“If you really want to know how to play the blues? Watch Tab Benoit.”
— B.B. King
[Photo by Drew Stawin]
The Man Who Would Be King
Of The Blues:
By JAC TRICE
“When I hear music, I fear no danger. I am invulnerable. I see no foe. I am related to the earliest times and to the latest.” – Henry David Thoreau
Though those words were written by Thoreau, they easily could have come from Tab Benoit, a hard-driving, multi-award-winning locomotive of a blues guitarist and songwriter out of the bayous of Southern Louisiana. Recognized by all the best in his genre and recipient of a multitude of awards for his prodigiously authentic journey through the blues, he’s an artist who has always maintained a direct and visceral connection with tradition, while forever evolving and moving forward into the musical future.
Having made music professionally for almost three decades, this Louisiana Hall of Fame inductee is still considered a “new guy of the blues.” Beloved for his gravelly, Delta-inspired vocals and candid lyrics, his high-voltage, electric-Cajun-delic concerts never fail to send his audiences, and often his band, into the stratosphere. And beyond.
At a festival in Frisco, Colorado, following an especially rousing version of his original “Bayou Boogie,” his drummer Terrance Higgins seemed completely entertained, while Corey Duplechin, his bassist of twenty years, exclaimed, “Dude! You can’t play that fast at this altitude!”
Yet Tab does project a perpetual air of “fear no danger” as he lyrically, instrumentally and vocally dares you to think he is not serious:
A little pepper makes it fine!
Take it down with some homemade wine!
Get yourself another plate!
Before it gets too late!
While it’s running down your chin
I’m gonna play you bayou boogie again!
I’m gonna boogie!
You’re gonna boogie!
We’re gonna boogie!
C’mon – let’s do that bayou boogie all night long!!
(Repeat like a thousand times and then:
“Y’all, I can’t boogie no mo!!!”)
As a teenager he performed at the extraordinarily rustic Blues Box in Baton Rouge, LA with blues legends Tabby Thomas, Henry Gray, Raful Neal and others who grew up at the knees of the sons and daughters of the founders of the blues – the field hands who bellowed call and response rituals during their dark history and plight. The Blues Box was legendary in the blues world with the likes of Big Mama Thornton, Guitar Kelly, and Silas Hogan regularly jamming on the stage back in the day. Frequented through the years by luminaries such as Paul Newman, Bruce Springsteen and Shaquille O’Neal, The Blues Box was renowned for not for daylight, but for authentic blues.
A direct conduit, not many others can claim these influential elements of the blues with the same authority as he can. Using no pedals or effects, the haunting tones he invokes with those elements from his worn-to-the-grain vintage 1972 Fender Telecaster Thinline are uniquely his, and ethereally stunning. This is not mimicry, this is solid inspiration fed by those Louisiana blues legends who studied under the genre’s founders. And the bayous, where the organic rhythms of music and nature ebb constantly, were the backdrop of Tab’s childhood backyard and where he still makes his home to this day.
Of Cajun descent, he remains devoted to his hometown in Southern Louisiana. His commitment and stewardship are evident in his constant work as an avid environmental conservationist. His mission is to save and ultimately restore this region, which is in constant danger of being washed away, within a generation, due to cataclysmic coastal erosion. This includes New Orleans, the birthplace of Jazz.
(The lack of marshes in Southern Louisiana is contributing to increasingly damaging storms out of the Gulf as the recent flooding in Houston can attest. Tab’s own family has lost 260 acres out of 300 in the last twenty years.)
As founder and President of the nonprofit Voice of the Wetlands organization (“VOW”), Tab has banged the drum of concern for over two decades including a searing testimony to Congress.
In addition to bringing the message on tour through his music, he also oversees an annual music festival, “The Voice of the Wetlands Festival,” every October near the bayous of Houma, Louisiana. The idea is to bring awareness of the national and global adversarial effects of losing the nation’s largest port and the most active foreign trade zone. The festival brings world class talent and regional talent together to discuss and to jam for three days and until the wee hours of the morning. Anyone from Joe Bonamassa to Samantha Fish jam with bayou legends as attendees from around the world find their inner rockin’ Cajun at this growing festival, now recognized as the number one Louisiana festival outside of New Orleans.
In addition, his musical talent continues to be rewarded with industry wide respect as he’s invited at any moment to jam with everyone from Bonnie Raitt and Buddy Guy to Quinn Sullivan and Taz.
Photo by Drew Stawin
Despite all of this, in years past he has shared his reservations about one aspect of his craft: his songwriting.
“All I know is what I feel,” he said to Offbeat magazine. “If it feels good, I do it. When it comes to using my head and writing lyrics, I can’t do it.” This approach has resulted in writings in more recent years that are beautiful because of their lack of complexity – refined only because of the bold internal editing that occurs before the pen hits the page.
His dedication and perseverance extends back to his earliest days in the Baton Rouge blues scene. Those were the days when Tabby Thomas used to escort him out of The Blues Box with a gun because vagrants would have mugged him for his guitar. As one Texan reviewer stated back then, “[Tab] plays as though his life depends upon it.” Probably that writer didn’t know just how true that statement was.
And if further doubts about his convictions still linger, it should be remembered that at the age of twenty he walked away from financial security — a burgeoning pilot’s career and a position in the family oil business — in order to pursue music. In Frisco, when this subject was delicately broached, about his family he said, “Oh, they disowned me!” For the first time, he further elaborates on this in the following interview.
[Photo courtesy of Monica Muil Photography]
A private person and a reluctant, rare interviewee, Mr. Benoit generously spoke for over three hours about all that has driven him, what inspires his works, and what keeps him in the game no matter how difficult or intimidating the counter forces.
In an unapologetic Cajun accent (“What? I have an accent?”) reminiscent of his friend Dr. John, we start Tab’s story with a discussion of his name:
TAB BENOIT: Well, the name Tab means “drummer.” When I was looking up baby names I found my name was in there and it meant drummer [Laughs].
Did your parents know that when they named you?
No. I told my mom that later and she said, “Well, there you go.”
[Laughs] How did they come up with the name Tab?
My mom liked the name Tab like Tab Hunter who was an actor back in the ’50s. She said she wanted to give me a name that nobody could have a nickname to. So, they wouldn’t shorten it and give me a nickname. Her family and her siblings all had nicknames and she hated it. She was like I want to give you a nickname [Laughs] right off the bat.
You started playing the guitar at nine. How young were you when you started playing the drums?
Before I was born!
Really? How so?
Well, according to my mom, I was kickin’ in the womb to whatever music was being played and there was a lot of music being played (everyone played an instrument – family, neighbors and friends).
My earliest memories are of sitting at a drum set, before I could walk, and swinging my foot into the drums.
Is it true you didn’t love the guitar you got for your ninth birthday?
No, actually I thought (the guitar) was cool, but I felt that I would give it to my little brother and teach him how to play guitar so that I could play drums along to something or with somebody and I just noticed that there were no drums anymore! [Laughs] The seed was planted though and I was determined to play music on something and if that’s what we had, then that’s what we had.
Though you’ve been playing professional for 20 years now, you’re still considered one of the new guys on the scene —
Well, you know, when you have guys like B.B. King and Buddy Guy and all those guys that live to be ripe old ages and still out there you know kickin’… You know B.B. was still out there playin’ until the end. Till 89. I opened for B.B. for his last full show.
So, I mean when those guys are in their eighties [laughs], I guess I am the new guy! That’s the way I look at it…as far as the blues goes…it seems they all live to be an old age, y’know?. And still playin’ and still doin’ well. I mean Buddy’s gonna turn eighty like next month I think…
Wow. He does not look it.
No. And he’s still full of energy and he’s still full of fire…and still sings and plays as good as he ever has. So I am the new guy and I’m fine with that! It doesn’t really matter when it comes down to it. As long as someone out there knows what I do. My whole philosophy is that if there are at least more people in the crowd than we have in the band, we’re good. I only have a three piece band, so four people is a show!” [Laughs]
When you got that call to be in the B.B. King tribute for the final show of Jazz Fest this year, how did you feel in that moment?
Well, Quint Davis (director and producer of the New Orleans Jazz Fest) called me himself and I was like, “Are you sure?” There are so many legends out there that I’m sure would have loved to be a part of that and he wanted to make sure that I was on it. Quint is a friend and a fan and he really listens and you know he comes out and sees me even on a normal basis you know – just out of the blue he’ll show up at shows in New Orleans and we’ll talk and a lot of times we’ll talk at one of my shows about the next Jazz Fest.
He put me on before Eric Clapton a couple of years ago. He definitely puts me in spots where people that might like what I am doing are gonna see me. So, you know I have to say that hands on, he’s trying to help get me in front of an audience that would probably appreciate what I am doing. And he knew that I played that gig with B.B. for that last show that he did and the history with me and B.B. so, you know.
The year before I opened for Buddy Guy (at Jazz Fest) and I had just played that (last) show with B.B… And me and Buddy were talkin’ about it and he was disappointed because they wouldn’t let him see him once they put B.B. King on hospice. They wouldn’t let Buddy see him. And Buddy and him were really great friends for years and years and years. So, he was kind of saddened by that so me and him up there together doing a tribute that’s an unbelievable thing you know. It’s one of those shows I’ll never forget. That’s definitely one of the highlights of my entire life right there. All in one place you know on that stage I mean … it‘s just really, really cool you know?
Well, and I can tell you that those of us out in the crowd knew it and felt it as well. Your connection with your audience is always remarkable and pure. Is that something you do on a conscious level every time? Or simply let it happen?
The only real conscious thing that I do is that I don’t control what is going to happen. I really want the moment to dictate itself to us and let us all take the moment for what we want to take out of it. That means me, the band and the entire audience. You know everybody there is a part of that moment. I like the fact that it takes the pressure off of me. When I allow the moment to dictate what’s going to happen and I don’t have to think about it.
I learned that from guys like B.B. King, Albert Collins and Buddy Guy – all of those blues guys – that’s what they did. When I saw Albert Collins at Tipitina’s – in the audience I felt like I was a part of that show. You could feel it. That’s what I wanted to achieve when I was going to do it. This is before I was known as a professional musician and I would go see bands. That’s all I wanted to achieve was the same thing they were achieving. I wasn’t trying to copy their playing or anything like that. I just wanted to try to make the audience feel the way they made me feel when I was in their audience. Doing it, getting out there, basically blind, it figures itself out. It’s more powerful than me. Who am I to try to control it, you know?
Not only that, but look at how many different venues we have to play, different size places and different size crowds and some of them are standing and want to dance and some of them are seated and want to listen. You can’t really work a rehearsed out show and have that work, universally, with every audience and every venue and every moment that we play. So I leave the moment open to itself then the show takes care of itself, you know?
A couple years ago I played a guy’s surprise birthday party in his garage. What happened was I ended up playing drums all night while he played my songs [Laughs] on guitar and sang. That’s what he wanted to do so that was fine with me. That was his favorite show he’d ever seen me play in! [Laughs] I barely sang or played any guitar. But that’s what the moment wanted, that’s what he wanted, we go with it…
Photo by Drew Stawin
How long did it take you to learn to go with the moment in your live shows?
Not long. As soon as I started playing blues in front of people. The first blues jam I ever went to. That’s where it starts because you don’t know the band and we had never played with these guys before and you gotta get up there and try to not to run anyone out of the audience! [Laughs] That’s the first thing you do the first time you go jam with a blues band – just try not to kick anyone out by sounding bad. I think it starts right there.
You know the blues is a simple formula as far as the structure of the song. Then it’s just a matter of improvising the emotional parts and the moments that are happening right now. I couldn’t think about being nervous so hey, just let the nervousness be part of it. That can be energy.
Do you still get nervous up there?
No. I mean I was doing comedy for awhile so that pretty much killed the whole nervousness thing while playing music. I mean if I can walk out there with a couple more people, hey man that helps a lot. When you’re doing comedy you’re by yourself. I used to get so nervous at the beginning of that… that I had to be the nervous guy. That was my persona on stage, you know? And it worked. I got hired and I got gigs. And I got paid for it! [Laughs]
Yes, it’s said that comedy is the most difficult art form —
Yeah. You know, nothing I did in life was wasted. Everything I tried ended up working its’ way into what I do. And making it what it is. Keeping it comfortable and keeping it alive I guess? Music needs to be alive. It needs to be a living thing which means it’s constantly changing and moving. And it’s got to find a way to survive. I don’t want to stop that. The only thing I can do is stop that from happening.
Photo by Drew Stawin
In terms of your songwriting, you have an exceptional penchant for being concise and direct. How do you achieve that? How do you keep your writing concise, yet beautiful?
Well, from my perspective what it comes down to — and I think many songwriters are in the same bag with me — and that’s the one element we don’t want to be is cheesy! [Laughs] Every songwriter. Let’s just try not to be the cheesy guy. A lot of times what makes it cheesy, is over -thinking things. Trying to squeeze something in there that really doesn’t belong, but hey it’s gotta rhyme so we gotta throw it in there. There is always something in a song that does that.
I think the one thing that I do and I do it the same as I do shows or anything else and it’s – I let it write itself. If I have to haggle on it, I usually just throw it away. I am not a guy that goes out and writes a hundred songs and then picks the best four of them for the album. I write twelve songs and they are all going to go on the album. There’s no filler. So that means every song has to mean something and every song has to come up naturally.
If you look at interviews with songwriters who had hits, usually the biggest hit that they ever had was the song that they wrote in three minutes. It took as long to write it on the paper as it did to write the song. That says something right there.
I gotta play this stuff every night too. If it’s something that I don’t like right off the bat, then why would I record it and then put myself through that every night of having to play a song that I don’t like? [Laughs] And it’s not comfortable. The songs that are the most comfortable are the ones that I finish. When they’re comfortable, they’re natural and when they’re natural, they’re organic and they’re real and that’s not cheesy, you know?
An example of that would be your song “Nice and Warm”, which you almost didn’t record —
Well, because that was my first experience in a studio and I wrote the song the night before we went into the studio. It woke me up basically. And I thought that I’d heard it before. So, I didn’t think it was my song. The whole song was there, I could hear it in my head and it kept waking me up and I couldn’t sleep and I was going into the studio for the first time with a record label behind me to record the first ever recording that I was going to do that would go out to the public and so you know there were some nerves there and anxiousness and I really thought when I woke up that I’d heard the song somewhere else.
So I wrote down the lyrics and when I woke up they were all there… and as the day went on we recorded like four or five songs. I mean, right before we were about to pack up I said “Well, let’s just play this one. I got this song. I don’t know where it came from, but let’s just play it.” And the first take is what went on the record. We played it once…
The band had never heard it; I had never played it before… It was just a song I‘d heard in my head and y’know come to find out nobody else had written it so… [Laughs]
Thank goodness right?
Right! Alright, cool. I’ll put my name on it then! [Laughs]
…You know some good friends got together
And they took me away
From this old alley
To a warm place I could stay
And I can’t wait to get back home
Where the sun is always… nice and warm
You know I am so happy to be here with you all
And that old nasty chill is gone…
Does it amaze you sometimes that a song that maybe almost did not end up on that CD catapulted you on to the world stage?
Yeah, I do think about it and the only thing that would have kept me from doing it was me. And that’s one of the lessons I learned from that was “Hey man, stop talking yourself out of it and just go do it. Don’t be afraid of it, just do it, let it happen the way it’s going to happen.
I can’t say that I have ever recorded an album to where I went “Wow, that’s great shit” y’know? I really don’t care to listen to my own stuff and I think that’s normal. Let the audience judge whether it’s good or not. It’s not for me to make a call if it’s good or not. If it’s honest I can live with it. If it’s not then I can’t. That’s all that I try to accomplish. Same way in the writing part of it too, y’know? It all works together and it all really comes out the same way to me. It’s all just throw it out there, be honest, let it happen. I just want it to be honest…
Sure. Good, bad or indifferent, it’s honest.
Right. I mean there are songs that I recorded that I never thought an audience would like… [Laughs]. But, there was something that had to come out and then you go play shows and that’s the one their requesting all the time. So who am I to be the judge of that? That’s for them to judge…
“Night Train” is one of your most requested songs and it connects with the older and younger audiences alike.
That’s another one of those four minute songs – don’t think about it, don’t over think it, just go play it… I think that’s the concept that always connects with people. It seems the ones that there are the most requests for are the simpler songs…
…I’m a night train baby
Rolling nine hundred miles
Can’t you hear me comin’
Ain’t stopping ‘til the morning light
Keep it burnin’ baby
Got that fuel for my fire
You know – smokin’ that track thru Memphis
Ain’t stoppin’ ’til the morning light
Photo by Drew Stawin
Ain’t no time for trouble baby
I got my midnight burnin’ bright
Keeping one eye on the crossroad
I ain’t stoppin’ ‘til the mornin’ light…
As far as trying to reach an audience, I get younger people that talk to me about what’s the best advice I could give them. And I always tend to gravitate toward telling them that if no one in that audience has ever heard of you, you have to find something that’s somewhat familiar to that audience so that they will stop and listen.
I have heard artists say “Well, I’m just going to go out there and play my show. If they like it, they like it. If they don’t, they don’t.” Well that’s fine if you are not trying to be a professional. You know there’s two different things here. A professional artist is selling artwork. So you have to have something that is attractive to the audience that’s going to potentially buy your artwork. Being a professional means you have to sell it. If you are being a pure artist for yourself – then it doesn’t matter. Then you don’t have to worry about anyone buying it.
I always try to tell the younger people – I’m not saying you have to play a burnt out everybody-has-to-do-it kind of song. I’m not saying you have to do “I Got My Mojo Workin”. You can do an original song, but if it has some kind of familiar element to an audience, you have a better chance of hooking them in. Then you can show them something that they have never heard before.
Photo by Drew Stawin
I still think there is an element of something recognizable that draws the audience in and it seems to work with bands that are coming up. Every time I see a new act the big song that gets everybody hooked on them is something that’s familiar and it’s something that is simple. It’s not some complicated piece of music that everyone has to go “wow” on…
How soon in your career did you learn this?
Well, I started writing as soon as I got a guitar. I think the first thing I played on the guitar was something I had written. It seems I can remember writing a song about a car. I wasn’t old enough to drive yet so I dreamed my dream car or something. I remember playing it for my babysitter and she said, “Wow! That’s good!” So she had me record it on a little tape recorder for her. I was like “cool!” You know it was the kind of thing where I just had something to say with music.
The first time you walked into the Blues Box and there is Tabby Thomas, what immediately went through your head?
First time I walked in there, I got there early so I could meet him and talk to him. I got there so early he was unlocking the front door himself. He was stocking the bar because there was a jam session that night. I showed up ridiculously early, but it gave me a chance to sit and talk with him and get to know him. And he was like “Well alright, y’know before you get up and play your stuff, you gotta play with me first.” And I was like well alright, that’s even better! [Laughs] That’s what I was hoping would happen!
And did you feel like you were ready?
Yeah! Oh yeah, because I was playing around Houma and Thibodeaux and trying to put blues around here and it really wasn’t clicking that well. People were like “Man, what you doin’ playin’ blues stuff man?” They wanted to hear Classic Rock or Country or something like that. Something “familiar”, y’know? [Laughs] So, I was like well I’ll play this Jimi Hendrix version of this song. [Laughs] And, I’ll play the Allman Brothers version of that song. “Hey, alright cool!” And they would start listening.
And then one guy came up to one of those jam nights. I used to host a jam night here in town every Tuesday and he came up to me and said “Man, if you want to play blues you gotta go to Tabby’s Blues Box in Baton Rouge.”
So, when I went over there the first thing Tabby told me was, “You see that sign on the wall?! It says Tabby’s Blues Box and Heritage Hall! We don’t play nothin’ but blues in here. A lot of you young guys, y’all come in here and y’all want to play rock ‘n roll. That ain’t gonna happen! We just do the blues – strictly blues!” I was like “THANK YOU!! I can’t wait! This is what I have been waiting to hear!” So, it was like a welcoming mat to me. It was like hey come on in – this is the place for ya, y’know?
As you well know, the blues over the last thirty or so years has had its’ heyday and then it waned. Fortune Magazine recently predicted that the blues is about to experience an unprecedented resurgence. What are your thoughts on this?
Well, pop and all of that other stuff all came from blues. Blues was the original form of American music. So, I think what happens is people come out with tricks in the pop world of music and then the audience gets smart to the tricks. And then they figure out well that’s just a trick now, so they start looking for something real again and there’s the blues – it’s always there – it’s always on the back porch.
The front porch might look prettier, and it might have all of the flowers and the wreath on the door, but the back porch drives the whole house hold. That’s where you go out and watch the birds and drink coffee in the morning and talk about real stuff. The big decisions are made on the back porch, not the front.
Would you advise the upcoming generation to learn that?
It’s a good place to start. You know forget the flash – the attractant. You know there are a lot of young blues artists out there who are fishing. And I kind of equate it to fishing. You go out there and you want to throw a big old shiny lure, but sometimes the fish just want the plain old worm. And that’s the one go to thing that they will always bite on no matter what time of year. Because if you use artificial ones you have to change colors and you have to change styles and you have to keep changing with the season and try to keep up with the fish, but hey the old worm still always works.
It kind of goes back to what we were saying about something familiar. The blues really is the most familiar, in musical terms, for everybody. It’s the one simple formula of music that just cuts to the bone and everybody can appreciate. It’s just not always in the forefront where everybody can directly see it, but when they hear it – hey it’s familiar – no matter what style of music they listen to…
B.B. King once said that if you want to know how to play the blues, watch Tab Benoit. How did that strike you?
Well, I don’t know. That’s a shocking statement to me. I did hear that and I had people talk to me that met B.B. and he told them to come see or listen to me. You know maybe he just understood where I was coming from. I am sure he did in that he was a very smart person and musically intelligent also. I know he really knew the difference between the real stuff and something that was fake. The first time I opened for him he sat beside the stage and watched my whole show.
Wow – no pressure right? [Laughs]
No! [Laughs] And, I kept looking over there! I figured he would walk away at some point, but he didn’t. Man, he stayed there until I walked off the stage and I walked right up to him and he invited us to join him on his bus and hang out with him after his show. That’s how cool he was and how generous he was. The only thing I can think was that maybe he was seeing the honesty that was there. You know and I gave him my full attention every song.
First of all, remember I don’t know what is going to happen next so I have to give my full attention. When you play in the moment you are forced into paying extra attention because you don’t know what is coming next. Nothing is rehearsed. The band doesn’t know what’s coming next so I have to lead them around also. And the audience doesn’t know…
Sure. So you have to stay present no matter what and bring your best game…
Yeah. Look, I know from being a fan of other people and an audience member – because I like to listen as much as I like to play – I notice instantly when the band is distracted or not fully into what they’re doing. I have seen huge artists where people have paid hundreds of dollars to sit in the seat and watch and I’m going “Man, I can’t even sit through this whole thing.”
I have to go somewhere else – just to see something where somebody is trying. I am talking even Karaoke night at the lounge at the Holiday Inn would be better than that! Because whether people can sing or not doesn’t matter because at least everybody that is getting up there is trying. And I appreciate that more than I appreciate a great singer walking up there who is just going through the motions. So I try, no matter who is listening or watching, to give it my full attention.
You mentioned rehearsal. It’s surprising to learn that you don’t rehearse. I imagine there were a lot of family jams growing up where no one rehearsed, you just showed up and did your best. Is that what you did?
Because it is quite stunning that you don’t rehearse —
I think it’s stunning to have a rehearsal!” [Laughs] You have to do the same thing. You may as well be working in an assembly line job if you are going to do that. You have to keep putting that screw in that hole every time you see that hole come around. And I feel for those people. I know somebody has to do that job. That doesn’t fit me and it doesn’t fit artwork in general, because we are trying to sell artwork. We’re artists. I am a live artist. So, I am painting a picture and it’s a different picture with a different canvas every night. But, it’s a musical picture.
It’s like if you hired Van Gogh, you wouldn’t ask him to paint the same thing again–
Yeah, I just want you to do ‘Starry Starry Night’ man. [Laughs] Yeah, just do that, I like that one…It would be like a paint again request, right? So, I think that in this genre I am in it is not only open for that, but it’s what it demands.
Photo by Drew Stawin
One of my favorite Lightnin’ Hopkins albums is one of the last ones he did where a guy found him in a boarding house in Houston – they all thought he was dead. They actually kind of kicked him and this guy took a recorder, a guitar and a bottle of gin and went to his (Hopkins) rental shack and sat down and just recorded him holding a microphone up to him and his guitar. This is a whole albums’ worth of material that Lightnin” Hopkins wrote right then. It was like ‘this is happening now”. He didn’t even own a guitar. This is powerful stuff. It doesn’t get more powerful than that.”
Back in the day when you were at The Blues Box, did you know who these old blues guys were?
I knew they were important in the blues world, but I also knew them as friends and family. They treated me like family from day one. Tabby, Raful Neal and Henry Gray and all of the people there just treated me like I was part of the family. I guess it would be like if your Grandpa was famous. You know he might be famous to the rest of the world, but really when it comes down to it your relationship with him is that he’s still your Grandpa. You just want to hang around with him because he’s cool. This is my cool Grandpa who happens to play music…
Do you think that without the experience that you had playing with these guys, would you have a different career today?
There would be something that would be different. I can’t say exactly how different it would be. I mean there was definitely a drive on me to be a live musician. I was getting a lot of encouragement from people around me. I mean for me to quit the job that I had. You know I went through a lot of schooling and all of that just to become a pilot. You know that’s not a cheap occupation to get involved in. You know my parents spent a lot of money.
You basically had to disconnect from your family to launch your career. What advice do you give to young musicians facing that same kind of adversity, especially on the family level?
That’s a tough thing to try to encourage some young person to go against their family. I don’t know that I would actually ever be able to do that. But, I would tell them this – you’ll know it when it hits you because there won’t be any other decision in your way. If it presents itself to you that strongly like it did to me then there’s only one way to go. It takes all the options out of it.
Because you know before that I had so many options. Because you know I was doing comedy and I was doing music on the weekends and stuff like that. And I was racing cars and racing motorcycles and I was good at a lot of those things and you know I grew up in the oil field support business and the machine shops so I can weld and I can machine and I can do all that kind of stuff. There was a lot of things I could have done for a living.
And before that it was like there were too many choices and it made the decision very difficult to make. And so I chose flying because it was something that interested me in this area and the oil field business and there was work for that here. And I liked the fact that it’s that singularity kind of thing where once the wheels leave the ground it’s on me and I enjoyed that. I liked not being stuck in an office or behind a machine or something like that.
It plays in the same way in my being in music and comedy and performing. You get up there and it’s on you. You’re on your own up there. Once you start you know you have to land! [Laughs] And it was a similar kind of thing, but it just got to the point where I was getting more offers to play music and I was offered more money to play music than I was making as a pilot (for Hammond Air of Houma, LA). So then financially I was giving up a job where I was making less money to go do a job where I was making more money and doing a job I love to do. And so it was a no brainer.
Yet it must have been hard to tell your parents music was to be your life, and not business.
You almost have to be a kid to make that decision, to where you’re going to have time if it doesn’t work to recover from it. And you got to start this before you have a family and responsibilities. Because you are not going to be able to support a family at the beginning you know? And if you can, someone else is going to be in charge of your career and that means you signed a deal with somebody who controls you and that’s a horrible thing to have to try to get out of. So, I don’t wish that on anybody. I get scared of record deals, you know?
At the VOW Festival
Now you’re at a juncture where you can take on other things in addition to your live performance career and recording career, most notably founding the non-profit VOW. And once again you find yourself in an adversarial position. Not just with some of the oil corporations, but perhaps with some family members.
Well, the truth always wins. When you know the difference – when you know the truth versus what you’re told – you’re kind of forced into a position where you either lie to yourself and just continue to listen to the garble you are being fed or you step up and try to uphold the truth knowing what it is.
I learned so much from flying along the coast of Louisiana that I saw it from a bird’s eye view and there was no mistaking what I was seeing. It got to the point that I kept my pilot’s license up and I was able to show people who were trying to contradict me what I was seeing. So, I was able to cut out all the middle man stuff and say if you want to know where I am getting my information from, here it is. Because when you have the truth on your side, you don’t have to worry about it. It takes care of itself and there’s nothing to hide.
And that’s the reward for doing this. I mean, I don’t know that I will ever be able to get anything fixed on the ground, but I know for sure that I will be able to go out there and hold up some element of truth in all of this. Every time something happens down in Louisiana the world is like “what happened”?
There’s a big reward there for everybody in this country, not just me, for upholding the truth. It’s our duty. They were actually welcoming me in those big doors (Congress). They wanted to hear what I had to say. And, we have to be proactive in protecting our rights. We can’t take it for granted that our elected officials in Washington are going to protect our rights. That’s actually our job…
So, with infinite personal sacrifices including losses in Katrina and Rita and probably more to come, Tab has become the town crier for the region and potentially the nation. An ongoing David against Goliath story, he prefers influence over credit any day of the week…
Ma cherie, she has left me for good.
After I gave my love for so long.
She’s out there with somebody new
And I just can’t sit here alone, no
But it’s so hard to drive with these tears in my eyes
And it takes a long time to get to Baton Rouge
And all I want is to hear somebody play my song
Lord when a Cajun man gets the blues.
When I’m feeling the weight of the water
Lord I know that there’s blues in the Quarter
If I could hold back my tears and make it there.
I’d be alright
But I might need you, New Orleans, every night
Now when I’m feeling the pain, the bayou’s
Calling my name
And that’s an offer I can’t refuse
Oh it’s hard to miss you Louisiana
When a Cajun man gets the blues
An Afterword from the Writer:
At the 2013 Wanee Festival in Live Oak, Florida, Tab is invited up onstage by the late Gregg Allman and his son, Devon Allman, to join them for a rousing eight minute rendition of “One Way Out.” Afterwards, to the immense ovation of screaming hoots and hollers from the standing crowd, the musicians take their bow. Flanking Tab Benoit is Gregg Allman on his right and Devon Allman to his left – a bridge between past and present.
As Thoreau wrote, “I am related to the earliest times and to the latest.”
Research Support: LBC Consultants
Learn more about VOW, The VOW Festival, and The VOW All-Stars at:
Movies: Hurricane on the Bayou (IMAX) starring Tab Benoit, Amanda Shaw and the wetlands challenges. Narration provided by Meryl Streep.