Terrance Simien's eclectic zydeco pays tribute to some unlikely influences. 

Musical Gumbo

Terrance Simien may be rooted in the Louisiana dance rhythms of zydeco but he takes pride in assimilating more into his accordion-driven mix. His latest CD, "The Tribute Sessions," pays homage to those who have influenced his music throughout his 20-year career, and some of these influences may come as a surprise.

But Simien says he's incorporated others' music into his since he first started playing at 15 in his hometown of Mallet, La.

Simien's eclectic zydeco show is as likely to include tunes by Bob Marley, Sam Cooke or the Carter Family as it is the songs of Clifton Chenier or Canray Fontenot. Simien also sings a drop-dead version of the Band's "It Makes No Difference." His version recalls Rick Danko's heart-wrenching vocals and pays homage to one of his biggest heroes. Some of Simien's fondest memories revolve around his first meeting with Danko in Woodstock and a subsequent recording he made with the bass player shortly before Danko died.

"That was one of the best things I ever did," Simien recalls affectionately.

But as the tale unwinds, Simien reveals that he's had many special moments. Growing up a country boy in rural Louisiana, music first came from the church and later from his parents' records and the radio. He'd heard zydeco but shrugged it off as old folks' music until at 14 he went to a dance at Richard's Roadhouse with his dad. Zydeco's rhythmic good time groove captured Terrance. His buddies laughed but Simien knew better. He got a single-row accordion and taught himself to play. Soon, he organized a band and played the National Guard Armory and private parties.

Fortune stepped in when the New Orleans World's Fair opened in 1984. Simien's drummer had a contact at the fair's folk stage and he wrangled the band a gig. Terrance recalls the stage was near the front gate and they played every morning for two months. Thousands of visitors from all over the world heard them and strangers from Seattle, New York and Chicago suddenly wanted Simien's autograph. This was an eye-opener for a 17-year-old fresh from the country.

"I'm saying to myself, 'We got to take this on the road,'" says Simien.

Through Fair contacts, Simien booked gigs in Washington, D.C., Baltimore, New York and Boston. In between East Coast tours, the band played in Texas and Louisiana. Now 35, Simien has been on the road ever since. He's paid his dues but he knows he was lucky as a youngster.

"I was definitely coming straight out of the sticks," he says, "to the big, bright, beautiful world."

Now, in addition to his shows, Simien spreads positive music and Creole heritage lessons across the country through the Arts in Education program for kids in kindergarten through 12th grade. He's also lobbying the Grammies to create a distinct Cajun-Zydeco category.

In closing, Simien gives credit to zydeco king Chenier for helping him stay the musical course and he follows the advice every night on the bandstand.

"[Chenier] said, 'Y'all sound good. Keep doin' your own thing. … Some people ain't gonna like it but you got to keep on doin' it.'"


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