Cover photo © 2021 Roman Sobus
Blues fans think they know Tab Benoit. To many he’s the talented musician who is highly accessible to his fans. And, as the so-called “Mayor of Benderville” (at the Big Blues Bender) he is thought of as a someone who always appears willing to have a drink, smoke a cigar and tell great stories. However, few know the extent of his wide-ranging talents and interests. As a painter, diesel mechanic, former football player, airplane pilot, former restaurant owner/cook, inventor, conservationist, co-author, carpenter, welder, amateur electrician, and record producer, it appears that Benoit truly meets the definition of a Renaissance Man. This became even more apparent when Blues Blast Magazine had a chance to catch up with Benoit during his six-day ‘residency’ at the City Winery in Chicago.
Many musicians are also artists, so it is likely not surprising to learn that Benoit is an excellent painter. He reported that he began painting in high school, and while his art teacher recognized and encouraged his talent, she had difficulty with his rebellious attitude toward assignments.
“Our teacher was more of a sculptor than a painter. I wanted to paint, but she wanted to keep us working in clay, so I would never really do the assignments exactly like she asked. She loved my work and encouraged me to keep approaching art in the manner in which I was doing it, but she said, ‘I can’t give you an A because that would be like telling the class they can do whatever they want’. Even though I didn’t get the A, that was some of the first encouragement I had to be an artist, and to do what I really feel.”
As a young teenager, Benoit also worked as a diesel mechanic at his father’s shop. This is a skill that later came in handy during those times when he had to fix his tour bus on the road.
“I used to work on my own bus until I got a driver that is a good mechanic. Now I try to keep my fingers out of that compartment if possible. But when I met Albert Collins, he didn’t know I played guitar, he only knew me from when I helped him fix his bus. He was playing at Tipitinas and I had arrived there early and saw some feet sticking out of the engine compartment of his bus, so I asked ‘do you need some help?’ He said ‘Yeah—hand me that wrench.’ I didn’t know it was Albert Collins working on his own bus. So, then he later recognized me when he saw me again, but he didn’t know my name, so he just called me ‘bus man.’ I stayed the “bus man” to him because I would see how all of these guitar players would show up with their guitars on their back and he would let them play, but he would do one note and just knock them dead. After he let them play, he would come back to me and talk to me. So, I said to myself ‘I don’t want to be that dude’, and I never told him I played guitar. His widow later told me that she wished I had let him know that I play because she thought he would have liked the way I play his songs.”
After a very short time as a kicker for the football team at Louisiana State University, Benoit decided not to finish his degree or continue with football, despite being close to earning a scholarship. He had learned to fly at a very early age and decided to devote his efforts to becoming an instructor at a flight school in New Orleans.
“I stopped playing music for a year and really tried to apply myself to becoming a pilot one hundred percent. But I was the new instructor, so they always gave me the problem students—the ones no other instructors wanted because they couldn’t speak English or just couldn’t fly. This one guy, Mario, was from Greece, couldn’t speak English, and he was really scared of flying. I think he was only taking lessons because his two older brothers were taking lessons. I tried to teach him for a year, but on the last day of flying with Mario, I made up my mind. I thought ‘I’m going to land this plane and let my boss know that this is it.’ That’s how bad it was. It was not an easy decision to quit because I didn’t have a following or a band at that time, but I told my boss ‘I’m turning in my Epaulettes and I’m going to play music for a living.’ My boss just laughed at me because he had no idea I played music at all, and thought I was saying that I was going to go out and buy a guitar and try to learn how to play. So, he told me to just take a week off and chill, and it would be alright. But I quit that day. And, after I got established, my former boss has occasionally shown up at my shows, and he sometimes jokes that I can have my old job back if I want it.”
Benoit, who is from Cajun, Cherokee and Choctaw descent, also used to own a Cajun restaurant/music venue called Lagniappe Music Café. He frequently cooked for the restaurant to make sure no short-cuts were taken with the food preparation.
“For a lot of Cajun food, the timing is important. It might take three or four hours to make and the time where you move from one phase of cooking to the next is important for the outcome of the dish. In a way cooking is like music. You always think the next time will be the best gumbo you’ve ever made because you learn from every other time, just like you always think you can play a song a little bit better than you have before. For both cooking and music, you’ve got to be really passionate about it to be good.”
In 2019, Benoit co-authored a book about the blues and mental health, aimed to help decrease the stigma of mental illness and also to raise money for the HART Fund, a non-profit that helps pay for medical/mental health expenses blues musicians cannot afford to pay. His interest in this was related to his awareness of how music can be therapeutic to people during difficult times. (Full disclosure – Interviewer Anita Schlank was the co-author of this book!)
“It’s often a song that brings you back from a rough time, when nobody else can say the right thing. When I realized that sometimes I have the ability to help people through something in their life with a song, I knew that this was what I really needed to be doing. I guess my part of that book is really about that—helping people. Even if it is just one person, it is worth it.”
Benoit’s non-profit organization, The Voice of the Wetlands, aims to bring awareness to the erosion problems in the Bayou region. He has been devoted to this cause for almost twenty years, but progress is slow, and he noted that when a group is working with the Federal Government Corp of Engineers, it can take decades before you know if you have made any progress. While the erosion has not stopped, more people are talking about the problems that exist, and new projects have begun to address it.
Benoit is also an inventor, and once used his welding skills to invent an apparatus to attach garbage cans to the outside of a car to bring them to the end of a long driveway.
“I guess necessity is the mother of invention when you live that far off the road. My neighbor saw me using it and said I should patent it, and I am listed as the inventor with the patent office. But I’m not going to manufacture them, so I didn’t proceed any further with a patent.”
While at home during the pandemic, Benoit also improved his skills as a carpenter, electrician and plumber. He did not think it was unusual for a musician to be skilled in so many areas and explained that those who live in the Bayou appear equally skilled in diverse areas.
“If you have a wood house in southern Louisiana you will have rot, so I was fixing everything I had neglected for decades while touring. People down where I live are very resourceful. Just like it seems that everybody there can play music, it seems like they will always figure out ways of doing things. We have hurricanes and the people who live there need to get resourceful when they are getting knocked down over and over again. A lot of musicians I know had built their own houses or their fishing camps and are also welders and electricians.”
While known primarily as a guitarist, Benoit’s first instrument was the drums, and once he sings a song fans often have little tolerance for hearing others attempt the same song. When asked how his voice seems to improve with age, while other singers tend to lose power and range, Benoit stated that he thinks it is because he is still learning.
“When I started singing, I didn’t have much experience, so there’s only one place to go from there, but I think you figure out how to use the instrument a little better every time you use it. I’m learning how to use air and control the air flow through the vocal cords. It’s like playing an instrument that you can’t see, and you can’t touch it with your hands. To me, it’s the hardest instrument to play—that’s what makes it more challenging. I’m always working on how to get more emotion from the song into it so that the audience feels it.”
The project that has taken up most of Benoit’s time in recent years is his record label, Whiskey Bayou Records, which is co-owned by his manager, Rueben Williams. Benoit frequently contributes to the album with songwriting, and by playing drums, rhythm guitar and offering background vocals. Benoit’s longtime bass player, Corey Duplechin also plays on most of the albums. Whiskey Bayou Records has released albums by Eric Johanson, Eric McFadden, JP Soars, Damon Fowler, Alastair Greene and most recently Big Chief Monk Boudreaux. To some, it might seem like an odd time to start a record label, since the availability of Internet music streaming services has dramatically decreased album sales, and songwriters and independent music labels are making a fraction of what they made in the past.
‘Well, the label wasn’t really about making money, it’s about taking money out of the picture. It’s about making records when there is not a time crunch because it’s costing money to rent a studio, or because you have a record label executive following a deadline. To me, when you are making art, you should never be thinking about the money. It puts unnecessary pressure on the artist to come up with magic. It should be about doing what you feel and taking however long it takes to capture that. The funny thing is when we do that, it actually ends up being faster.”
Benoit has often been heard expressing his dislike for the recent trends in the music business to correct the sound of bands through the use of autotuning. He insists that the bands playing on the Whiskey Bayou Label record live, so the album is more authentic and sounds the way the band would sound at a concert.
“It’s the hardest thing to listen to yourself. It’s like looking in the mirror and you can get really hard on yourself and talk yourself out of releasing those tracks. I had to learn how to listen to myself more objectively once I started producing my own records, and usually the first time you play is the best. Maybe it wasn’t exactly as you would want to play it, but it was honest. We play as we feel it and let the honest take be the one that goes on the record. It’s a conversation with the audience, so let it be that. The industry doesn’t always want to hear that. They want to put out some polished, finished piece to make people want to buy it. But I think the music we put out can be listened to by the average music fan and they can tell it is honest music for honest real people. They can tell the artist really means what they were saying and felt what they were playing.”
Benoit also has a different approach than most when it comes to songwriting. While many songwriters talk about how they are constantly writing, jotting down ideas for songs every day, Benoit believes in bringing just the skeleton or simply an idea for a song to the recording session, and finishing it there. He has co-written several songs for the artists who have recorded on his label.
“I tell them not to write everything out. They should record it as they experiment with their feelings and let it happen. If you write out the songs ahead of time you might overthink things. It’s important not to let your head get in the way of your art. Sometimes, the way we write, we will be thinking about how to finish writing a song, but then we move on to something else. A lot of time is spent just talking and hanging out and telling stories, and then something for the song gets sparked off from that. It happens naturally. It always seems as if the best songs on the album are the ones that were written right there. For example, Alastair was messing around with a few chords and the word ‘heroes’ popped in my head because the sounds created a visual, and that was what I was hearing. So, boom—here comes the whole song. That’s what happens when it is organic and natural. There was no overthinking, and the songs end up being better because of that.”
Alastair Greene confirmed that his recording experience matched that description exactly. He described the atmosphere at Whiskey Bayou Records as “really laid back and comfortable. We laughed constantly and really hit it off. I had an absolute blast down at his studio. We had so much fun and really captured what I believe is my most honest record to date.”
All the earlier artists on the Whiskey Bayou label are guitarists, but the most recent release seems like a departure from the norm. The album features singer Big Chief Monk Boudreaux and only half of the songs on the album are blues, with the other half being reggae songs. Boudreaux recorded the reggae songs during a trip to Jamaica, accompanied by Damon Fowler, who plays on several tracks. In addition, on this album Benoit not only contributed guitar work, but also played the organ. Benoit described how he felt compelled to record Boudreaux and noted that he believes Louisiana and Jamaica have influenced each other, leading to a natural connection between the two.
“Monk is a legend of Louisiana music and is the oldest living Mardis Gras Indian Chief. He’s also been a part of the Voice of the Wetlands from the beginning. His style of songwriting matched well with my style, because he will tell people to start playing and then he starts making up the lyrics on the spot. He doesn’t even write the lyrics down in a notebook. It’s easy working with him, but we had to find a way to put that story together in an album and make it cohesive—to make it sound like it was part of the same album even though it was recorded in two different recording studios. Also, while I’m not really great on the keyboards, I believe the organ is very rhythmic, almost like a percussion instrument. So, since I had a B-3 sitting in my studio, I just used it like that.”
The result is a very unique and powerful album, as Damon Fowler and Johnny Sansone, who both contributed to the recording, will attest. Sansone noted, “Just being in the presence of a man with such a deep heart and soul is very moving. But watching and working with Big Chief Monk Boudreaux in the recording studio was a calming conviction of just how passionate he is about his past and future in creating his music.” Fowler simply stated, “Going to Jamaica and being a part of Monk’s recording is something I will always hold close to my heart—a week I will never forget.”
While all the Whiskey Bayou Records appear to be quite well-received, fans lament that Benoit has not released an album featuring himself in many years. They constantly remind him of their hope to be able to purchase a new Tab Benoit album soon. But given his wide-ranging interests, it is difficult to tell what type of unique project might demand his attention next, and Benoit certainly has not been idle during the years since the release of Medicine. He has supported and helped develop the careers of several younger emerging artists and was also one of the first bands to get back on the road touring as the pandemic started to fade. Unlike other musicians, he did not participate in live streaming from his home during that time.
“We really need people in the room. We need people to join in with us and feel the vibe—all of us feeling it together. You don’t get that when you are playing to a dot on a computer screen, and you get these little clapping hand emojis as a response. I can’t feel anything from that. When I hear the audience clapping, I feel it, and it is music to my ears.”
To find out Tab Benoit, check out his webpage at www.tabbenoit.com.