Living Ind

The Gospel According to Horace

by Dege Legg

October 27, 2010

Cajun standard bearer turned zydeco mixologist Horace Trahan is back with his best record yet. By Dege Legg

Some musicians take the straight road - smile when told to smile, jump when told to jump. Play this. Play that. Don't do this. Avoid that. The result is usually a predictably tidy career that refuses to challenge the God-awful staying power of the status quo. Horace Trahan is not one of those musicians. Horace Trahan is a seeker.

October 27, 2010

Cajun standard bearer turned zydeco mixologist Horace Trahan is back with his best record yet. By Dege Legg

Photo by Robin May

Some musicians take the straight road - smile when told to smile, jump when told to jump. Play this. Play that. Don't do this. Avoid that. The result is usually a predictably tidy career that refuses to challenge the God-awful staying power of the status quo. Horace Trahan is not one of those musicians. Horace Trahan is a seeker. An enigma. A prairieland prophet. And maybe even a country mystic of sorts. Since tuning in, dropping out, turning on, and then cleaning up and coming back again, he's bucked the trends and traditional expectations forced upon him only to return stronger and more confident, yet more humble and more human than ever.

"I started playing accordion when I was 15, learning from my cousin Felix Richard who also taught Zachary Richard," says the 6' 4" Trahan. Raised in the country town of Ossun, he was surrounded by old time Cajun music. "I always loved music. I could always make a little rhyme or a song about anything - didn't matter what," says Trahan. But the catalyst was hearing Wayne Toups on the radio during high school; it lit the spark that sent him on his journey. In addition, Trahan was a natural on the accordion. Within six months he had a paying gig at Prejean's. "I was pumped up about that," he says.

After playing guitar and touring the country and Europe in DL Menard's band, Trahan recorded and released his debut CD, Ossun Blues (Swallow Records), in 1996. Composed of old time Cajun songs as well as originals written in that style, the album sold well enough for Trahan to put his own band together. The result: Horace Trahan & The Ossun Express. The band distinguished itself quickly, playing festivals and clubs in and out of state with their timeless renditions of the old tunes as well as Trahan's amazing gift for writing originals that effortlessly mirrored the old masters.

Already eager to branch out and explore new territory, Trahan shuffled the deck in 2000 and reformed his band with all new members - dubbing it The New Ossun Express - composed of open-minded musicians game for creative challenges and unhindered by excessively puritanical attitudes about genre. Trahan signed a three-album deal with the Zydeco Hounds record label and soon released back-to-back ground-breaking albums: Get On Board (1999) and then its logical extension, Reach Out and Touch a Hand. The albums were marked departures from the reverent traditionalism of his debut. The loose camaraderie of the band lent itself to limitless experimentation where the group would effortlessly swing from old time two-step to contemporary zydeco.

Both records were critical and commercial successes on the regional roots music scene, fueled by the band's danceable zydeco boogie. Songs like "High School Breakdown" struck a chord with people looking for something new and fresh in the genre. However, there were also old guard detractors and cultural gatekeepers, distressed by Trahan's new zydeco-influenced direction, who loudly voiced their disappointment.

Trahan was unrepentant about his musical influences -  Iry LeJeune, Hank Williams, Hank Williams Jr., George Jones, John Delafose, Beau Jacque, Clifton Chenier, Bob Marley and Bob Dylan. And he didn't deny other less obvious influences that teenagers growing up in Louisiana were then being exposed to. "There was a lot of clubs that turned us down, but I'm a child of the 80s. As a kid, I'd be watching MTV with The Beastie Boys, Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden, Duran Duran and Def Leppard. I was one them little kids with a jean jacket and my Judas Priest patch on it. I loved all that stuff," says Trahan. "So when the traditionalists complained about the new directions we was going in, I felt like they was trying to keep me in a box, when I love all kinds of music."

"That Butt Thing" was the breakout tune on Reach Out and Touch a Hand. To the surprise of everyone, the rollicking two-minute ode to women's derrières became one of the those freak songs that broke out and never came back down to earth. "We weren't even going to put that song on the record. We were just clowning around in the studio, playing this stupid little song, cutting up," says Trahan. "When it came out, it turned into some kind of monster." Initially surprised, and possibly flattered, by the response, Trahan was soon haunted by the thought of being remembered only as the creator of a disposable piece of sexist kitsch. For a serious musician, attempting to succeed in a difficult industry where pop fluff tends to outsell - and easily out-hype artistic merit - the curse of being anchored to a novelty hit was a heavy and conflicting burden to stomach. At once the artist is grateful for the interest yet conflicted about the stigma of the legacy.

Live performances of the song were met with lewd audience displays. Trahan, who was raised Catholic in a stable and loving household, had mixed feelings about performing the song live. "They had women at shows shaking their asses all up in my face. I was a single young man, but the whole thing put me in conflict with the way my parents had raised me. They had us in church every Sunday, so it was like a war in my head."

Although response to the band was overwhelmingly positive, there was also some old school, Jim Crow-style hostility in various quarters from those uncomfortable with Trahan's racially integrated band. "When we started playing the zydeco, I wasn't anticipating the bad reaction. I just wanted some freedom with my music and to play whatever the hell I wanted with musicians who wanted to do the same. Didn't matter if they're black or white. But some of the crowd came at us hard and disrespectful."

After being asked to headline a benefit in Duson, Trahan was informed by an organizer of the event that he did not want any "n***ers" in his club or in the bands performing. "I told him, them people you call n***ers are my partners and they are my band, man.' Needless to say, we didn't go." At another gig at Gilton's in Eunice, audience members - much like those at early Sex Pistols gigs - antagonistically spat and cussed at the band in response to the musical and ethnic diversity. Not good. "Halfway through the set, they all shot out and left." Even a well-known record label owner from Acadiana once informed Trahan that his interracial band would not last three months. A decade later, the band is going strong.

Frustrated with the purists critical of his new direction, the occasional racist treatment of his band members and the frightening proposition that he'd go down in history as a one-off novelty artist, Trahan decided to drop out, tune in and turn on. Not necessarily in that order.

After disbanding the group in 2003 and signing off the rights to "That Butt Thing" to avoid contractual disputes with his record label (Zydeco Hounds) - thereby publicly distancing himself from the tune - Trahan's journey took an odd, sloping left turn into a variety of darkness usually reserved for psychedelic rock stars from the '60s, much in contrast to the general perception of Cajun musicians as anachronistic personifications of a more innocent time.

"Fred Charlie (owner of Zydeco Hounds) said we're going to do this one of two ways. Either you're gonna sign it ("The Butt Thing") over to me or we're going to go to court," says Trahan. "At the time I was 21. I didn't have no money to go fight nobody in court. I gave it away." Charlie eventually re-released Reach Out and Touch a Hand as That Butt Thing, further exploiting the novelty and reportedly reaping some hefty revenue from the sustained popularity of the song.

Troubled and searching for some peace of mind, Trahan dove back into the religious certainty of the church and God, regularly attending services with family and friends to cleanse his mind. But his mind wasn't right. Or it didn't stay right for long. Sunday services, the Bible and holy hymns slowly gave way to the devil's diversions: whiskey, weed, powder and pills. During this time, Trahan made a brief reappearance on the music scene, playing an acoustic guitar and singing politically tinged songs like "The Government's Been Crooked Since Day One" and the weed-ode "Legalize It." Then he vanished. Again. That short-lived phase gave way to more drug abuse and exploratory darkness that eventually came to a wobbly and deflated halt when Trahan entered a local rehab facility and spent the subsequent year and a half in recovery from his cumulative addictions until his discharge in 2007.

"Looking back on it now, I shouldn't have given a f**k what anybody said, but I was young at the time and I let a lot of stuff get to me. But I don't blame nobody else for it," says Trahan. "Now I'm good. It'll be four years clean in January. I still drink my little beers, make some meetings, but I don't mess with any of that other stuff."

Trahan, who never stopped writing music during his self-imposed exile, began cautiously dipping his feet back into performing, playing with the Doucet/Huval Band. "I didn't know if I could go back to playing music without getting back into drugs." After meeting his future wife Chantelle, Trahan's confidence grew. She provided additional stability to the equation, encouraging him to take control of his music career by starting his own publishing company and record label, which he did upon reforming The New Ossun Express and recording his newest CD, Keep Walking. Released in October, it is a slamming collection of songs, pumping with roots rock, fevered zydeco, prairieland Cajun, country R&B and even zyde-hop, as evidenced on the ultra catchy, rap-influenced "HD TV." With no lame tracks on the entire disc, it's an infectiously hooky batch of tunes that explores the core values of modern Acadian culture while lovingly pushing the boundaries of what qualifies as Cajun and zydeco music.

"I got a bad trust issue with the music industry," says Trahan. "But I'm just trying to get this music out as far as I can on my own. I got kids, now, and I'm proud of every song on there."

Since reemerging from the darkness, Trahan and his band have played numerous festivals, traveled and reestablished themselves as one of Acadiana's best bands, consistently drawing big crowds at each outing.

As to the nature of his music's appeal to fans, Trahan is modestly stumped. "It's a mystery. I really don't know why they like my music."

What about "The Butt Thing"?

"It's all good," says Trahan. "I'm cool with it now."

Nowadays, Trahan works a day job for the school board, invests quality time with his wife and two kids and keeps his mind occupied with various activities, including reading. "I got books on Buddhism, The Gnostic Gospels, The Dead Sea Scrolls, Ghandi, Bhagavad Gita. I read them all. They all say the same thing; there's more to us than we realize. We got the power to do whatever we want."

"In the end, everything's gonna come out in the wash," says Trahan.

The journey continues.

Horace Trahan is a busy man these days. To keep up with him, visit or any of the social networking sites. His latest CD Keep Walking is available locally at Johnson's Boucaniere and Barnes & Noble as well as iTunes,, and To see what all the talk is about, you can witness Horace Trahan & The Ossun Express play the Black Pot Festival at 8:15 p.m. on Oct. 29.