08/30/2016 07:00AM ● Published by Robert Frey
Gallery: Atchafalaya Rewind [13 Images] Click any image to expand.
By Scott Brazda
Nowadays when we get together, we spend just as much time telling stories as we do playing music. We loved playing together, we loved being together and it’s apparent that we still do. Atchafalaya is still around.”
Chris Foreman is thinking past, present and future. It involves music, and the band near and dear to him, his band mates and so many fans in Acadiana.
“It’s 1978, I’m 21, I’m living New Iberia and working manual labor jobs in the Port of Iberia,” remembers Chris Foreman. “One day I told myself, ‘you know, I can sing a little bit, I can play a little guitar; I’m going Lafayette to see if I can find a gig.”
Who knew a wandering musician’s journey to the Hub City would lead to a memorable chapter in Acadiana’s music history titled ‘Atchafalaya’?
Foreman landed a job at The Red Dog Saloon where another young guitarist, Larry Menard, was slowly making his mark, and the two began joining each other on stage.
“We were all doing the same thing and looking for the same thing,” says Menard. “I loved playing harmonies and Chris loved harmonies, so it was just natural.”
Within six months, Foreman and Menard started looking for another musician and brought in guitarist Charlie Rees. The trio started with the name ‘Triad,’ but the desire “to have a real band,” says Foreman, led them to Rees’ former classmate with the Northside High Jazz Band, David Varisco.
“When Charlie started with these guys, I was always there in the front row watching,” says Varisco. “And one day, I had the nerve to go up to ‘em and say, ‘Guys! Y’all would be a real band if you had a drummer,’” he laughs. “That was my line and it worked.”
Looking for something that reflected their south Louisiana roots, the guys kicked around a variety of new names, the finalists being ‘Cypress’ and ‘Atchafalaya.’ “The only thing I remember,” adds Foreman “was Charlie telling us that as he drove home from Baton Rouge one day, he saw a sign with the word ‘Atchafalaya,’ and he thought about how good it looked. We voted on it and we decided on ‘Atchafalaya.’”
So with name in hand, and plenty of enthusiasm - “Alabama was coming around at that point and Charlie always said ‘Atchafalaya’ has one more ‘A’ than ‘Alabama,’ so we should make it,” - laughs Foreman. Atchafalaya set its collective sights on its grand debut in Lafayette. “Halloween night, 1978 at The Landing,“ recalls Varisco, “and Charlie Rees was so sick he could barely walk. But we made it through the gig, and it worked out great.”
From there came all of the local hotspots: Mother’s Mantel, Red Dog Saloon, The Red Garter, The Purple Peacock. Sometimes, says Foreman, the crowds were rather small, but that didn’t matter to Atchafalaya. “We didn’t care if there were five or 500 people. We were just having so much fun, doing covers of Crosby, Stills & Nash, Dan Fogelberg, Michael Murphey and Jackson Browne.”
Soon after, Atchafalaya evolved yet again. Menard, son of Cajun music hall-of-famer D.L. Menard, began to play the fiddle, and from there, continues Foreman, the band began to really take off. “We’d play all this folk stuff and some rock stuff; and then, we’d pull out the Cajun stuff with the fiddle and people would just go nuts and start dancing on the table and we’d go, ‘Hey, this is working pretty good; let’s mix in some more.’”
“It was almost folk-rock with a Cajun twist,” follows Varisco. “We tried everything, translating Cajun words to English and we’d try to get Larry’s mom to tell us what certain words meant. It was pretty cool.”
Enthusiastic crowds at the local venues - “Don’t forget Grant Street!” reminds Foreman - led to the geographic expansion of Atchafalaya and its fan base. Lance Lafargue joined, but left the band within its first couple of years, and was replaced by bassist Robert ‘Cal’ Arnold. Arnold arrived just in time for the band’s debut album, “One in a Row” in 1982, a collection that generated a pair of local hits, Foreman’s ballad “I Couldn’t Live Without You” (20,000 copies sold) and Menard’s up-tempo “I Could See It In Your Eyes.” A second album, “uh-chaff’-uh-lie-yuh,” followed. And then in 1985, came what would be Atchafalaya’s biggest, albeit unlikely, hit.
“We’re playing at Cowboy’s, and “Rock Me Amadeus” is the number one song in the country,” recalls Varisco. “’We’re taking a break and the first song the DJ puts on is ‘Amadeus’ and I start to think, ‘Maybe we should do something with this song, but change it up.’” What came the very next day was “Watch Out Armadillos!!” Essentially, the story of the doomed relationship between armadillos and highways.
“We drop it off at KSMB, and go to Florida for a gig,” says Foreman. “We get to Florida and I call home to check my messages on my answering machine and I got 50 messages from radio stations from Phoenix to Atlanta, all saying, ‘we need a copy of that song NOW!’”
Appearances on the Nashville Network, at the 1984 World’s Fair, the Washington D.C. Mardi Gras Ball and in a national Budweiser commercial had Atchafalaya primed to be the next big thing. “This Bud’s for You... gah-dee-daw, gah-dee-daw,” sings Varisco.
“We were always this close to making it,” says Foreman. “But that one extra ‘A’ in our name made it hard to market us on a larger scale. We had people pronouncing it like ‘Atch-uh-fuh-LAY-uh’ or ‘Atch-ahp-uh-quiddick’.”
And then there was the matter of Atchafalaya’s varied style. “I think that was our biggest downfall, that we couldn’t categorize our music,” ponders Menard. “Our agent even said, ‘I don’t know how to shop you guys. Do I shop you country? Do I shop you pop? Ethnic or Cajun?”
By 1987, after nearly 10 years of nightclubs and festivals mainly in the South, Menard called it quits. The band connected with Kenny Rogers’ producer Larry Butler a year later, but even with that renewed enthusiasm, Varisco knew his time was over, too.
“Butler said, ‘Are you sure? Because this band can get there.’ But it was 1989, my wife had been in an accident, I had three kids and I knew it was my time.” Foreman and Arnold left in 1991 and although Rees kept the name alive for a couple more years, Atchafalaya had come to an end. Or so they thought.
Flash forward to 2007, and Foreman received a call from local music events planner Todd Mouton. “‘’He asked, ‘Would you guys want to do a reunion show concert for The Medicine Show at UL?’’ I said, ‘Let me see if we can pull this together.’”
“There were different personalities and financial issues with the break-up, but time heals all wounds,” furthers Varisco. “As we got older, we realized it wasn’t as big a deal as we thought.” Foreman concurs. “There’s this saying: ‘Visit the past. Learn from it. And get the hell out.’ Once I started thinking in those terms, we were good to go.”
Held at their old stomping grounds of Grant Street Dance Hall, The Medicine Show - with Foreman, Varisco, Menard, Rees and Arnold on stage, plus Lafargue in the audience - was a huge success. “For me, it was like the old days,” says Foreman. “”Grant Street was packed, it was hot, sweatin’, people were screaming and dancing and jumping on the tables and stuff. It was like we were back in 1982 again. Except I couldn’t sing as good,” he laughs.
What was supposed to be a one-shot Atchafalaya reunion opened the door just a bit. Although Arnold passed away the following year, the band—with Lafargue rejoining the band on stage - re-reunited in 2009 and then in 2013 at the Boudin Festival in Scott. Turns out that event featured an extra-special announcement. “Someone gets up and says, ‘Atchafalaya has been inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame.’ And we just did ‘WHAT?’” Varisco chuckles.
The reunions are now occurring a couple times a year and just a few months ago, Atchafalaya ruled at Festival International de Louisiane. The band’s music is now on iTunes and there’s a website from where fans can order the first two albums.
And as for Atchafalaya’s future? While Rees is still performing music full-time, currently doing solo gigs in Copenhagen, the rest have other jobs in south Louisiana: Foreman, events promotion, Menard, car sales and home inspecting, Varisco, insurance and investments, and Lafargue, piano sales in Metairie.
“I don’t think any of us are at a stage where our goal is to reform Atchafalaya and go out on tour,” says Menard. “This is a lot of fun for us, but none of us want to work that hard again.” Foreman, however, is quick to add, “But at the same time, if opportunities come up and they make sense, who knows? If everybody wants to do it, we do it; if one person has an issue, we don’t do it.”
And now, rumor has it that Atchafalaya may go into the studio and record some new music. “And you know what? It’s not to try to get a record deal or anything like that; it’s to go and have fun in the studio and see if we can make some music that makes us feel good and makes everybody else feel good.”