HARMONY GRITS

EVANGELINE'S DETERMINATION TURNS BUFFET OF MUSICAL STYLES INTO A GRAND GUMBO

When Beth McKee first heard that her band, Evangeline, had been chosen to open Jimmy Buffett's summer amphitheatre tour, she was elated. She became even more excited when she remembered the enthusiasm of the Buffett-loving "Parrotheads" nesting across the country. McKee is the band's Buffett expert, having played with Greg "Fingers" Taylor, the Margaritaville Man's 1991 opener.

Whereas the Grateful Dead are stalked by a dark, moping tribe of crispy-fried, tie-dyed Deadheads, Buffett's followers are a party-up, fun-lovin' bunch known as Parrotheads.

"They're all crazy," Beth McKee drawls, "all of em. Maybe some are crazier than others, but it's hard to tell." The Parrothead craze begins when otherwise normal adults hear that Buffett is coming to town. Flying into action, they wind up the blender, pull on a wrinkled Hawaiian shirt and don brightly painted Styrofoam parrot heads. These bobbing bird heads in Buffett's crowds symbolize their hero's eternal beachcomber attitude. Even more prevalent than bird heads, however, are those who fasten shark fins to the top of their heads in honor of Buffett's tune "Fins." The Ohio city mentioned in the first line of that song shows how even a landlocked burg assumes a tropical world view when Buffett comes to town. "Cincinnati is Parrothead capital of the world," McKee maintains. "They think it's Mardi Gras. For a week before the gig, the whole city's into it. The TV weathermen start forecasting the weather for the show seven days early."
The five women in Evangeline are going to have to get used to seeing Parrotheads, because the quintet's connection with Buffett runs deeper than just this tour. In November 1991, Evangeline became the first signing of Buffett's new Margaritaville Records. In June, Evangeline, the debut album for both the band and the label, was released. The album is the culmination of a four-year journey that, unlike that of the band's namesake (an Acadian girl who migrated from Nova Scotia to Louisiana in an epic poem by Longfellow), began in Louisiana.

Sometime during the steamy summer of 1988, New Orleans musicmakers Kathleen Stieffel, Rhonda Lohmeyer and Sharon Leger decided to get their act together. They'd been playing around town individually for years, and occasionally, the three would find themselves on the same stage creating impromptu harmonies so pure it seemed a shame to let them fade away into the sultry heat of the Crescent City. So they became Evangeline.

Latter-day member Beth McKee recounts the founding triad's big-bang creation.
"First, they started singing around town, just jammin', to see what they had," the Jackson, Mississippi-born keyboard player and vocalist says from Nederland, Colorado, where the band has a free day before taking on Denver. "Then they sealed themselves off in a garage for a while. Then they started winning contests."
Major contests. Mere days after emerging from the garage, the fledgling group entered and won the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival's inaugural talent search. Even more important, they had caught the fancy of the Jazz Fest's head honcho, Quint Davis. This early relationship would serve them well just a short pair of years later.

After Jazz Fest, the group won a couple of topflight national country music contests: the Marlboro Talent Roundup and the True Value Country Music Showdown. The country-and-Cajun sound honed by this initial version of Evangeline was come by honestly. Stieffel, who picks an acoustic six-string, sings and hails from Bay St. Louis, Louisiana, and played in sundry country bands around the bayou, as did lead guitarist and singer (and practicing lawyer, teacher and mother of three) Lohmeyer. Leger, a rural Louisianian who sang on albums by Cajun fiddler Bruce Daigrepont, provides the band's bass line and works the washboard.

After a year or so of sweetly scenting New Orleans' French Quarter with their three-part harmonies, playing around five hours each and every night, the group's sound grew taut and polished. Yet the trio sought to expand its influences and sound even more, adding the Austin music scene veteran McKee and fiddler-mandolinist--and, of course, singer--Nancy Buchan, whose musical roots touch upon classical (her father is violinist Robert Buchan), jazz, bluegrass and rock. Buchan's r‚sum‚ includes work with Hot Tuna and Papa John Creach. The women range in age from the mid-20s to the wee 40s.

McKee and Buchan had been with Evangeline but a few short months when the real fun began.

"Man," laughs the pretty-much-always-laughing McKee, "don't let anyone tell you that timing ain't everything." Evangeline was pouring out tender-and-tight five-part harmonies and exploring countrified Cajun music in a Bourbon Street bar when New Orleans Jazz Fest chief Quint Davis showed up, hauling with him old pal Jimmy Buffett. In an ongoing effort to please the quirky Buffett--whose last hit record came when beer was half a buck in a bar, but whose albums and concerts continue to reap fine profits--his record company, MCA, granted him his own label. Buffett promptly dubbed his new toy--naturally--Margaritaville Records, and began looking to sign up talent. Davis insisted he knew just the band and, after a single listen, Buffett concurred. After he inked Evangeline, Buffett made another hard-to-classify New Orleans act, the Iguanas, the second Margaritaville band (see accompanying feature).

Evangeline recorded its self-titled album mere months later at Shrimp Boat Sounds studio in Buffett's Key West stamping grounds. Evangeline provides a fine sampling of the tone and textures of Evangeline's myriad influences. "We chose 'Bayou Boy' as our first single because it covers just about everything we do," McKee explains. "It's got the five-part harmonies, the Cajun sound, fiddles, washboards, plenty of twang and everything. It's like putting a tag on a cow's ear, saying 'Hey, this is ours.'"

Evangeline contains covers of Brendan Croker's "Hey, Ren‚," wherein McKee lays a fiery assault on the piano; the old artful dodger Jesse Winchester's "Rhumba Girl; and the beautiful Nanci Griffith anthem "Gulf Coast Highway." A trio of Rhonda Lohmeyer-penned tunes also made it on this first effort, including "Bayou Boy" and "Am I a Fool" (a thoroughly country cry-in-yer-beer beaut soon to be the disc's sophomore single).

Even before the album's release, however, Evangeline had hit the road with Buffett, cruising through two dozen dates before a tour break. During the layoff, the band members went back home and once again prowled the corridors of the Quarter, playing their favorite old haunts. It wasn't truly restful, McKee admits, but it was nice to be home. The keyboardist is also grateful for this current Rocky Mountain respite.

"We've been climbing around the rocks--actually, I've slid quite a bit, getting some bush enemas, but it's been fun." There's laughter in the mountaintop home of friends at this overheard remark. McKee laughs, too.

"You know," she says, "I could tell you about some thangs these girls are doing, but I don't want to wake up with Nair on my eyebrows."
Although the band would welcome another day or ten off, McKee insists that its members aren't especially tired of the road. Personally, she likes how the group's singing, especially the five-part harmonies, continue to meld together in choirlike fashion. "It's like singing in church," she says.

The whole band (including Louisiana drummer and token male Dudley Frug‚, who does not share in Evangeline's limelight) is excited at the way its musical gumbo of country, Cajun, pop, zydeco, blues and jazz--with a soup‡on of gospel for the soul--has become a spicy, one-dish musical feast. Even better, Buffett's Parrothead-laden crowds have welcomed their 35-minute opener with enthusiasm.

There are still nearly 20 shows before this year's edition of the Jimmy Buffett road show ends in Los Angeles, but the group is already planning its second album. One of the goals is to include much more original material. Most of the band members write as well as sing and play--McKee among them. There's no date set as yet for this next project, but with the tour, the songwriting and sneaking the occasional day atop a nearby mountain, McKee doesn't foresee much empty time in the future.

"I don't think we'll be wastin' away," she laughs.

BAD REVIEWS FOR WOODY... v8-26-92

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