(The following story is used here by permission of Coastal Homes & Lifestyles and appeared in its 1st quarter 2008 issue. Duke Bardwell is the subject of a documentary and a concert DVD produced by RSMs Kris Wheeler and Wayne Franklin)
When he leans forward, a hint of mischief in his eyes, one can’t help but be drawn in. He laces his stories with an amazing level of detail without ever getting mired in tedium. His descriptions paint as compelling a picture as any committed to canvas by the Great Masters, and his pauses are as carefully and effectively placed as rests in the symphonies of Beethoven or Bach. Such is his mastery of the medium that the listener laughs when he wants them to laugh, cries when he wants them to cry.
One would be forgiven if they tried to respond, forgetting that the speaker is present only through the magic of cinema. It’s a testament to the masterful storytelling of Duke Bardwell in the upcoming documentary “Bayou Country.”
I feel that I know Duke Bardwell as well as if I had spent days on end with him, listening to him recount the highs and lows of his musical career. Yet, I have only met him on a handful of occasions. For most of the time I’ve spent with him, we have been separated both by time and the glass of a video screen. For nearly two years, while laboring with director Kris Wheeler to mould 40 years of plot into a compelling film, I’ve been privileged to study Bardwell his every mannerism, the timbre of his voice, the lines of his face. I’ve listened to him unspool his yarns countless times, yet they never grow old.
“Bayou Country” details the divergent paths of Bardwell and his song of the same title. Bardwell and guitarist Trevor Veitch penned the tune in 1969, when the two were backing iconic folk revivalist Tom Rush. As Veitch tells it, they were staying in a sleazy New York City hotel watching the moon landing and wrote “Bayou Country” because there was nothing else to do. In today’s politics, there is a new buzzword: change agent. That is exactly what “Bayou Country” became for Bardwell. When his life needed it most, that song offered him redemption in a most unexpected way. Behold the power of a song.
Watch excerpts from the Bayou Country (currently in post-production):
During the Renaissance, Italian artists embraced exotic pigments from the world over, but for the most important subject, the human face, they relied on terra verte pigment mined locally from the hillsides around Verona. Bardwell’s approach to songwriting employs a similar approach, as evidenced in “Bayou Country.” While verses that recount the political strife of the late ‘60s cement the song firmly in a specific place and time, it is the lyrics rooted in Bardwell’s Louisiana upbringing that give the song an ageless appeal. The song’s unnamed protagonist, who bears some resemblance to Bardwell, is richly layered with the local color of the bayou, rendering him with a timeless beauty worthy of Leonardo and Michelangelo.
Born in Louisiana on the Bayou Manchac, he becomes a world traveler, but he longs for the idyllic life of fais do-dos and Cajun women he left behind amid the Spanish moss and big oak trees. Though the lyrics speak of a longing that is specific to and idealized vision of life in Louisiana, the rich detail and understated emotion tug at the heart of the wayward traveler in everyone. It speaks to the oft-spoken desire of us all to return to an unattainable place—a more innocent past.
Like the hero of a Howard Hawks film, the protagonist owes much of the displeasure in his current situation to a woman. That doesn’t make Bardwell a cynic on the topic of love, however. “You and I,” a song penned as a wedding gift for his sister, reveals the heart of a hopeless romantic. As with “Bayou Country,” the lyrics are dripping with rich Southernisms and water imagery, as evidenced in verses that compare the smoothing effect of a woman’s love on a man’s hardened countenance to the power of a rushing river: “like running water over stone, you wear away my edges in due time,” he writes.
The power of Bardwell’s storytelling is never more poignant, whether in anecdote or in song, than when he is transparently self-effacing. Throughout “Bayou Country,” the film, Bardwell lays bare his soul on the disappointments of a career spent within an arm’s length of greatness, but always obscured in the shadows of those who would brave the glare of the limelight. The film itself examines the fatal flaws and missed opportunities that resulted in Bardwell walking away from music, seemingly forever, in the mid-1980s.
A cursory viewing of the film would give the impression that his fatal flaw was in addiction and women or, as Bardwell puts it, “drinkin,’ snortin’ and cavortin—heavy in the cavortin’ back then.” A closer viewing, however, reveals those abuses as merely a symptom of a restless spirit and a perpetual dissatisfaction with the status quo. Bardwell himself suggests that these flaws stretch back to his childhood. “I was probably officially A.D.D., only they didn’t have Ritalin back then. You just got your ass whipped, and I got my ass whipped all the time.”
Though Bardwell’s time with Tom Rush was brief, he benefited from the influence of songwriting icons such as Janis Joplin, James Taylor, Jackson Browne and Joni Mitchell. The songs he wrote in the months immediately after his dismissal by Rush would find their way into the heart of a new project—a Baton Rouge band called Cold Gritz and the Black-Eyed Peas. Shortly after the band debuted on the Louisiana scene, with their signature swamp funk sound and interracial line-up, they scored an unprecedented record deal with legendary producer Lou Adler. The band, however, imploded before the album could be finished. Only “Bayou Country” was released and remains the band’s sole legacy.
Within a few short years following the break-up of Gritz, Bardwell’s charm and musical prowess earned him a regular gig with old friend Casey Kelly, opening for Loggins and Messina. Those experiences led to an opportunity to play and record with Jose Feliciano. While recording with Feliciano, he got the chance to work with Elvis’ drummer, Ronnie Tutt. The two hit it off, and Tutt invited Bardwell to audition for an opening as Elvis’ bass player. He got the gig. Unfortunately, Bardwell’s time with Elvis was tumultuous, and when the relationship ended, he was left embittered and disheartened.
Duke earned a few more once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, playing with Gene Clark of the Byrds and Emmylou Harris. But after a handful of years trying to achieve success on his own terms, Bardwell walked away from the music business altogether—at least until “Bayou Country” reminded him why he had begun playing music in the first place.
Today, Bardwell plays neither for money nor fame, but for the love of music and the joy of the crowd. The clarity and self-awareness with which he tells his story reveal him to be a man wounded from the journey, certainly, but also redeemed. In addition to running his own small business, he plays on a regular basis with at least four different acts and has created his own line of pepper sauce, “Unca Duke’s Geaux Jus.” Bardwell’s pepper sauce, like his stories and his songs, reveals the character of the man; it is spicy with a hint of sweetness, seductive with a considerable kick, imbued with the flavors of the bayou, and it always leaves you wanting more.
(To view this column as it appeared in the magazine, click here.)