Richmond Two-Step

Cajun music champion Ann Savoy explores her River City Roots.

Ann Savoy says that, at first, people didn’t know what to think about her new album, “Another Heart.” “Since this was a new project and I’m primarily known as a Cajun artist, it was hard for people to understand what I was doing.”

What the veteran musician and music scholar, born Ann Allen, was doing with her first ever solo release was harkening back to her days growing up in Richmond. “It’s really a going home project,” she says, “Even though Louisiana is my current home, I never lost Richmond in my heart and I always felt like it was half of me, at least.” Savoy will perform a special matinee show at In Your Ear studio on May 26, the day after an album release concert at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C..

Savoy, 72, hasn’t just been playing Cajun, she’s one of its primary scholars as the author of “Cajun Music: A Reflection of a People Volumes 1 & 2,” considered the twin bibles of creole. After years of study, and performing in bands such as the Savoy Doucet Cajun Band, the Magnolia Sisters and Ann Savoy and the Sleepless Nights, “Another Heart,” released by Smithsonian-Folkways, is a stylistic shift. It features an eclectic, largely un-Cajun batch of songs from writers ranging from Donovan to Bruce Springsteen. It’s a collaboration with producer Dirk Powell, who plays most of the instruments, along with guest musicians Rhiannon Giddens, slide guitarist Sonny Landreth and Savoy’s four children, Joel, Wilson, Sarah and Gabrielle.

To promote the disc, Smithsonian-Folkways has released an online gallery of photos and art from Savoy’s life and career – she also designed the cover to “Another Heart” – including many photos from the singer’s days in Richmond. A documentary is also in the works.

Style Weekly recently spoke with Savoy as she wrestled with plumbing issues in the picturesque home she shares with husband and musical partner Marc Savoy in Eunice, Louisiana, three hours from New Orleans. “We have a beautiful old Acadian house which is filled with Virginia antiques,” she says. “When my mother passed away I brought my Virginia and North Carolina antiques down here and they fit in perfectly.”

The album cover for “Another Heart” (Smithsonian Folkways Recordings).

Style Weekly: “Another Heart” is a departure for you. 

Ann Savoy: This one is about Richmond, about going back to Virginia. It’s not a Cajun album, surprisingly. There’s one cajun song on there, in French, but I would call it a pop or a Virginia album infused with Louisiana. There’s an accordion and there are fiddles and there’s a lot of that flavoring.

You are so closely affiliated with Louisiana’s music but you identify as a Virginian.

Yes, my parents were in St. Louis when I was born but I lived in Richmond. My life is Richmond and Louisiana. I went to Trinity Methodist Kindergarten, Tuckahoe Elementary, Douglas Southall Freeman and Mary Baldwin for college.

When did music first enter your life?

When I was 10 years old, my dad bought me a plastic baritone ukulele and I fell madly in love with it. That was during the folk era when all of the folk singers, like Peter Paul and Mary, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, and of course, I had to learn all of that on my little plastic ukulele. I just fell in love with music to the max. It seemed like an amazing route to study in your inner life, and a nice way to make friends, a nice thing to do on weekends to play the Virginia coffeehouses.

Do you remember the places you played? 

The Cary Street Coffeehouse was one, and they had a coffeehouse at the Trinity Methodist Church, and at the Presbyterian Church near Tuckahoe Elementary, plus the Prism Coffeehouse in Charlottesville. I wasn’t a professional musician but I would play at these places, it was very formative, to have the nerve to get up on stage by yourself and play music. It took a lot of bravery.

What kind of material were you performing?

I had a steel stringed Martin guitar and I was playing songs that friends of mine wrote, and Memphis Minnie, Bessie Smith, Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, a few pop songs made into folk, which is sort of what this new record is … pop songs turning into folk music. I loved Donovan, Richard Thompson, the British folk revival.

Did you come from a musical family?

My grandmother went to Julliard. She was a contralto singer. The others were church singers, old Southern methodist singers. My dad played the coronet a little bit, dixieland jazz. Music was always playing on that big ol’ hi-fi. Remember those hi-fis? They sounded so great.

Savoy’s interest in French culture and music led her to move to Louisiana after she met her husband, accordionist and accordion-maker Marc Savoy. Photo credit: Gabrielle Savoy

When did you move to Louisiana?

I graduated in 1974 and taught French at St. Catherine’s and Hanover Academy, and guitar at Don Warners, for three years. I had some friends in Richmond, Lynn Abbott and Linda Marie Firmin, a Cajun … and they introduced me to my husband Marc. They said, you have to meet Marc Savoy, he’s a Cajun and an amazing person, he builds accordions.

So we all went to the National Folk Festival in Wolf Trap and Linda Marie introduced me to Marc and we hit it off instantly. I just couldn’t believe how amazing his French was, the way he spoke, and the music blew me away. So I had to go to Louisiana to see what it was like, and I loved it. Marc’s grandfather’s house was abandoned so there was a beautiful house I could fix up, I could use my French language I’d learned at Mary Baldwin and in Paris … so in 1977, I moved here.

Were you already into Cajun music?

A friend of mine, Louis Reimuller, had some Cajun 45s, and Lynn and Linda Marie showed me these films by the documentary filmmaker Les Blank and they were all about this region. Movies like “Spend It All,” Hot Pepper,” which was about Clifton Chenier, that was my introduction [Blank would later make a film about the Savoys, “Marc & Ann”]. And I went up to Georgetown to a rare record store and I found an old Arhoolie album that had old Cajun 78s on it and that was the beginning of my love. I love 78s of Cajun recordings, people like Cléoma Falcon. I just couldn’t get over her.

At some point, you met Steve Buckingham, who later went on to produce Dolly Parton, Tammy Wynette, Shania Twain and many others.

Yes, he’s coming to the show in Richmond. Steve and I were big buddies, we both taught at Don Warner Guitar Studio. Later, when Steve got famous, he hired me to be a producer for Vanguard Records. And our friendship has continued on. He’s a wonderful producer. I made a duet album with Linda Ronstadt (“Adieu, False Heart”) that he produced and he did such a beautiful job.

“Another Heart” started out as another collaboration with Ronstadt, right?

It totally did. In fact, Linda and I had started recording this album and she couldn’t sing anymore. We had done a session at Laurie Lewis’ studio in Berkeley, and she was not at all satisfied with her vocals. She said, ‘These vocals are not going out in the world.’ And then right after that she totally stopped singing altogether. Some of these songs, like “Stolen Car,” and “Heart Needs a Home,” “Who Knows Where The Time Goes,” were songs we were working on. But she’s been with me all along. I would play her my songs as I recorded them and she would talk to me about it, like ‘why don’t you do this?’ She was involved all along.

How did your partnership begin?

We’ve been friends for a long time. I started producing this album, “Evangeline Made,” for Vanguard that was rock stars singing with Cajun musicians, so Linda and I did these two songs together on that record. She’s the one who wanted me to sing with her. I wasn’t going to, I just wanted her to sing. But our voices went well together and we got a lot of nice reviews about our two cuts, so we just decided to make a record together.

How did you pick the songs for “Another Heart”?

The record Linda and I made, our thing was we’d just sing any songs we like. I just wanted to do songs I really loved and along with the album there’s a huge booklet, 40 pages long, and it discusses each song and why I chose them. There were reasons, things that related to my life in Richmond, and about Louisiana, like ‘Cajun Love Song,’ which is about my husband Mark. They were songs that either I’d written, songs my producer Dirk Powell had written, and songs I just loved. I actually had 75 songs picked out until Dirk said let’s do these 14.

What songs didn’t make the cut?

One of the really weird ones was a song called “Wantonness” by Robert Burns. Written in the 1700s. But one of them didn’t make it because they thought it was too controversial – “A Slave’s Lament,” also written by Robert Burns in the 1700s. And there was an old mountain Virginia song called “Ol’ True Love,” I heard an old banjo guy singing it. Maybe they can come out as an EP.

It’s interesting that, after all of this time, this is your first true solo album.

Dirk and I saw this as a blank canvas to do what we wanted with these songs. We would change their personalities a lot. We had ideas … cricket sounds or water washing or Jimi Hendrix guitar or a panpipe, or an old creaky rocking chair, almost like painting on a canvas. And he played almost every instrument on the actual album, so when we tour, the people will learn his parts basically [laughs].

While you embark on this solo thing, are all of your other bands on hold?

Oh no. The Savoy Family Cajun Bande just played the Jazz Festival. I like to do lots of different things, and have different projects going on. I think to be a musician nowadays you have to have more than one band.

Ann Savoy performs at In Your Ear Studio Studio A on May 26 at 3 p.m. Sponsored by JamInc. For tickets and more info, go to https://jaminc.org. $25 advance. Savoy will also perform at the Kennedy Center on the Millennium Stage on May 25 at 6 p.m. The concert is free but registration required at www.kennedy-center.org.

For more on Ann Savoy and ‘Another Heart,” go to https://folkways.si.edu/artists/ann-savoy

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