Chet Atkins (left) and Alan Toussaint inspired one another for many decades.
New Orleans may be a long day's drive from Nashville, but the double whammy of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita (and the influx of so many displaced musicians, artists, engineers, producers and studio owners into Nashville, Memphis, Austin, Atlanta and Houston) caused me to meditate on how each of our communities are so intertwined. We need to do everything we can to hold each other up and, in this case, help restore this incredibly important city and support its priceless contributions to our culture.
The Nashville music industry and many artists quickly began working overtime trying to raise money to assist victims of Katrina, from Mötley Crüe and Linkin Park collaborating on a new version of “Home Sweet Home” at Ocean Way, and blues musician Chris Thomas King, songwriter/producer Tommy Sims and other musicians from the Jazz and Blues Festival recording a song at Platinum Labs for charity. King and his family, by the way, lost everything to the hurricane.
The Red Cross has been amazing, but what about the mechanisms that help those in New Orleans and the region that are associated with our specific industry? I spoke to Reid Wick, who is now working at the Memphis Chapter of the Recording Academy's assistance program, MusiCares. Wick told me his own amazing story of surviving Katrina — volunteering at a hospital where his wife worked and trying to get the attention of helicopter pilots to airlift patients from the hospital for several days while armed looters were trying to break in all around. “When I left New Orleans, I left everything,” says Wick, who owns a beautiful old house he had just finished restoring that was seriously flooded. “I bought some new clothes in Baton Rouge [La.], but I'm one of the fortunate ones. There are people still in shelters.”
Reid notes that MusiCares and The Recording Academy have established the MusiCares Hurricane Relief Fund, a $1 million commitment of charitable funds to be distributed to music industry people directly affected by this disaster. This fund will provide basic living expenses such as shelter, food, utilities and transportation; medical expenses; clothing and toiletries; musical instrument and recording equipment replacement; relocation costs; school supplies for students; cell phone service; insurance payments; and more. He also stated that it would be provided on a first-come, first-served basis due to the crush of requests. To qualify, applicants have to prove five years of professional experience in the music industry and loss of livelihood or housing due to the effects of Hurricane Katrina. Anyone who qualifies can call toll-free at 877/626-2748 to apply.
NAPRS (Nashville Association of Professional Recording Services) is pooling donations from all of its members to be distributed to MusiCares and the Red Cross. There is also an organization called New Orleans & Houston (NOAH), which comprises a group of Houston musicians whose mission is to reach out and support the displaced New Orleans musicians by providing them with housing, venues in which to perform, instrument replacement, etc. NOAH is currently compiling a database of names of displaced musicians from New Orleans, instruments, work experience, present location and contact info to be posted online (www.tiannahall.com/SHONOF.html). The NOAH helpline is 713/522-2299 and the donation line is 713/805-9118.
After talking with these organizations, I began calling around to New Orleans studio owners to find out how they fared in the storm. Nat Franklin, owner of Vault Recording and Bank on It Records, told me, “The studio went underwater. I lost over 500 songs and two albums I was working on. I was in the building when I saw the water rising. We have an upstairs [floor], but when I first tried to go up, there was a vacuum pressure within the building that was so great I couldn't get my door open. The water hadn't gotten that high at that moment, but I had a glass door at the front and I didn't want to take any chances by standing there and it breaking, which it did minutes later. When the glass broke, it really poured in.
I had all my gear loose, so that if I needed to, I could take it upstairs, but the water rose too fast. I stayed in the building for two days and left when the water started to go down a little bit. At that time, it was chest-high. I walked five or six blocks to the interstate — the place where you saw the pictures of everybody sitting. I was just trying to stay positive, but that first 36 to 48 hours, when I knew all my stuff was gone, I was in really bad shape.”
Piety Street Recording (www.pietystreet.com), on the other hand, was almost unscathed, thanks to being a block-and-a-half away from the Mississippi River where the ground was higher.
The studio on many people's minds, though, was Ultrasonic, a legendary facility that was located on some of the city's lower ground. After a few calls, I managed to locate Ultrasonic owners Steve Reynolds and David Farrell. They noted that their studio was under about five feet of toxic sludge and lost most of their valuable instruments, but at least they had prepared for the worst by backing up their library of work.
“We've been working on Pro Tools since 1999, and we've been backing up all the data on AIT-format storage tapes,” says Reynolds. “We instituted that as insurance for our digital storage. David grabbed those — more precisely 140-something 50-gigabyte tapes — when we left, so we pretty much have all the work we have done since 1999. That is high and dry with us. The rest of the stuff — the nice equipment and a really fine organ and piano — [can be found] everywhere, but the clients' performances and all of our work back to 1999 is irreplaceable. So it could have been worse.”
When I last talked to Farrell, he and Reynolds were on the run from Hurricane Rita, where they had just begun setting up shop at Dockside Studios in Lafayette, La. Meanwhile, more water flooded into New Orleans via the newly breached levees. “At this moment, we are very highly motivated, highly qualified independent audio engineers for hire,” says Reynolds.
During Katrina and its aftermath, the great and highly influential New Orleans producer/songwriter/arranger/musician Allen Toussaint was one of many thousands who had trouble getting out of town, before he eventually settled in a New York hotel. I once had the good fortune to hook up with Toussaint for a “Mix Interview” [November 1997], and once Katrina blew in, I decided to revisit those transcripts of my conversations with him and meditate on the richness of New Orleans and how we in the major music cities of the South have helped feed each other's communities.
Toussaint shared with me how he got much inspiration listening to WLAC-AM in Nashville late at night as he was growing up in New Orleans. “They had a couple of theme songs like ‘Blues for the Red Boy,’ which was a slow, mournful kind of piece with a sax, and there was this boogie-woogie piano piece that just knocked me off my feet when I heard it called ‘Swanee River Boogie.’ I liked Red Foley, Little Jimmy Dickens and people like that. I heard a lot of hillbilly music on the radio as a boy, so subsequently, I played a lot of hillbilly and had a great time with it. It was all very soulful, as far as I was concerned.”
Toussaint reminded me that his first solo album, The Wild Sounds of New Orleans, was released in 1958 on RCA at a time when Chet Atkins was a major force at the label in Nashville. Atkins was an incredibly astute diviner of great talent and quickly identified Toussaint as an artist with great compositional skills. Atkins was instrumental in landing Toussaint's first big song cut, “Java,” which became a hit by Al Hirt and was also recorded by Floyd Cramer and Boots Randolph.
“I admire [Toussaint] so much,” recalled Atkins in a conversation I had with him a number of years ago. “I was sent his first album, which had a black-and-white picture of him when he was very young. It was all instrumentals, and I think almost every instrumental on that album was as good as ‘Java.’”
It would be many years later when Atkins and Toussaint would actually meet face-to-face during the making of a 1994 Tony Brown and Don Was — produced project called Rhythm Country & Blues. Of course, during those ensuing years, Toussaint went on to become a hugely successful songwriter, arranger, musician and producer. He would eventually be inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998.
Finally, one of the most troubling of the many calls I got after Katrina hit concerned the news of the passing of the legendary Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown. He was suffering mightily from complications due to lung cancer and heart disease, but I'm certain the evacuation from his bayou-side home in Slidell, La., and the knowledge that he lost everything (including his beloved instruments, pictures and awards) was heartbreaking. Sad, indeed.
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