Nathan Abshire was a Cajun accordion player whose talent as a musician, vocalist, and songwriter, together with his amiable personality, made him a favourite with Cajun and non-Cajun audiences alike. His postwar recordings helped bring the accordion back to a position of prominence in Cajun music, and his songs captured the joys and sorrows that typify the Cajun sound.
Abshire was born on June 27, 1915, near Gueydan in the French-speaking area of southern Louisiana known as Acadiana or “Cajun Country.” The Cajun music that was an essential part of his heritage was generally played on the fiddle or button accordion, and was a mix of French folk dance music, blues, and Celtic fiddle music.
Both his parents and an uncle were accordion players, though Abshire was largely self-taught. He gave his first public performances as a player at house dances and local dance halls at the age of eight. He soon became quite popular in the Acadian prairie country, and as a young man was playing seven nights a week in a club in Basile, where he eventually settled. An important influence on him was accordionist Amade Ardoin, with whom Abshire sometimes played.
Reise and fall of the accordion
Abshire’s career had its share of ups and downs, following the rise and fall of interest in Cajun accordion music. The accordion had only been introduced in the 1870s, but its popularity was already in decline by the late 1930s, when Cajun bands began to be influenced by Western swing music. Abshire made his first recordings for the Bluebird label with the Rayne-Bo Ramblers in the mid-1930s, but he recorded little in the next decade. He was drafted and served in World War II, despite being illiterate and speaking English only with difficulty.
In the years immediately following World War II, Abshire and Iry Lejeune were the musicians most responsible for reviving interest in the accordion. Lejeune’s tragic early death at age 26 in 1955 left Abshire to carry the torch. Abshire composed many of the songs he recorded, including his biggest hit, “Pine Grove Blues.” He first recorded the song with the Pine Grove Boys in 1949, and re-recorded it several times over the ensuing decades. The song epitomises Abshire’s bluesy and soulful style, with the “swampy” sound of his accordion backed by a hypnotic blues beat.
Ovrtaken by ROCK’N’ROLL
Abshire’s career waned again in the 1950s, as rock’n’roll took over the regional airwaves. However, the folk craze of the late 1950s and early 1960s introduced music fans to the Cajun sound, and Cajun musicians began to perform at folk festivals throughout the U.S. Abshire had several regional hits, including “The La La Blues,” “Sur la Courtableau,” and a French version of Southern singer Joe South’s “Games People Play.” Many of the recordings featured accompaniment by the Balfa Brothers, Dewey and Will on fiddle, and Rodney on guitar. Abshire also performed with the Balfa Brothers at the 1967 Newport Folk Festival.
In the early 1970s, Abshire toured extensively and became a favourite of college and festival audiences alike. His motto, “The Good Times Are Killing Me,” was emblazoned on his accordion case, and was the title given to a 1975 public broadcasting documentary in which he starred. However, his career declined once more in the late 1970s, and Abshire earned a living by working at the Basile town dump, while at home he welcomed admirers to his front porch. He died on May 13, 1981.