It's been 17 years since Courtney Granger released his debut album Un Bal Chez Balfa, a collection of French-language and instrumental tunes that nodded at Granger's Acadian Louisiana roots as well as his relationship to the famed musical Balfa family. In addition to honoring Cajun musical traditions with its dance-friendly blend of fiddle, triangle and accordion, the collection established the then-teenage Granger (pronounced "Grahn-jay") as a gifted vocalist and fiddler in his own right.
In the intervening years, Granger has gone on become a respected sideman in Louisiana music circles, regularly touring and recording with fellow Cajun outfit the Pine Leaf Boys making appearances on albums by Tim O'Brien and Ray Abshire. In 2013, he contributed a cover of the weepy George Jones classic "You're Still on My Mind" to the multi-artist compilation Joel Savoy's Honky Tonk Merry-Go-Round, proving himself to be a nimble interpreter who was more than capable handling the Possum's nuanced, emotive style.
Granger's second solo album Beneath Still Waters, which arrived October 14th, makes good on the promise of that one-off Jones cover. Casting himself as a classic country barroom crooner, Granger navigates his way through the dusty atmosphere and thick smoke on 13 slices of honky tonk heartbreak and regret that sound like they could have been competing for chart space in the 1960s. His voice swoops and dives with feeling on many of the selections – like "Mr. Fool," previously recorded by Jones – and he steers the whole thing with patience befitting an elder star.
Remarkably, Beneath Still Waters features no original tunes – Granger carefully selected a few chestnuts like "Back in My Baby's Arms Again" and "Lovin' On Backstreets" along with more obscure numbers that had previously been recorded by Jones and others. The anxious title track, previously a charting hit for Emmylou Harris, resonates with warmth despite the narrator's desperation, while Keith Whitley, Dean Dillon and Hank Cochran's "She Never Got Me Over You" strips the sound down to one voice, an acoustic guitar and mandolin. Produced by Dirk Powell, the album also features musical contributions from Joel Savoy, Christine Balfa and Alice Garrard.
I spoke with Granger on the phone, following a busy week in Nashville for the annual Americana Music Festival, and we discussed breaking out of Cajun traditions, the burden of being an interpreter and gaining unexpected notoriety.
Un Bal Chez Balfa came out in 1999. What took so long to come out with another solo album?
I don't know. The timing wasn't right. I was busy with other groups and satisfied with the recordings I was doing with that. I don't know, it just didn't seem like I needed to, I guess. I guess the timing wasn't right and I felt this was more special to do since it was so different than from what I usually do.
People are most likely to recognize your name from playing more traditional Cajun music. How did you decide to explore this classic country territory for Beneath Still Waters?
I grew up with country music just like I grew up with Cajun music. It's always been a part of my life. When I got a guitar – when I was a teenager – the first thing I started learning on the guitar was country music. It just came natural to me because I heard it all my life. And that was mostly what I did for years, was just play it in my bedroom as a teenager or late night jams, stuff like that. It was never anything I thought I was going to do professionally until a few years back. It was actually when George Jones passed away that I wanted to do a tribute album originally. And it just sort of evolved into, well, if you're gonna go in and do a country album, might as well do your own. And maybe down the road do a tribute to George, because he was such a big influence on my singing.
On Beneath Still Waters, you chose to record all outside songs instead of writing original material. What was behind that decision and how many of them did you know from growing up?
Well, I'm not a songwriter for one, and I think that's what helped me make the decision to do some of these songs that aren't necessarily Number One hits. There's a few of them in there, like "Loving on Backstreets" or something like that. But I wanted to do songs that either no one's heard or just kind of bring back some of those songs, bring them back to life. But I was very careful not to do the George Jones top 10, you know? Just because I'm not a songwriter and I wanted to bring something new to the recording, something different. I grew up on the sound, I didn't necessarily grow up on some of these songs because I literally had to search for them within the year of trying to make the record. "Loving on Backstreets," and "Back in My Baby's Arms Again," I've heard all those all my life but I've never really heard anybody else do them, either.
So you don't really consider yourself a writer?
I don't. I've written a couple Cajun tunes that I've recorded, but I'm not very confident in songwriting. I used to feel guilty about that, for years, for not being a songwriter. Because everybody was asking, "Do you write, do you write, have you written anything?" I was like, no, and I'd feel, as a musician or an artist, I kind of feel guilty for not being the songwriter. But I've learned just recently in the last two years that there are songwriters and there are interpreters. That's their job to write a song, and I feel it's my job to bring those songs to life. Every songwriter needs that. So I'm ok with it. And if a song comes up that I write, fine, but I'm comfortable being the one that brings the songs to life.
Do you pay any attention to contemporary country on the radio?
I don’t anymore. I think the last time I listened to country radio was 2002. When I see stuff online or even look at the [Grand Ole] Opry Instagram, I was like, "I don't even know these people's names." So I don't pay attention to it at all. I'm sure there's some good stuff. I'm not saying it's not good stuff, but to me it's just not. . . [pauses] country music? I think if they would name it something else, I would like it. Because I'm sure there's some great songs out there and some great artists.
Did you feel the need to uphold any particular classic country traditions with this album?
I don't think so. I just think it's what I'm drawn to. I don't think it's a conscious decision to preserve this or keep it alive. Same thing with Cajun music: it's just a music that I love, it's a style of music that I love to play. I'm not trying to be an ambassador to a certain sound it's just, that's what I'm drawn to. If I'm gonna play music, I'm gonna play music that I want to listen to.
Have Cajun music purists had anything to say about you going in a completely different direction on Beneath Still Waters?
Not really, because most of the Cajuns here, throughout the week they would listen to George Jones and Hank Williams but on the weekend they would listen to their French music on the radio. People here, especially in Louisiana – Cajun music and country music are twins. It's just the way of life, so no, when I get on stage, if I'm playing with the Pine Leaf Boys, who I tour with a lot, and we do two or three country tunes a night, or we'll do a couple Jerry Lee Lewis or Ray Charles tunes on the piano because that's Louisiana music. Louisiana people love that. I've gotten more praise for it than anything.
And people sometimes don't realize that Louisiana, with the popularity of the Louisiana Hayride, could have become what Nashville is to country music in an alternative scenario.
And then we have Texas right on the side of us. It's kind of hard not to embrace country music when you have a neighboring state of Texas. It influenced a style of Cajun music, so Cajun and country on this end, they go hand in hand.
Do you think you'll make another solo album before another 17 years passes?
[Laughs] I think so. Whether it's a country one or a Cajun one, I'm not sure yet. But I think so. The process of making this record was fun and just the. . . what's the word. . . the outpouring of support and everything, people are really liking what I'm doing. When I started doing this project, it wasn't for me. Because it's been years, probably 10 years, people have been asking or telling me, "You need to do a country record, you need to do this." And finally I got up the nerve and it was just, do it or don't do it kind of decision. But I didn't do it for me. I didn't do it to sell records or get gigs. It's like, people have been asking for years and I'm like, well here you go. I think it's taken off more than I thought.
Ironically, it may bring you a lot of those things you weren't really seeking.
My dad was telling me that last night, "I think this is gonna go further than you hoped for." I said, "If it does, that's great, but definitely not what I was going for." But if people like it, then I'll do it.
Beneath Still Waters is out now on Valcour Records.