Cover Story

Songbird Sisters

South Louisiana's Ann Savoy teams up with pop icon Linda Ronstadt for their new CD, Adieu False Heart.

Singer, writer and producer Ann Savoy has emerged in recent years as the unofficial liaison between the expanding universe of popular music and the relatively smaller galaxy of south Louisiana's traditional music ' Cajun, Creole and zydeco in particular. While continuing to write and teach about traditional music and performing with a variety of bands (The Savoy Family Band, Ann Savoy and her Sleepless Nights, The Magnolia Sisters), Savoy has managed a supremely difficult task: bringing Louisiana music into pop contexts without sacrificing either fidelity or integrity.

On projects such as Evangeline Made, Savoy married Cajun music with popular musicians from rock, folk and pop circles, such as John Fogerty and Nick Lowe, showcasing the universal appeal of Cajun songs without distorting their soul. For The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood (in which she appears with son Joel) and the forthcoming All the King's Men, Savoy collaborated with renowned O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack producer T-Bone Burnett to render Louisiana music in a classy, realistic fashion ' quite a feat considering Hollywood's longtime habit of cinematically butchering Cajun culture.

On Savoy's latest release, she has found a peer and partner in Linda Ronstadt, who, among many other things, is one of the biggest-selling female artists of the 1970s and nothing short of a pop culture icon. Adieu False Heart, released this week on Vanguard Records, was recorded at Dirk Powell's Cypress House Studio between Breaux Bridge and Parks. Produced by Steve Buckingham, Adieu False Heart features a strong cast of handpicked local musicians, including Chas Justus, Eric Frey and Kevin Wimmer of the Red Stick Ramblers, Sam Broussard of The Mamou Playboys, Dirk Powell and Joel Savoy, as well as an impressive array of Nashville aces: fiddler Stuart Duncan, mandolinist Sam Bush and guitarist Bryan Sutton.

Adieu False Heart is by no means a dancehall romp. As Savoy and Ronstadt (who call themselves The ZoZo Sisters) both readily admit, the music is intentionally thoughtful and measured. A bowed dulcimer couples with low-tuned fiddles, resophonic cello and stately fingerpicked guitar, providing a rich palette for Savoy and Ronstadt's ethereal harmonies. Love is the unabashed theme here, and the album meanders from Louisiana-inflected waltzes to Parisian jazz to the eerie dirge, "Rattle My Cage."

Carefully assembled under the direction of Buckingham, who has been catapulted to the forefront of roots music production in part because of his seamless work on Dolly Parton's recent bluegrass excursions (The Grass is Blue and Little Sparrow), Adieu False Heart strikes a very subtle note, one that benefits from multiple listens. As Ronstadt points out, "It's not aggressive music. It's not loud and jangly. It's not going to grab you by the throat, unless it's the sentiment of it."

Conspicuous among pop stars for her talent as a collaborator, Ronstadt brings the same gifts to Adieu False Heart that she brought to her celebrated duets with Aaron Neville and her trio recordings with Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris: an ability to fuse and uplift, to create something greater than the sum of its parts.

The Independent Weekly spoke to Savoy and Ronstadt last week about Adieu False Heart and their collaboration.

How did the idea for this album initially come together?

Savoy: Well, Linda and I got really good reviews for our cuts on Evangeline Made. People kept saying, "They sing like sisters." So, Linda called me one day and said, "Listen, why don't you just come over, and we'll get our guitars out and sing some songs and see what happens." And I always have a lot of songs. I sing alone in my house. So, I just went and sang her a lot of songs, and she loved them all, and she figured out parts to go with them and we traded vocals, by who did the best lead or harmony on this song. Basically, I brought all the songs except for "Go Away From My Window." And she said, "Well, let's make a demo and see how we sound recorded," so we made a little demo here in Eunice at Joel's studio with The Red Stick Ramblers. They helped us pull together the arrangements and everything. And I sent it to Steve Buckingham ' that's the only person I sent it to ' and he loved it immediately and wanted to put the record out. It was a very short story. And we said, "Do you want to produce it?" And he said, "Yeah, I'd love to."

One of the things I keep coming across in reviews of the album is this idea that it's a pop/Cajun or folk/pop or a Cajun/pop album. What do you think of the word "popular" or "pop" as a category?

Ronstadt: Well, I don't know. I just gave up trying to get into categories years ago, as you may have noticed. I don't think it's a Cajun record by a long shot. There are two Cajun songs on it, but they're more kind of ancient, except for "Plus Tu Tournes," but "Marie Mouri" is more that kind of ancient style. The other song in French is a Parisian song. We just did it in the most backyard way we knew how to do, really. I just think it's a record. These are beautiful songs, and it has a pretty strong female bias, although very many men have called me and said, "That record made me cry." So that made me feel pretty good. Especially my older brother, who's pretty hard-bitten, you could poke a stick in his eye and he wouldn't cry.

Savoy: Well, I hope it'll be popular. I think they're thinking of Linda because she was sort of a pop diva. I think this record really was a foray for her going into a non-pop world. And it's more of a rootsy record. But, I would say it doesn't have a real rough edge on it. It's a very clean, classic record. I like to think of it as a kind of thing that's ageless. It's not pop, it's not raw and funky, but it's timeless music with a timeless subject matter: love. And I agree, it's not a Cajun record. I've been seeing, "This is great, Linda Ronstadt's made a Cajun record!" There are no Cajun songs on it.

It definitely has what I would call an old-worldly feel.

Savoy: As we played these songs, the way these songs touched us was in a really deep way; they're not what you would call light music. So we thought we should layer the music with deeper sounds and drones that go into a certain place in your soul. Linda says it's kind of like a genetic thing; in your genetic memory you hear these old Celtic sorts of sounds. When you hear a bow playing a cello, there are very few people, I think, who don't get the frissons. And I think it's the old genetic thing within us. It's something that we have in our collective memory. There's a bowed dulcimer, which I thought was incredible, from this guy David Schnaufer from Tennessee. And there is a resonator cello, that's that first instrument, and then Dirk [Powell] is using that fretless banjo that has that loose skin on it. We didn't want that tight Appalachian banjo sound. We wanted the plunkety-plunk low sound. Dirk is one of the first people I've heard who has captured the perfection of that sound. He says he always likes the skin on his banjo loose. And I thought that was really interesting. I've heard black banjo players doing that in Virginia.

It sounds like something almost from another era.

Ronstadt: There was something I really admired about the Magnolia Sisters record, and that was that those girls are all quite musical, and they're certainly talented, but they don't sound like show-business people. They sounded more like a 19th-century housewife that didn't have the luxury of being able to play all the time. So their proficiency wasn't at a slick professional level, but was at a talented musical level, and that they had sort of put down their broom or their washtub or whatever they did to just have a luxurious moment of playing their music together, of singing their songs and their joys together. And I love that about that record. I love the quality that it had. And I love the beautiful songs that Ann found. Those foggy, strange old songs that sound like they've really been snatched back from the mists of time, that are in a minor key. A lot of them are a cappella. When I saw she had her hand in that vein of music, I really wanted to see what else she had. She's got a million songs. I've always picked all the songs for my records, except for when I worked with Emmylou [Harris], who has more songs than I do, because she stays up later than I do. And Ann stays up later than I do, too. But Ann just has a million really good songs. And when she'd bring them, we'd be listening to this, listening to that, and I'd automatically put a harmony on something, because she's a true alto to my soprano. It's really nice, because we're not competing for the same airspace. But it does put me in my falsetto voice above her, and it puts her on the lead a lot, which is fine for me because she has such a great feel for those traditional songs.

I watched the interview you both did on Amazon Fishbowl with Bill Maher. The pace of a show like that is so fast, and it must be a challenge to explain such a very nuanced album and the background and genealogy of this music in such a fast-paced medium.

Ronstadt: In fact, he gave us an incredibly long time. You usually don't get that long of a time, like on The Tonight Show and David Letterman. On David Letterman, I probably wouldn't get to say a word. So, he really did, for that medium, give us an unusually long time. I don't have a television, so I've never seen the Bill Maher show in my life. I saw a little bit of a stand-up routine, and I thought he was brilliant. So, I was a fan because I saw that stand-up routine, but I've never seen his show, which I would love to see.

Savoy: He's very intense, to say the least. Linda was right up there with him, and I am a Southern person, and I thought it was funny when he said, "The Collective Bubbahood of the South." You couldn't hear me on the tape, but I said, "Come on, gimme a break." But, you know, I have a much slower vibe, and I was pretty intimidated by him, I have to say. The question he asked me was, "Is the music really good?" and it kind of blew my mind. I thought, how can I answer this question fast enough? So I said, "Wait a minute, this is the land where jazz was invented." And he's so brilliant and intense and he thinks really fast, I would have to sit down with him and have a discussion. I haven't quite mastered the 30-second response to the subject of my life, you know? And this record is all about depth. The songs are really deeply layered. The songs are not like "I love you honey, I met you five minutes ago." It's serious stuff, a lot of it. It's not dancing-at-the-bar music.

Ronstadt: It's very hard because it's hard to describe it. What is this record? We're a duo to start with. We don't sound like me. And they're not quite sure they know who Ann is, unless you're really into roots music, or unless you're into Cajun music, and it's not a Cajun record. So, what do you say about this? It's a record that explores different kinds of love, not just romantic love. By the time you're 60 you've seen it all. And I just turned 60 this last week. It's kind of the collective wisdom of older women, you know, exploring what their lives were like, what their loves were like, their love of their children, their love of their family, their love of their place. There's a lot of a sense of place. And even though it's about Louisiana, and I was born in Tucson, I was raised in very similar way to the way that Ann and Marc live. I grew up as a rancher's daughter. Those kinds of country courtesies. When I was traveling in Mexico as a kid, sometime there was and sometime there wasn't a hotel. In the 1950s in Mexico, you'd go from town to town, you'd know these different ranchers, and they'd extend these courtesies to you. You'd have a place to stay, and have a place to eat, have a ride to somewhere and you could find out who the doctor was if you came down with the sniffles. Their houses were open to you. I felt immediately, in my relationship with Ann, that we were that kind of family to each other. And that was important to me. I like they way they live. I like the way Marc stacks his firewood. That's the thing I recognized, from the way I grew up.

You've both done some regional music, what might be called ethnic music, with the Mexican songs Linda has recorded, and Ann with Cajun music. How do you bring music like this to a wider audience without relying on or enforcing stereotypes?

Ronstadt: Well, you try to stay as true to the musical tradition as you can. That's what I do. I say: "What does the music demand here?" Well, the music demands Appalachian style fiddle, or the music demands Dirk Powell. There's only one of him in the world. You know, nobody else can play like Dirk Powell, and it demands this kind of authenticity. If the question is players, instead of going and hiring some studio sausage, and the studio guys are fabulous players, but, in this case, guys like Dirk, who are virtuoso players, can play this style particular to this region. And this is what we want, right here; we want this style that is common to something within 35, 40 miles of here. And this is a luxury that not very many people have anymore, because the region has been redefined as the international, corporate-controlled Wal-Mart driven society, and there are so little pockets of places in the United States that aren't completely destroyed by that. We're trying to get a sense of that in our music. And we're trying to communicate a sense of that to the public at large. And they'll either like it or they won't. It's not aggressive music. It's not loud and jangly. It's not going to grab you by the throat, unless it's the sentiment of it. It does grab you by the throat in that there's an underlying sense of dread and an underlying sense of sorrow and an underlying sense of joy that seems to be shared by a lot of people. So that's a good thing. You know, I don't know how Vanguard is going to sell this record. I'm glad that's not my job.

Savoy: I always like to do things that are challenging ' that's how I stay alive and energized. And I think, OK, we've been bringing Cajun music in its rawest form out into the world, and there are people that have the understanding, they can grasp it, but how can we reach a bigger arena? How can we get them to hear it in a way that might open their ears, with a quality control that can maybe make people a little more receptive? But it's still a pretty hard sell. People are still totally confused between what's zydeco and what's Cajun. It's astounding to me when I go other places what people don't know about it. I don't know why I'm so astounded; I was raised in Virginia, and I never heard the word Cajun until I was in college. And here's this jewel of a region here with all these fascinating French things going on. I guess that's part of the reason it's survived, let's face it. It's isolation and the fact that it was so protected and didn't get out. And the Cajuns aren't interested in getting it out at all. They don't care whether the outside knows about it at all.

One thing listening to this album made me think of is this idea that keeps coming up in the media lately about a national language. Here in French Louisiana, there are thousands of people who speak French. Is singing in French on so many of these songs sort of a counter-story to the idea that America is culturally homogenous?

Ronstadt: I remember when we were doing the Trio record, you know, Emmy and I were pitching this Cajun song, it was "The Back Door," and Dolly said, "We should just stick to American songs." And I thought, well, this is an American song. So, there is that perception. It's odd. We missed by one vote in the Constitutional Convention having German as our official language. And our cuisine is so much based on German cookery. What we think of as the American farm cuisine ' apple pie and fried chicken ' is strudel and schnitzel. It is. That's completely based on German cuisine, and Danish too. You know, it's a silly thing; there are all these different languages. And Spanish was the language that replaced a lot of the native languages. Where I grew up, people still spoke in Tejano and they still spoke Navajo and they still spoke Hopi, and the Apaches were still around when I was a little kid, and they still are. And those languages were alive, and Spanish was one of the languages which was spoken, and English was another one of the languages, but it was just one of them. So those are all languages of the United States, and we celebrated our regional differences, which I thought was wonderful. I love the fact that New Orleans is way more like a city in the Caribbean. New Orleans has way more culturally in common with Havana than with Monroe, which is in the same state. It's a completely different culture ' it could be on another planet. I love that. Nashville and Memphis were so different from each other. Completely different kinds of music came out of Nashville and Memphis, and they were in the same state. So, I like that. I like regional differences. But we're losing that with this corporate homogenization of culture.

Savoy: I think that this record has a little bit of a watercolor of America. We go from Appalachian and Celtic roots, and there's Cajun. There are three French songs, two of which are Louisiana-inspired. The other one is a 1920s Parisian jazz song which has nothing to do about America, it's just a song I love. There's a little bit of everything in America, and all of us have these certain subjects that link us, regardless of the language: this record is about love in all its forms. It's the Cajun people singing about it. It's the mountain people singing about it. It's the British people singing about it. It's the upper-class French people singing about it. That feeling links us all, that subject matter and that old, old theme.

Music distribution has changed, especially in the last five years, with online distribution particularly. Some people think that online distribution will create new markets for regional music and niche music. What do you think about some of these new patterns in the music business?

Savoy: I think it's incredible. Living in a rural area, I can find anything with a click and a button. I love the way on the Internet they'll have a project and then they suggest projects that seem in a way similar. I think it's brilliant. It's helped me find things that I wouldn't have found otherwise, and, I'm an all-night person, and I can just stay up all night, look at things and listen to them. I think it's opened incredible doors. I get very confused when I go into a music store, because of the way that it's laid out and I'm overwhelmed, but I like the fact that I can hone in with the Internet to something very specific that I'm interested in. I just think it's incredible, and I also love iTunes, where you can get one song. I'll be working on a project, and somebody says "Do you know this song?" and I'll download it and listen. I think it's just incredible.

Ronstadt: Well, I don't know. I'm sorry about the radio because we lost the great American radio when the corporations bought up these great big chains of radio stations. And the local radio doesn't have local ownership, the same as the local newspaper doesn't have local ownership. And not only is that sad, it gets rid of the regionalism, but it's also dangerous, because it means somebody from a central location is controlling the information, and that's called fascism. And I see that we're moving into this fascist culture as fast as we can, that's a corporatocracy. I don't know how the Internet is going to affect it; I think that the Internet is giving us such a glut of product that it's just completely overwhelming, and how do you sort it out?

One thing you hear a lot when people like you or the Dixie Chicks come out and express their opinions is the notion that musicians shouldn't have ideas, they should just placate and entertain people. That strikes me as sort of crazy, because in my experience, good musicians are always questioning things.

Ronstadt: Of course, it's such a tradition, from the ancient troubadours on down. They're there to carry the word, to spread the news, to carry tales. They frame things in moral ways, like those old murder ballads, you know. That was held up as an example of an aberration in behavior, and that's part of the way you define what morality is. Art is there to help us identify our feelings. And if the truth comes out, you're kind of slapped across the face with this recognition of the truth.

The song selection on this album is really interesting. There are songs by local songwriters like Chas Justus and David Greely, as well as songs from John Jacob Niles and Richard Thompson, and "Don't Walk Away Renee" by The Lefte Bank. What was the game plan to the songs you decided to use on the album?

Ronstadt: They were songs we always loved and that Ann is fearless about singing. You know, a song like "Go Away From My Window," I would have thought, Joan Baez sang that 30 years ago and she did such a beautiful job, I shouldn't try it. But the reason I even brought it in to the living room was because I knew the chords and I could play it on the guitar. It was a song I knew. Ann wanted to record it.

"Walk Away Renee" was a song that had always been a secret favorite of my heart. It just never occurred to me that, A) a girl could sing it and, B) I could sing it. It's a song I desperately love and always wished I'd known the words to, because you can't understand them on the Lefte Bank's recording of it. And Ann went and got them off the Internet. The next thing you know, I was making a little harmony to it, and my assistant came in and said, "Oh, I just love that one the best. That's so good." And we recorded it. It just was as simple as that.

Do you plan to record again as the ZoZo Sisters?

Savoy: Absolutely. Well, we have to see how well this record does. And if it does well enough, we want to continue our musical journey. We have so many ideas. We already have more than enough for another album.