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Stomp and Circumstance
Ponderosa Stomp Provides an Earful of NOLA's Hillbilly History
Michael Hurtt, one of the founders of the Ponderosa Stomp, talks about the overlooked country-western influences that helped New Orleans music flourish.
Western swing, bluegrass, rockabilly and country are not genres of music that most people associate with New Orleans, having long been overshadowed by jazz and swept under the cultural rug in an unfortunate turn of events for a city that prides itself on its ties to history and American music. However, every September the city shakes the rug out a little for the annual Ponderosa Stomp, a festival that is in part a celebration of New Orleans' rich and seriously under-appreciated hillbilly history.
The Stomp, which was founded in 2002, is an annual roots music festival dedicated to recognizing the architects of rock-n-roll, blues, jazz, country, swamp pop and soul music that will take place this year at the Howlin' Wolf on Sept. 16 and 17. This year's celebration will include tributes to legendary soul and blues labels Stax Records and Excello Records as well as producer Cosimo Matassa, with tributes being paid by Allen Toussaint, William Bell, the Bo-Keys and many more.
But there will also be country. NoDef spoke to Michael Hurtt, one of the Stomp's founders and frontman for hillbilly-fusion heroes Michael Hurtt and His Haunted Hearts, who are not only one of the few local groups proudly representing the Crescent City's country and roots history but also one of the Stomp's key backing bands.
“We started basically because we were wanting to focus and shine a light on the hidden legacy of New Orleans hillbilly music, which was actually pretty big back in the 40s and 50s but seems invisible now.” says Michael.
Hurtt was involved with the Stomp as a consultant, idea man and band booker before he put the group together. He claims he never thought about playing because he didn't feel that he was good enough, but after an opportunity to back the Detroit soul artist Gino Washington came up. He couldn't say no. The next year he formed the Haunted Hearts, backed Jay Chevalier, and the rest as they say is history.
“We don't play just New Orleans hillbilly, western swing, rockabilly but all kinds of regional songs from places like Texas, the Midwest," Hurtt said. "Detroit has been a big focus for us. There was a really fantastic country scene there back in the day. So we just picked it up from that, and also we began writing our own songs inspired by that style.”
Leroy Martin is an artist who personifies the aim of the Stomp, an artist who made a few important records under his own name, wrote songs for Sunny & the Sunliners amongst other people, backed Barbara Lynn on “You'll Lose a Good Thing” and then seemingly faded from sight. He played the event last year, and backing him was described as a 'dream come true' by Hurtt.
This year, the Haunted Hearts will back Gretna native and early rock 'n roll hitman, Frankie Ford, swamp pop "anomaly," Jivin' Gene and singer and confidant to Uncle Earl Long, Jay Chevalier.
“It's so satisfying to be able to play with these guys, especially when they enjoy your band.” he said.
By necessity, Hurtt has been forced into the role of historian, a role that he never intended, but is now required if he hopes to keep the flame alive. The different styles of music that have been spawned and nurtured by the city do not need to be mutually exclusive. Hot jazz and brass band music can easily sit beside western swing, country, hillbilly music or whatever you want to call it as long as the cultural gatekeepers are willing to embrace the idea.
Luke Thompson, an an incredible bluegrass player – many refer to him as the father of Louisiana bluegrass - started his own bluegrass festival and has been releasing his own records for more than 40 years. Nowadays he can hardly get booked in his own city.
“He's basically been blackballed from Jazz Fest” says an exasperated Hurtt. “They don't want to hear bluegrass, they want to hear zydeco and brass bands. This guy is like a walking piece of history!”
Proof of hillbilly music's lasting influence is in some of the city's most iconic songs. The "Mardi Gras Mambo," which though made famous by The Hawkettes was originally recorded as a country and western song by Jodie Levins. The original "Mardi Gras Mambo" was a hillbilly song. Many of these young jazz bands doing traditional hot jazz may not realize how much of it draws from the same place as western swing, both of which in a lot of ways came from New Orleans. But the part about western swing usually gets left out.
“I feel like the cultural gatekeepers here pat themselves on the back so much of the time, if its from New Orleans that's great but if its not the right type of music from the city then they don't want to hear it," Hurtt said. "Instead of being provincial, we are trying to take the genres that are being ignored and give them equal time, find some artists with local connections, or not, and put them together on the same stage because they are all equally fantastic, and that was the original idea behind the Ponderosa Stomp. Even people who come to the Stomp may not even know who they're seeing, but the stories behind these guys are amazing and so are the threads that connect them and their music.”
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