It's not the stuff on the TV Louisiana bluesman Tab Benoit’s singing about. Not the “may cause side effects,” hyper-disclaimered, check-with-your-doctor-first gel cap in the reassuringly pastel boxes.
“Bring me my medicine,” he howls, because “I’m stuck in the middle of a right and wrong / I don’t know what keeps me hanging on.”
So starts off the title track from his latest long player, Medicine, a fist-in-the-dirt blues stomper he composed with Anders Osborne, the first in a series of songs the two guitarists assembled for this project during a camping trip together last year on the bayou. Osborne acted as co-writer and rhythm guitarist for the sessions — interestingly, also using BB King’s iconic Gibson guitar “Lucille” for all the non-slide parts.
Apart from being one of the great Telecaster stylists out there these days, and a commanding vocalist, Benoit, for anyone who’s seen him, is a presence. Medicine reminds you of that, and you don’t micromanage presence, or program it or splice it in.
“Yeah, it was the first we wrote when we got out to the camp,” Benoit tells us. “Everything on it was done pretty much the way we wrote it, just a natural sequence of things. I like doin’ it that way.
“Y’know, my main thing about recording, when we go into the studio environment today, the way we record with Pro Tools and all the capabilities we have, I find that … there’s a tendency to be over-controlling because we can be. So you have to consciously go in there with the mindset of not trying to control everything. … Probably 60 percent or 70 percent of what you hear on there is the first time we played the song. And the first time I played the song all the way through.”
For Benoit, it’s kind of an ethic. You make a blues record, it’s mining the artist’s soul. And you don’t airbrush soul.
“That’s a lazy man’s out,” Benoit says. “If that’s the way you go in and record, you’re going to get a lazy man’s record. And who wants to listen to that?” Among the Chicago blues rippers and the Cajun shuffles, and an elegant, bittersweet acoustic ballad called “Long Lonely Bayou” featuring BeauSoleil’s Michael Doucet’s mournful fiddle, Benoit also includes a tight and double-jointed read of The Subdudes’ “Next To Me,” a nugget from the band’s Behind The Levee release from years back.
“Yeah, that was Anders’ suggestion; he thought we could do it justice. I had pushed it away, pushed it away, pushed it away,” Benoit says. “I was just trying to get down all the stuff down that we had written together, and I think it was pretty much the last thing we recorded.”
Benoit shrugs off the observation that he made the thing bounce and jump like it had been his all along.
“Heh, I just played it once,” he says.
“And I hadn’t listened to it a lot, you know? A lot of times, when I do someone else’s song, I don’t wanna hear it a lot. Just give me the overall structure of it, and turn the machine on. I don’t want to make it sound like the original. Then, it don’t come off natural.”
What comes natural. You don’t spend much time around Benoit without picking up on that as theme.
And it’s no small thing for his other passion, as founder and lead voice for Voice of the Wetlands, a grassroots advocacy group he started about eight years ago in support of the preservation of the Bayou region’s ecology. The wetlands at the mouth of the Mississippi River are some of the most unique lands in the United States, and, by Benoit’s estimation, some of the most consistently and infuriatingly mismanaged, a mass collision of government agencies, business interests and frequently ill-informed (if well-intentioned) interventions by outside conservation organizations, all trying to tweak a fragile and delicately balanced ecosystem. Water, wildlife, industry (big and small), population centers.
After a while, for Benoit, it all just became noise.
“The whole idea behind it,” Benoit explains, “was really to make sure that, when they were making decisions about our future here, on the coast of Louisiana, that they took us into consideration, that we had a voice in this.
… The way it started in the first place was me showing up at meetings that were opened to the public and listening to the plans about what to do with the coast of Louisiana. Some of them were state meetings, some parish meetings … FEMA, Army Corp of Engineers. Some of them were other wetlands organizations, who claimed to have solutions and were working on these problems.
“And what I started to hear was this broken record, y’know? Basically, misinformation and misrepresentation. What I saw was a bunch of people making a living off a problem that had been going for 80 years.”
Benoit became a native conservationist — not a guy with a degree or lab experience, but someone who drew from his own experience to confront the “experts” from out of town.
“I’ve flown this area since I was a teenager. I know the delta like an eagle knows it. I know it from the air,” he says. “I know what works and what doesn’t.
“And I knew that I had to get the people in New Orleans involved, because I realized that New Orleans was in deep trouble. They hadn’t looked over those levees and looked at what was on the other side. … So I went to get Dr. John, and the Meters, and the Neville Brothers and the old school New Orleans families, and just laid it all out for them. … And then Katrina happened, and it showed everyone that we were right.
“And it’s got nothing to do with me trying to out-do everybody, because, look man, there’s competition in this world [of wetlands conservation]. As far as nonprofits go, there’s competition for grants. As far as scientific research, there’s money for whoever does the biggest and best research. I mean, it’s a game. I just said, look, these people are playing with our history and our future.
“Y’know, I grew up on 300 acres of land, and we got 40 left. The places where I camped out and wrote my first songs and hunted and fished as a kid are gone. And these people who are making decisions aren’t from here. They don’t live here. And … I talked myself out of running for office to do it this way.”
There is a line from “Whole Lotta Soul,” the third track from Medicine, that goes “What’s the matter with the place we live in? / Did Mother Nature get it wrong? / Rush the delta in the name of changin’ / And dig it till it’s dead and gone.”
“Yeah. Yeah. That’s how they treated this area, like Mother Nature got it wrong,” Benoit says. “So they went and tried to fix what Mother Nature did. And they made it worse.”