SPECIAL REPORT: Where did the Lake Charles music scene go?

Updated: Oct. 23, 2017 at 7:05 PM CDT
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LAKE CHARLES, LA (KPLC) - Throughout history are periods of time when creativity flourishes. New talents pop up, and different styles of music are born.

Going back to the1920s, when Nelly Lutcher and the Chitlin Circuit reigned supreme, music has always been a driving force in Southwest Louisiana.

Carolyn Woosley started the Music Museum of SWLA, an organization that preserves musical history. To understand the culture surrounding the sound coming out of this corner of the state, you have to look at what was happening back then, she said.

Radio became king, introducing fans to far away sounds they had never heard before. Although local radio stations were crucial, airwaves weren't the only vehicle bringing new styles to town.

Click HERE for a list of bands and musicians that played at the Civic Center. It is not comprehensive.

"You also had people crisscrossing between New Orleans when they would get gigs in Houston," Woosley said, also including Shreveport and Dallas. "And they would stop over in Lake Charles overnight to play."

Southwest Louisiana, she describes, was a crossroads.

"There's no better place to be," Woosley said. "There's no reason to apologize for being at a crossroads because that's where the different influences and cultures cross."

Styles were mixed, like when Cajun and Western Swing came together to form one of the longest performing musical groups of all time, the Hackberry Ramblers.

But, this wasn't just a result of styles passing through, there were new people settling down in the area tapping into the oil and gas industry, like Eddie Schuler.

The music producer settled in the area and started Goldband Records, a label producing huge names like The Ramblers, Iry LeJeune, Phil Phillips and a 13-year-old girl named Dolly Parton.

Many recording studios and record labels began to pop up in this corner of "The Bayou State," supporting new emerging genres and styles like La La, Cajun, Swamp Pop and Zydeco - just to name a few.

"These were very fertile times for creativity," said Woosley.

It created a vibrant and prolific live music scene along the minor highways like Broad Street was then.

Woosley suspects a political and social explanation for the thriving juke joint population - Louisiana had some pretty loose rules.

"When I was growing up in the 60's, we would go out to the Green Frog over there and we saw the most amazing music, you can't even believe, and we were young but no one asked for your I.D.," said Woosley.

Texas didn't allow gambling, the clubs all closed early and the drinking age was also 21. Here in Louisiana, it was a different story.

"When we talk to people from Texas and ask them what they would do on the weekend, they were coming across the river," said Al Allemond, the drummer of Louisiana Express.

Members of Louisiana Express, a swamp pop band that's been together for around 40 years, reminisce about their experiences growing up in this area during the height of music culture.

"It wasn't unusual to play a job, leave there, and then go somewhere else on the same evening, so it was like competition," said Allemond. "It was nothing to have 1,200 people at a band job."

A few of the members, like lead singer Chris Flowers, weren't from Louisiana but had to have a taste of the unique sounds coming from the swamp.

"I was absolutely blown away by the talented musicians that came out of the woods," Flowers said. "I'm like 'Where did these people come from?' "

Broad Street was the place to be. Venues like The Bamboo Club dominated the scene, bringing people like Little Richard, billed with his Royal Show - and a young Jimi Hendrix on guitar.

"Hit bands every place you went to, musicians were playing top-notch music," said Flowers.

But then a major shift happened. The interstate was born and while it was great for economics, it sparked a major change in the nightlife, overnight. People were no longer traveling along the minor highways to get into Texas.

This was also the time of integration and a lot of social change brought by many new movements and the Vietnam war.

New economic factors and political realities changed everything.

Cue the Civic Center and the birth of bigger venues.

Chicago, Conway Twitty, and even the King himself... Lake Charles was a stop for some of the biggest names in music.

"Elvis drew the largest number of people, but it was two shows that he played. He played two sellout crowds," said Former Civic Center Director Al Harris. "I brought the largest single event ever booked at the Civic Center and that was Rick Springfield in 1985 or '86. We had 9,500 people."

Harris was a musician traveling around with Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn. He was in Lake Charles to play Contraband Days in the mid-80's, back when the popular festival drew in big performers and decided to take an offer to become the director of the Civic Center.

"We had everybody from Wayne Newton to all the big country acts and all the big rock acts, for that matter," said Harris. "We had whoever was popular, we had them down here."

Harris says there were concerts pretty much every weekend and because of all his contacts in Nashville, they were big ones. Way different from the Civic Center we know today.

The second part of this series airs Tuesday, Oct. 24 at 10 p.m. We'll explore what music culture in Lake Charles has become and further dive into why it has changed so dramatically.

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