Kelli Jones sings Jimmy C. Newman's "Got You On My Mind" on Valcour Records' "Farewell, Alligator Man" tribute album.
Eunice, Louisiana-based Valcour Records has just issued Farewell, Alligator Man: A Tribute to the Music of Jimmy C. Newman, in honor of the Grand Ole Opry legend and native of nearby Mamou who died in 2014 at 86.
Produced by Valcour head Joel Savoy at his Studio SavoyFaire, the album features Savoy and Kelli Jones on fiddle and vocals, Caleb Klauder on guitar, mandolin and vocals, and Reeb Willms, guitar and vocals.
A beloved Opry star for 58 years until just before his death, Newman was the Cajun who made good outside his South Louisiana home base, and while he enjoyed pop-country success in the 1950s with Top 10 country hits like “Cry, Cry, Darling” (sung by Willms on Farewell, Alligator Man), he retained his Cajun music roots, particularly in the ‘60s with hits like “Bayou Talk” and his signature “Alligator Man” (sung on the album by Savoy).
“It’s the only song that’s not his vintage honky-tonk sound from the ‘50s—but we had to have it!” says Savoy. “I’m more of a fiddle player and not much of a singer, but I love the song and every time I play with Caleb it’s my song to sing.”
Savoy, who plays in many musical entities—including the Savoy Family Cajun Band along with esteemed parents Marc Savoy (the premiere Cajun accordion manufacturer and player) and singer/historian Ann Savoy and musical siblings Wilson Savoy (accordionist in the Pine Leaf Boys) and Sarah Dover Savoy. He frequently plays with Klauder’s Portland, Oregon-based old-time group Foghorn Stringband, as well as the Caleb Klauder Country Band, which often features fellow northwesterner Willms, who also performs with Klauder in a duo format.
Cajun accordionist Jesse Lege also plays with Klauder and Savoy, and likewise appears on Farewell, Alligator Man, as does Newman’s son Gary Newman, on upright bass.
“Gary’s played a lot of bluegrass and swing stuff, and Caleb and Reeb and I discovered that we shared the same affection for the early Jimmy C. stuff—the simple country music that he recorded for Nashville’s Dot Records that’s out now on [German historic reissue label] Bear Family,” says Savoy. “So I asked Gary if maybe we could meet Jimmy, and we brought him down to headline three shows that I did, Joel Savoy’s Honky-Tonk Merry-Go-Round—part of the Louisiana Crossroads concert series in Lafayette. He was such a gentleman, and told us a bunch of great stories.”
After Newman died, Savoy proposed the Farewell, Alligator Man tribute album concept to Gary Newman.
“He’d been trying to get one done in Nashville, and when I came to him with the idea he got right on it,” says Savoy. “He’s a great bass player, and I got him to play on it.”
Meanwhile, Klauder’s country band was invited to perform at last year’s Blackpot Festival & Cookoff in Lafayette, which is held there every November. The band included pedal steel/electric guitarist Rusty Blake and drummer Ned Folkerth, who also appear on Farewell—which was recorded right after the festival.
“We just sat down and did the songs we knew and loved and knocked it out in three days or so live in my little studio,” says Savoy. “We’re all so busy that it took this long to finally put it out!”
For Savoy, Newman’s songs stand out for being “just so charming. They’re very straightforward with simple melodies, and speak right to the heart.” Klauder echoes him.
“Jimmy’s songs to me are so simple and well written,” says Klauder. “He had such an easy, clear way of saying what he was feeling, and his early songs seem to be from an era of writing that is long gone. And his voice and phrasing are just perfect in the way that old Hank Williams songs are perfect--and in a way that old Carter Family and early bluegrass songs are perfect. No fluff.”
He recalls first meeting Newman and talking with him about his old songs.
“I was so surprised--and sad--to hear of how he had lost touch with so many of his old songs--because the music industry execs told him that his old songs were no good any more, that rock ‘n’ roll had moved in and his songs were on the out. He basically told us that at that point he just left them all behind--with exception, maybe, of a few hits. So it was great fun to see his reaction to some young singers from far away on the West Coast singing his songs to him: He was so surprised that we had learned some of them, some that he didn't t even remember writing!”
Willms is glad that the album was made, since “it could easily have been one of those ideas that got talked about and never came to fruition!”
“I remember when Joel called to tell us about the three-day run of shows he was putting together with Jimmy in Lafayette with a house band and many singers,” she recalls. “He told us Jimmy C. was going to be driving down from Nashville to be part of the show. Caleb and I looked at each other, and said, ‘We’ve got to go somehow!’ So we checked our calendars, and found there wasn’t much of a window of time, but bought last-minute plane tickets and flew to Lafayette. Joel put us in the show, and we took turns singing lead with the other singers in the show--and of course, we got to meet Jimmy!”
Newman, says Willms, “was classy as could be, wearing his Nudie suit jackets studded with rhinestones and beautiful embroidery. His old Martin 000-18 guitar was sparkling with a glittery red finish. And he was such a great performer! He was in his eighties at the time, and had so many wonderful stories from the golden era of country music. He had the audience in the palm of his hand, and was really tickled that these young people knew his old songs. I think it really touched him to know after all those years that those songs had not only endured the test of time, but that people truly cared about his music. That’s why this project seemed so important to complete. I only wish we'd gotten to hand a copy to Jimmy C. while he was still living.”
Jones, who is a member of Cajun band Feufollet and also records with husband Savoy, notes how Gary Newman had gifted the couple a CD of his father’s early songs that he’d written and recorded.
“We both immediately started listening to it non-stop!” she says. “As Caleb said, he had a beautiful and simple way of phrasing and stringing together lyrics, and an incredibly emotive, powerful and distinct voice that just catches your attention immediately. And it’s so rare that you get to meet someone you really admire and think of as a legend, but even rarer that you meet one who inspires you even further with their genuine charismatic energy: He emanated this genuine entertainer quality, but also was the sweetest most accessible person to talk to, and would tell you story after story about just about any country star you could name. It was such a cool opportunity to meet him!”
The Farewell, Alligator Man project, says Jones, “really was an amazing joy to be a part of--playing and singing with people whom I love and respect immensely, and on top of that, recording these beautiful songs and celebrating these works of an amazing man who we all have just grown to admire and appreciate so much in the past few years.”
Being part of “this Jimmy C. Newman legacy recording” was a great joy, too, for Klauder, who adds, “I also feel honored to have gotten the thumbs up from him to keep singing his songs. I couldn’t think of a better cast of singers and musicians and a better studio to put this all together. I really feel like we did it the right way to refresh and revive Jimmy’s songs in this modern country music era.”
Incidentally, Farewell, Alligator Man is Valcour’s 40th release.
“It’s an exciting time for us, and this is a perfect record that embodies everything we’re into—a Louisiana connection between good friends and music.”
Jimmy C. Newman sings "Alligator Man"