Yvette Landry Passes Through
A prize-winning children’s author, schoolteacher, classically-trained pianist and part-time professor of songwriting and American Sign Language, Yvette Landry from Breaux Bridge, Louisiana makes our souls shine with her music.
- by Rheta Grimsley Johnson
Yvette grew up fishing and dancing and riding horses in the colorful Atchafalaya Swamp region, a place where music is as anchored to the earth as the lifestyle. Her songs and voice are what you’d call bona fide. The former Cajun beauty queen – Miss Crawfish Festival in Breaux Bridge; her mother made her enter – writes music that a woman on death row might request for her last listen. It’s world-weary and wise and pretty hard on the opposite sex.
On her CD “No Man’s Land” there’s a song called “I’d Love to Lay You Down,” and it’s not about what you might think. Yvette dreams of laying her man down in “a house with no windows, about six feet underground sounds good to me.” Harsh.
Her musical storytelling is matched only by her war stories. She remembers, for instance, the night a bar denizen past his limit came up to her almost in tears and thumping his chest where he imagined his heart to be. “Play the one that gets me right here,” Yvette recalls that he said.
“And I said to him, ‘What’s the name of the one that gets you right here?’” She pounds her own chest to illustrate.
“Oh, you know,” sighed the drunk. “It’s that song about three whores and a bible.”
Yvette honored his request with her song: “Three Chords and a Bottle.”
Music passes through the Pass on a regular basis. Though we don’t really have honkytonks or big dance halls, there are house concerts with Irish music, holiday parties with live bands, the occasional library music program, festivals with raucous rock. We can ride across the bridge and hear some blues.
The one thing you don’t hear a lot is industrial-strength country or authentic Cajun.
And so, as the sun slipped into the Sound one recent night, I was in heaven listening to Yvette switching from guitar to Cajun accordion and back again at the new home of sisters Betty Sparkman and Janie Mount. Ace blues guitarist John McKellar from the Bay sat in on one blues song, and Yvette threw her beautiful auburn head back and sang from down deep, where hope is born and memories torture. It was righteous.
From a family of musicians, Yvette played piano and woodwinds through high school but much preferred sports. After high school, she all but abandoned her music.
Years later, when her father had brain cancer and she stayed at his bedside for long intervals, the energetic Yvette had to find a substitute for the competitive volleyball that had been an outlet. She bought a bass guitar.
Since then, she’s spent years playing with the best of the Cajun bands: Lafayette Rhythm Devils, Balfa Toujours and the all-female group Bonsoir, Catin. She also fronts her own band and is busy almost every night, or every night she wants to be. Her first solo album in 2010, “Should Have Known,” sent her to the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and created national buzz.
What’s more, she’s generous with her time and talent, constantly helping friends with her ability to find songs and meaning in everyday life.
“The songs just come, I don’t know from where,” she once told me. “The other day I was cooking, and I had to stop and grab my guitar. I ended up with a song and burnt meat.”
When people go west from the Pass it’s most often to the city, New Orleans; for many, whence they came. But I’m planning a trip west to Breaux Bridge, a different but equally delightful scene, somehow meatier and raw. Musicians are lousy on the ground along the Atchafalaya, and on a Saturday night I might find Yvette Landry getting down on “Dog House Blues” at Buck and Johnny’s Pizzeria on Berard Street.
Rheta Grimsley Johnson is a 40-year veteran of southern journalism and author of several books. She has worked as a columnist for newspapers in Memphis and Atlanta and today is syndicated by King Features of New York.
She writes original monthly essays for The Cleaver from her home across the bridge in Pass Christian where she spends roughly half of each year. The rest of the time she lives in Iuka, Miss., in an old farmhouse in a cold, dark hollow. Rheta's books are available at Pass Books and Bay Books, as well as through national booksellers.