"We seemed to be at a standstill," says Meaux by phone, between preparations for a California tour. "We didn't have a booking agent, and didn't play at all. After [1997's] To the Country, I was out of music. I assumed we'd make another record, and I started writing, but we didn't have any plans."
It was oddly true to form for the Bluerunners, who are accustomed to facing musical and professional crossroads. They first shook up the conservative south Louisiana music scene in the late '80s by pumping up accordion and frottoir-driven rhythms with a punk and rock 'n' roll aesthetic (landing a major-label deal with Island Records for their 1991 debut), and they've been defying expectations ever since. They lost their Island deal and then sent many fans running with their 1994 sophomore album, Chateau Chuck, by washing the songs in crushing distortion. ("A fiasco," says Meaux. "People either loved it or hated it.") To the Country was another left turn, as the band skirted traditional waters with a fiddle-centric acoustic sound that also experimented with R&B saxophone colorings.
In the introspective period in Arnaudville that followed, Meaux composed the blueprints for the Bluerunners' superb new CD, Le Grand Bleu -- a mature, often bittersweet song cycle that takes its cue from two seminal recent albums.
"After our last record, then [Lucinda Williams'] Car Wheels on a Gravel Road came out, and I listened to that a lot, and also [Bob Dylan's] Time Out of Mind," says Meaux. "Those were reflective records, and that's just the way I was feeling, too."
It's a mood reflected not only in the lyrics of "Cankton" and "Burn Up the Night," but the seasoned playing of the band, which now sounds like a rootsy barroom-baptized ensemble equally capable of rave-ups and poignant balladry. Meaux's edgy and proud guitar leads have dynamic musical foils in the bluesy accompaniment of accordionist Adrian Huval and the silvery lines of lap steel guitarist Will Golden, and their interwoven dialogue turns "On and On" and "Home" into melodic rock with twinges of country pathos. Steve LeBlanc's fiddle work evokes further thoughts of Dylan, calling to mind the gypsy-flavored instrumentation on Dylan's 1975 album, Desire.
But with the inclusion of songs like the two-step "Happy Rabbit" (sung in French) and the waltz of "Tout ca Qui Reste," the Bluerunners are also tapping something deeper, and moving beyond comparisons and labels. After more than a decade, the band appears to have embraced its Louisiana heritage, on its own terms.
"It was a more organic approach with this album, and instead of fighting all the parameters, we embraced the parameters," says Meaux. "That was real settling to my writing, because I didn't have to come up with weird time signatures, or songs that sounded kind of like a two-step or a waltz or zydeco.
"To [then-drummer] Steve [LeBlanc]'s credit, he picked up the fiddle and went into traditional music, and I followed him. Previously, I was the idea guy, and Adrian did the nuts and bolts of buying an accordion and playing it, and going back and learning some of the traditional numbers and getting a deeper appreciation of them. But it became real important to express ourselves in that context.
"It's pretty awesome when you get tapped into that history," he says, his voice reverent with enthusiasm. "There's so much great music, and we feel connected to it in a real strong way. We're not a virtuoso band by any means, but the spirit is what we try and adhere to."
Making that connection also opened the door for two special guests on Le Grand Bleu -- BeauSoleil's Michael Doucet and Breaux Bridge slide wizard Sonny Landreth. The pair rev up the title track and "Grand Chenier," and Meaux is still shaking his head at their performances -- which didn't work out quite as planned, but inspired sparks nonetheless. "We just wanted a chance to get everyone in a room and throw it down, but schedules didn't permit it. So we laid our tracks down and got a good groove and everything, and Michael came in and was doing his part on "Grand Chenier," and Sonny just happened to call right then. When he heard what was happening he said, 'I want to get in on some of that.' So when Sonny came in, he totally laid back until there was a space for him. Both of them were just so incredible, it ended up sounding like this great jam. You don't want to take it for granted, but I can't see making another album without those guys on it."
If Meaux and the Bluerunners keep making albums like Le Grand Bleu, then one day they just might be mentioned in the same breath as BeauSoleil and Sonny Landreth. Like their elder peers, the Bluerunners are now moving without forgetting the past, and showing that the spirits of Dennis McGee and Nirvana, Canray Fontenot and Los Lobos, and Clifton Chenier and Neil Young are on equal footing. Whether this has any effect on their career remains to be seen.
"It's amazing how anonymous we've managed to stay, and it's not intentional," he says. "The traditional side has its stalwarts, and we don't really fit in roots-rock, so we've always fallen somewhere to the side."
Judging from some recent bookings, the Bluerunners might have found a new avenue past those crossroads.
"Now, we're starting to play a lot more dances," says Meaux. "We're over the moon when we get asked to play a Cajun or zydeco dance."