One Track Mind: Zachary Richard, with Celine Dion – "Acadian Driftwood" (2009)

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Both the most French of American musicians, and the other way around, Cajun rock star Zachary Richard makes roots music that couldn’t go by any other name. It is about his heritage, and his people’s, in Louisiana and in Canada and back all the way to France. In fact, his newest recording, “Last Kiss,” is Richard’s first non-French recording in 15 years.

Yet, Richard is brave enough to burst out of that contextualized comfort zone, 35 years after his initial recording sessions for Elektra. The closer on “Last Kiss,” a pure prairie update of Robbie Robertson’s “Acadian Driftwood,” features big-voiced international hitmaker Celine Dion.

“I’m really proud of it, though it still raises eyebrows,” Richard told me. “The point is, it’s about the music. She delivered that song with a lot of heart, and a lot of emotion. That’s what it’s all about.”

Theirs is an unusual pairing of pomp and circumstance that connects, as the Lafayette, Louisiana-area native scuffs up her familiar pop sheen with a ram-shackle honesty.

Richard first met Dion when she was just a youthful singing protege at age 14. They’ve kept in touch over the years, as Richard built a second career selling French-language recordings to huge success in her native country.

“French Canada is a small world; it wasn’t long before we crossed paths,” Richard said.

Then, last year, Dion invited Richard to play with her during the 400th anniversary celebration of the founding of Quebec. He tossed out a traditional tune with a second-line jazz funeral beat.

“I knew the girl had pipes, but I didn’t know how she would do with a blues song,” Richard said. “I was taken aback by the ease of which she came into my world.”

In the glow of that fizzy moment, Richard invited her to join him in the on-going sessions for “Last Kiss,” now out on Artist Garage-Fontana — without even considering what song the duo might take on. Richard’s wife suggested “Acadian Driftwood,” which he had covered ever since it appeared on The Band’s 1975 LP “Northern Lights-Southern Cross.”

The tune remains a devastating retelling of the racially motivated ousting of the Acadians from Canada. A number of those French-speaking peoples settled in what is now known in the Bayou State as Acadiana, a migration that both performers trace back through their own family tree.

“Celine had never heard it before, but she was very enthusiastic,” Richard said. “She has Acadian heritage herself, and connected with the whole notion of the song. It retells the heart of the Acadian story, which is resistance to intolerance and tenacity in the face of great challenge. It spoke to us both.”

What they ended up with is yet another crossover opportunity for Richard, who founded the first widely known Cajun rock band and has been splintering the door hinges on conventional wisdom ever since.

“I was overcome (after performing at the Quebec celebration), and my heart got out in front of my head,” Richard said. “I just asked her to do something. I had no idea what we would do. The results are what you hear. I’m really proud of it.”

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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