1963.

Fuselier, Herman. “Tribute honors country legend Jimmy C. Newman,” The Daily Advertiser, 3 Sept. 2014, http://www.theadvertiser.com/story/entertainment/music/2014/09/03/tribute-honors-country-legend-jimmy-c-newman/15033891/.

“Jimmy C. Newman’s Legacy: The C Stood for Cajun.” Murfreesboro Post, http://www.murfreesboropost.com/whittle-jimmy-c-newman-s-legacy-the-c-stood-for-cajun-cms-39766.

Jobb, Dean. The Cajuns: A People’s Story of Exile and Triumph. Wiley, 2005.

Laborde, Errol. “Jimmy C. Newman,” myNewOrleans.com, 21 Nov. 2006, http://www.myneworleans.com/Louisiana-Life/Fall-2006/Jimmy-C-Newman/.

Malone, Bill C. Country Music, U.S.A. University of Texas Press, 1985.

“Newman Changed the Way We Listen to Cajun Bluegrass,” The Augusta Chronicle, 1 July 2014, chronicle.augusta.com/things-do/applause/2014-07-01/newman-changed-way-we-listen-cajun-bluegrass.

Oermann, Robert K. “LifeNotes: Music Business Vet Jimmy Key Passes,” MusicRow, 5 Aug. 2014, http://www.musicrow.com/2014/08/lifenotes-music-business-vet-jimmy-key-passes/.

Rio, Diamond. Beautiful Mess: The Story of Diamond Rio. TRB Partners, 2009.

Rushton, William Faulkner. The Cajuns: From Acadia to Louisiana. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1979.

Sagner, Stan. “Restaurant review: King Bee is a welcome Cajun oasis in East Village,” New York Daily News, 8 Feb. 2015, http://www.nydailynews.com/life-style/eats/cajun-oasis-king-bee-article-1.2098132.

Schlappi, Elizabeth. Roy Acuff: The Smoky Mountain Boy. Pelican Publishing, 1978.

Smith, Richard D. Can’t You Hear Me Callin’: The Life of Bill Monroe, Father of Bluegrass Music. Little, Brown, 2000.

Snow, Hank with Jack Ownbey and Bob Burris, The Hank Snow Story. University of Illinois Press, 1994.

West, Kay. Around the Opry Table: A Feast of Recipes and Stories from the Grand Ole Opry. Hachette Books, ebook edition, 2009.

http://www.cmacloseup.com/2014/06/23/jimmy-c-newman-1927-2014/.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s