Before the pandemic, Jamie Lynn Fontenot’s schedule was packed. In any given week, the guitarist and vocalist for women-led Cajun group The Daiquiri Queens could teach kindergarten, rehearse, conduct band business and play a wedding, boucherie, Downtown Alive! or music festivals in Brooklyn and upstate New York.
“Our band was just raging, and it was going up and up and up,” Fontenot beams. “And then it just was like — pause. At first it seemed like, oh, maybe this is going to be fun to put this pause on life for all Americans that are living to work.”
Between trying to finalize their album, and a run of spring festival bookings in South Louisiana, Fontenot and The Daiquiri Queens were living to work pre-pandemic. Fontenot spent time dealing with booking agents, event planners, promoters, and producers to align schedules, book shows, secure deposits, and cut and promote a record. Essentially, music was Fontenot’s second full-time job. Then things went quiet.
“There goes French Quarter Fest,” as she says, recounting the litany of opportunities extinguished. “There goes Jazz Fest.”
Before vaccines, periods of unknown dragged on. Bit by bit through scattered and staggered re-openings and re-closings, musicians and the music industry remained if not silent, then pianissimo. The festival circuit was an important launching pad for Lafayette musicians. Losing it for a year threatened to stunt their ambitions. Now, after an unprecedented period of limbo, festivals are beginning to make a comeback, and musicians like Fontenot are refocused on reaching new professional heights.
When schools initially ended the school year early, the free time was good for Fontenot. It wasn’t until the arrival of summer that she realized activities would still be severely limited for what should have been the carefree days of summer vacation.
A homeowner still repaying student loans, Fontenot found that opportunity wasn’t the only thing missing. She has a master’s degree in education, but Louisiana’s current teacher pay creates a contrast too stark to ignore — her cut of pay from the band’s set in the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival is roughly the same she’d make in a week of teaching. Aside from the passion of playing music, the hard work and hustle are well worth the effort for those lucky enough to make money.
When live music was what it was, The Daiquiri Queens were in high demand, and, as Fontenot says, on the rise. They also had booked Festival International de Louisiane, French Quarter Festival, several more dates around the country, and what was to be their first European tour.
There were gigs here and there last year, but Fontenot didn’t want to take them out of respect for the then-overflowing hospitals and increasing number of deaths. With sadness, she notes that the moral crossroads musicians faced — and the hyper-politicizing of science throughout the pandemic — seems to have sowed schism within music communities. She says it got so bad during the depths that some musicians considered moving away.
“I can’t picture life post-COVID,” she says.
But life after Covid is approaching. Festival after festival is announcing its live return. October in Louisiana will already feature French Quarter Fest, Jazz Fest and the Voodoo Music + Arts Experience. Festivals Acadiens et Créoles is hoping to hold a live event this fall, too.
“It’s coming back,” says Lisa Stafford, programming director for Festival International and veteran music booker, of the return to in-person festivals. “I already tried to book a band for a date in May, and they’re already booked up.”
Before the pandemic, Stafford received some 300 emails of booking requests and inquiries a day. Those came to a halt. Festival International fared better than most, adjusting to a virtual format on the forefront of pandemic adjustments in the industry. Stafford and the Festival International team were called to consult in the industry for their new expertise of virtual programming. Stafford is contracted to direct programming for three additional festivals, in two different states, all of which were shuttered last year. One of her accounts may soon announce a return this fall, as live events trickle back. Another has already pushed to 2022.
One band she works with, accustomed to performing roughly 150 nights out of the year, told her that the times had nearly reached their nadir, when “the floodgates opened” this spring.
Jourdan Thibodeaux has traveled the country and internationally to play as an ambassador for Cadiens and Acadiana, but he always retreats to his home, land and livestock in Cypress Island to live as his ancestors did. Thibodeaux is cut from a classic Cajun cloth: He runs a farm and food processing company, which includes the Comeaux’s product line, by day and fiddles, sings and stomps by night.
His music reflects his Cajun/Creole cowboy lifestyle, but what makes Thibodeaux’s draw unique is that he also explores the contemporary, like a renaissance man of Cajun music. His band, les Rôdailleurs, consists of other veteran ambassadors of Louisiana music, among them Cedric Watson and Joel Savoy. They also suffered the cancellation of national festivals and a European tour, except theirs was set for 2021 and still axed by the pandemic. Though Thibodeaux continued to operate his business through the pandemic, it was the romance of performing — and the importance of music to the culture — he seemed unable to replace.
“Our culture is built on gathering,” Thibodeaux says. “It’s built on getting together. Every part of it. I don’t care if it’s a crawfish boil, if it’s going to listen to music, if it’s whatever. Everything we do requires a bunch of people getting together — and then you had the world say, ‘Hey, no people getting together.’”
The disruption of the music scene left musicians feeling anything but whole. Although Thibodeaux delineates between “chillin’, sittin’, porch music” and larger shows, and believes there’s a place for both, he points out that when you have the option for only one, the other will be missed.
“It’s that bond,” he says, that he missed most.
Thibodeaux is already booked for a festival in Wisconsin in the fall. He hopes to resume bringing his culture to locals, other parts of the country and the world, but he also wishes this period will rejuvenate locals to intently experience the offerings at home. Traveling musicians sometimes speak of locals taking the wealth of talent and resources in the area for granted.
“We go to these other places,” Thibodeaux says, “the Midwest, Canada, California or whatever. And it’s nothing like over here. There’s just this tremendous, tremendous response and appreciation for everything [the culture] is, because it’s not there; it doesn’t exist; they don’t have it.”
Thibodeaux is optimistic that as case counts decrease and vaccination numbers rise, people will be willing to venture back into the world. He’s found a renewed strength, as he, his colleagues and live events start rolling again. And if Stafford’s and Fontenot’s predictions are correct, it’s strength they’ll need.
“It seems like when the world starts again,” says Fontenot, “we’re all going to be so busy again.”