No Smoke, but Still Fire

A health scare forced Buckwheat Zydeco to give up cigarettes. He saved himself and his voice.

You've seen those billboards around town--the ones with the gloomy teenagers holding cigarettes and standing in front of the road sign welcoming visitors to Loserville, the town where everyone huffs (Jesse Helms, Mayor).

The population of Loserville recently dropped by one. Stanley Dural Jr., better known as Buckwheat, hasn't lit up in months.

Buckwheat, an accordion/keyboard player and leader of Buckwheat Zydeco, is, on the surface, hardly a loser. In the twenty years he has fronted his band, he has done more than any one artist to expose zydeco to the general public. He has taken a folk music form long confined to the Louisiana bayou country and brought it to the world. In doing that he has paved the highway for an army of young zydeco players to make a living catering to a small but dedicated audience of dancing fools.

Buckwheat Zydeco's resume includes opening and closing President Clinton's second inaugural ball (Vice President Gore is reputed to be one of the group's biggest fans), four Grammy nominations, having songs featured in a slew of motion pictures, accompanying Eric Clapton on his most recent North American tour, and a twelve-night stand at London's Royal Albert Hall and an Independence Day show in 1998 with the Boston Pops orchestra.

His coup de grace, however, might have been performing his version of "Jamba-laya" during the closing ceremonies at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. That put him in front of an audience estimated at three billion worldwide.

A loser? Don't think so. Yet smoking came damned close to finishing Buckwheat's career. It caused him to postpone a scheduled show at Wilbert's in March. He and the band will make up that date June 23.

"Lots of plaque was building up on my throat," Dural says. "There was too much pressure on it, and it was all because of smoking."

Buck's voice had been getting rougher for the last few years, though he blamed it on his constant touring. Then, earlier this year, he found he couldn't sing at all. Something was wrong with his throat. The worst--cancer--was feared. Surgery was considered a certainty.

It didn't happen. A biopsy found a non-carcinogenic polyp on Buck's throat. The answer was to have the throat scraped and treated with vitamins. The decision to give up smoking, however, was left up to Buck. Although he knew it was something he had to do, he nevertheless expresses surprise with the way his voice rebounded.

"When I quit smoking and [doctors] put me on vitamins like vitamin A and E, I started feeling like my voice was getting back to where it once was and where it was supposed to be all along," he says. "This is what I should have sounded like all those years I smoked. I think I'm singing 100 percent better than I ever did."

Talking about his new lifestyle shoves Buck's speech into high gear. Gone is the laid-back Louisiana swamp-cool Buck projects under normal circumstances. In its place is an excited talker who wants to get the words out so fast he stutters while making the effort.

"Quitting smoking probably saved my life," he says. "What happened was a blessing, I guess."

Buckwheat was born in 1947 in Lafayette, Louisiana, one of eleven kids. His father was a professional accordion player, which led Stanley Jr. to take the name Buckwheat when he began showing up as a guest musician on records by soul artists like Joe Tex and Barbara Lynn. It was only after a three-year gig with the "King of Zydeco"--Clifton Chenier and his Red Hot Louisiana Band--that Buck decided zydeco was his meal ticket. He formed his own group to carry on the tradition.

Carry it on he has. While younger zydeco artists have fused the music with more popular styles--soul, R&B, funk, and blues, in particular--Buckwheat Zydeco has kept the music relatively pure. They have succeeded with a musical balancing act, because the band has never been shy about doing a cover version of a song from another genre. Whatever that song might be, it's always been converted into zydeco.

Buck's two decades in the business will be celebrated with a compilation album to be released July 6, called The Buckwheat Zydeco A 20-Year Party. It will be the first multi-label collection of Buckwheat Zydeco material and will include the first-ever live songs the band released, recorded at the Edmonton Folk Festival in Alberta, Canada.

His latest album, Trouble, is his most traditional in many years. It was first released in 1997 on the Mesa/Atlantic label. But turmoil at Mesa--firings and an on-again-off-again decision by the parent company to sell the label--resulted in poor promotion for the record. Buck thought so highly of Trouble that he launched his own label, Tomorrow, to distribute it.

On Trouble, Buckwheat Zydeco has dispensed with the celebrity guests (Clapton, Willie Nelson, Dwight Yoakam, Mavis Staples, and David Hidalgo of Los Lobos have appeared on Buckwheat Zydeco albums) and included only one cover--Robert Johnson's "Crossroad Blues," which Buck renamed "Crossroads." Several of the album's songs are, however, reworkings of traditional Creole tunes.

But while Buck has remained close to the roots of the music, he has no beef with the youngsters who cross-pollinate zydeco. "You have to give the new generation some space," Buckwheat says. "They have to be able to bend things a little. They're coming up with new ideas, but as long as the zydeco sound and the feeling is there, that's okay."

As for the future of zydeco, Buck backs off when asked to offer a prediction. "I'm certainly hoping there's a brighter future," he says. "You have to remember that zydeco has already come a long way, and I hope it will be around for a while."