There is a “beautiful simplicity” to the late Cajun country singer Jimmy C. Newman’s country songs, as Joel Savoy noted Wednesday night at Brooklyn’s Jalopy Theatre during the first of three northeastern Farewell Alligator Man--A Tribute to the Music of Jimmy C. Newman shows centering on the songs and artists involved in last year’s album of the same name, produced by Savoy for his Eunice, La.-based Valcour Records.
The album’s 14 tracks were culled mostly from Newman’s 1950s honky-tonk/pop country repertoire, and in addition to Savoy, employed Cajun band Feufollet’s Kelli Jones and old-time string band Foghorn Stringband’s Caleb Klauder and Reeb Willms--with Cajun accordion great Jesse Lege and pedal steel player Rusty Blake also appearing. All joined Savoy at Jalopy, along with upright bassist Nadine Landry, also of Foghorn Stringband--which celebrated the release of its latest album, Rock Island Grange, with a preceding set.
All, too, connected with Newman’s songs, said Savoy, whose comments were confirmed by Klauder, who likewise hailed Newman’s “positive, uplifting love songs,” typified by the album’s lead track and Jalopy set-opener “You Didn’t Have to Go.” Sung by Klauder and Willms, its performance at Jalopy featured twin fiddling from Savoy and Jones, with the four principals shifting about vocally and instrumentally thereafter.
"Cry Cry Darlin'" from "Farewell, Alligator Man"
Willms sang vocal lead on “Cry, Cry, Darlin’,” one of Newman’s biggest hits (No. 4 country in 1954), with Jones singing harmony and doubling again on fiddle with Savoy, and Savoy followed with “The H. Brown Shuffle,” which he explained was an automotive supply house in Eunice that funded Newman’s session and for which he wrote the ditty. Playing it at Jalopy, Klauder appropriately supplied a shuffling mandolin part.
Lege, who’d been badly roughed up earlier in the day when his car was T-boned and totaled, seemed miraculously able to accompany the others as Savoy sang “Alligator Man,” Newman’s 1962 hit that gave him his lasting moniker. Savoy, who generally doesn’t sing much but has Newman’s timbre and phrasing down to a “T,” then called out the classic Cajun “Mermentau Waltz” just to keep Lege on stage; at least sounding none the worse for wear, Lege sang in French, yielding to Klauder to close it out in English.
But the gals took the honors on songs like “I Thought I’d Never Fall in Love Again” (Willms) and “Blue Darlin’” (Jones), with Landry taking over on Cajun staples in a Cajun music set that followed the Newman album’s songs, during which Lege did require a stool, though you wouldn’t have known otherwise that he was hurting.
As for Newman, who died in 2014 at 86, Klauder noted that he’d stopped singing most of the songs on Farewell, Alligator Man after his record company convinced him that he and they were out of style. But he then managed to reinvent himself into what he actually was--a Cajun music artist, who had recorded Cajun country songs like “Alligator Man” and “The Great Big Fais Do-Do” (also on the tribute album and performed at Jalopy). He ended up putting together a crack Cajun band and became a Grand Ole Opry regular and kept going pretty much until the end.
With Farewell, Alligator Man, then, Savoy et al. have done justice to the largely neglected catalog of a country and Cajun music legend. They’ll be bringing the show to Newman’s home region for two nights at the Acadiana Center for the Arts in Lafayette on January 17 and 18, for which they’ll be joined by Newman’s son Gary Newman, his fellow Cajun country hero and contemporary Doug Kershaw and fellow Grand Ole Opry stalwarts Marty Stuart and Connie Smith.
Meanwhile, the last three vinyl copies of Farewell, Alligator Man were on sale at Jalopy--and quickly spoken for.