Davis McAlary: "Dude sounds like Sam Cooke!"
John Boutte: "I f–kin' sound like John Boutte!"
Play 'The Treme Song!'" The woman's voice rose from somewhere in the center of a tightly packed crowd at d.b.a. during one of John Boutte's regular early Saturday evening sets. He already had launched into Annie Lennox's "Why," but his fan was not to be dissuaded. At the next break between songs, she shouted her request again, and then started singing the song herself, as if to jog Boutte's memory.
Boutte finally obliged. Now in his early fifties, the musician only recently has discovered what it is like to have a hit song. "I know I need to sing it, even when I might feel like singing something else at that moment," he says. "I was raised Catholic. There's some things you got to do. You got to genuflect when you walk into church. You get down, boy."
It is a warm Monday morning in Treme, not too different from the Sunday morning years ago — it was around 2000, Boutte isn't exactly sure of the date — when the singer stuck his head outside his door and heard a bass drum echoing off the Creole cottages on his street. Coffee in hand, he stepped outside to see a band stepping out of a nearby church — and that's when it hit him. This is his home. They don't do this anywhere else. "You know how they say you don't see the forest for the trees?" he asks. "I finally saw the forest and the trees at once."
That morning, Boutte went back inside, sat down at his piano, and immediately composed a little musical narration of the moment: "Hangin' in the Treme/Watchin' people sashay/ past my steps/ By my porch/ In front of my door." He now laughs at the apparent simplicity of the lines. "It's not brain surgery," he says.
But the simplicity of "The Treme Song" is deceptive. It's what isn't in that song that makes it so appealing. Unlike most city anthems, there is nothing here about what is bought and sold in New Orleans. No gumbo, no voodoo, no pralines, not even a cold drink. There's nothing except action: the groans of a Sunday preacher, the responding blessed moans of sisters, the bass drum and trombone, buck jumping and having fun.
Paul Sanchez, Boutte's frequent collaborator, has watched the song travel far beyond the city limits. "It's his first original song, a classic New Orleans groove with John's beautiful Creole voice melting you," he says. "It's an insider's look at any typically wonderful New Orleans Sunday. With it, John's voice has officially become what it has always been for me. The voice of New Orleans, calling people here."
By "official," Sanchez is referring to television. People around the world know "The Treme Song" as the theme to the HBO series Treme, now in its second season. Boutte also has made frequent cameo appearances in the show, most notably in the final episode of the first season, when Davis McAlary (Steve Zahn) drags Boutte to the front stoop of chef Janette Desautel (Kim Dickens) in order to show to her the reasons why she should not move to New York.
When Boutte first received the call about Treme, he admits, he initially felt wary. He was having one of those "bad Katrina days." Instead of sashayers, unearthly figures in hazmat suits were floating by his street. Too many people around him were dying and, he says, the devil seemed to be right behind his feet. "I didn't want to set myself up for a disappointment. I just had to hope that David (Simon) and Eric (Overmyer) and Nina (K. Noble) would tell the story right. If not, well, I'm poor anyway. Why should I sell out my songs and be poor and disgraced?"
Happily, that didn't happen. Boutte says he couldn't be more pleased with the series' nuanced depiction of his city and the renewed interest it has brought to the history and culture of his neighborhood. "When I wrote that song, people were running from the Treme," he says. "Every tourist was warned not to cross Rampart Street.
By the time he received the call for Treme, Boutte had established himself as one of the cultural anchors in post-Katrina New Orleans. He had been preparing for this all his life, from growing up in a musical 7th Ward family through playing cornet and trumpet in school marching bands, through Xavier University and even the military, where he directed and sang in Army gospel choirs. Back in civilian life, he tried a stint in a bank job. It didn't take.
A tour of Europe with his sister Lillian helped lead Boutte toward the more uncertain life of a jazz singer. So did some career counseling from one of his heroes and mentors, the late Danny Barker. "I didn't see a glass ceiling but a brick wall above my head," Boutte says. "I decided I had to do what was in my heart. The only limitations I wanted were the ones I set on myself."
He earned critical raves and new fans for his 2000 collaboration with ¡Cubanismo!, leading to the acclaimed release Mardi Gras Mambo, which explored the close musical kinship between Havana and New Orleans. He gigged regularly around town, but those jobs took on a new meaning after the 2005 levee failures. First at the now-shuttered Cafe Brasil and then at d.b.a., Boutte says his sets became "like church."
"It was our meeting place. It was on high ground, and there would be these kids at the shows with Common Ground and the health clinic. I knew it was a turning point."
Boutte has never shied way from speaking his mind. He's a five-foot-one-and-a-half-inch pacifist, he says, but he still packs a punch. "And not a lightweight, either," he adds. Then he grows serious, which in a conversation with Boutte can happen quickly and often. "Are you culpable if you see someone beating somebody down and you don't try to intervene? I believe that if you're silent, you're just as culpable," he says. Current shows might include a timely political rant or even a laser stare at some talkers in the back of the club when he sings the line "You don't really care for music, do you?" from Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah." Challenging his audience had never been unusual for him. But at his post-Katrina shows, something new was taking place. "I always used to say shit," he says. "Now I realized that people were taking me seriously."
By that point, Sanchez already had been making music with Boutte for a few years, ever since they first met at a party at singer Michelle Shocked's house. "Here the city was devastated and this little guy was carrying so many people, when he himself was broken," Sanchez recalls. "He was into doing jazz standards. We talked about it. I said, 'Right now, at this moment in New Orleans history, for whatever reason thousands of people are turning to you. If you don't tell the tale and sing the story, who's going to do it?'"
The result was a stunning set at the 2006 Jazz Fest, culminating in Boutte's recasting of Randy Newman's "Louisiana 1927" with updated lines like "President Bush flew over in an airplane/ with about 12 fat men with double martinis in their hands." Geoffrey Himes wrote in The New York Times: "The song's most dramatic recasting was by Mr. Boutte ... when he started dropping local references into the lyrics, older women rose from their plastic folding chairs, waving their hands over their heads and egging him on as if they were in church."
Among those in the audience was Chris Joseph, founder of Threadhead Records. "I stumbled in halfway through and at that point had never heard of John Boutte. It was incredibly emotional. People were crying, raising their hands, everybody was on their feet."
Boutte has been suspicious of major labels — "I'm just cautious, I never jump in water head first." — and found the Threadhead model to his liking. With Sanchez, John Boutte made his Good Neighbor album from a Threadhead loan, which he paid back within a year. He owns the masters and publishing. A portion of the proceeds go to the New Orleans Musicians' Clinic, another Threadhead stipulation that Boutte is all too happy to endorse. "I'm not saying I got a right to be rich," he says. "But I'll be damned if I don't have a right to wake up and have access to someone who can tell me if I'm sick or not.
"Those values came from my mom and dad. You got nine siblings, you got to learn how to share everything. I could say it's the Catholic upbringing, although I'm more of a practicing humanist than a good practicing Catholic. But who are you if you can't feel the suffering of your fellow human being?"
That philosophy has sparked some of Boutte and Sanchez's most beloved songs, including "At the Foot of Canal Street," a song they wrote after they realized their fathers were both buried in Canal Street cemeteries. Like "The Treme Song," it's a tune that d.b.a. audiences know well enough to sing along, verses as well as chorus. "I always look for a universal theme," Boutte says. "Love, death, the things we're all confused about."
Current projects include his participation in the musical adaptation of Dan Baum's Katrina book Nine Lives, which features both Boutte vocals along with piano work that is credited to "Skinny Parcheesi" because, Boutte says, he doesn't consider himself credit-worthy in a keyboard city like New Orleans. His Jazz Fest appearances include joining Irma Thomas in the Gospel Tent on May 6 for a Mahalia Jackson tribute. The future holds, he hopes, a new album. He gives credit to his collaborators, especially Sanchez and longtime guitarist Todd Duke. But, he warns, don't expect anything too familiar. "I like R&B, some country, some bluegrass, gospel, jazz. Everybody's always told me I need to focus. Let me tell you if there's a buffet in front of me, I'm going to eat off it if that's what I want to do. I want to be like Monty Python: Now for something completely different."
Michael Tisserand is a former Gambit editor. He is currently working on a biography of the New Orleans-born cartoonist George Herriman, who happens to be a cousin of John Boutte.