Chris Stafford: A door between universes

Man with a guitar walking to the left
Photo by Jo Vidrine

By some estimates,1,500 people attended Chris Stafford’s funeral on May 5.  

A grieving procession shuffled through the Delhomme Funeral Home after spending an hour in a line that stretched hundreds of yards from his casket. 

Mourners came in from places unknown, some in thin-lapelled jackets, pearl button snap shirts, austere Sunday blacks, hipster prairie dresses and pencil skirts. They were family, friends, fans, onlookers and dignitaries. Dozens, if not more, were bandmates. 

I’m not exactly sure how Staff, an introvert with a cutting sarcasm, would feel about all that. 

It’s hard to imagine him not simultaneously overwhelmed and amused by the fanfare and the whopping success of the crowdfund and foundation set up in his name. 

“Bruh, now y’all raise me some money, huh?” 

The scale, however odd it may have seemed to him, is a testament to just how everywhere Chris Stafford managed to be in his short life. 

He was invisibly the most visible musician in town, a constant in the soundtrack of weddings, festivals, dances, afterparties and barrooms. 

His death, at 36, was sudden and random. A freakish and fatal collision in his truck on a Thursday morning. First responders found him dead on arrival. 

That puts Chris in a grim pantheon among icons in the Cajun music tradition who were killed by cars. Iry LeJenue. Will and Rodney Balfa. Beausoleil’s Tommy Comeaux. Chris Stafford. 

None of these facts can make sense of Chris’ loss at 36. And the speed of his public mourning — his funeral was held just three days after his death — has suspended, in a sense, a reckoning of what’s to come in a lifetime without him. 

“Next Festivals Acadiens … like what the fuck is that gonna look like? Seriously, like, he played with everybody,” says lifelong friend and Feufollet bandmate Chris Segura. “Everybody’s going to be up on stage breaking apart. Because they don’t have him.”  

Eight people lined up for a stage bow on a festival stage
A cross-generational reunion of Feufollet members. From left: Josh Caffery, Andrew Toups, Kelli Jones, Ashley Hayes Steele, Anna Laura Edmiston, Chris Stafford, Taylor Guarisco, Chris Segura, Philippe Billeaudeaux Photo by Jo Vidrine

What exactly does life without Chris look like? It puts too much on his shoulders to ask that existentially of the music scene. 

Traditions, music scenes and the like live and breathe as people live and breathe. But it’s unimaginable that the absence of someone so prolific would not alter, in some way, the sum total and tenor of what this community creates. 

A professional musician from age 8, his body of work is larger than even his loved ones knew. His mom, Lisa, has continued to hear of projects Chris played through well-wishes from distant mourners. 

A playlist capturing a sample of the recordings we know of, produced by close friend and bandmate Philippe Billeaudeaux, is over four hours long and spans genres and generations. And that document represents work on either side of the production booth. 

The Louisiana House of Representatives codified some of that legacy into a resolution last week, ticking off an official but incomplete list of his known recording and performing acts: 

WHEREAS, in addition to his work with LaBande Feufollet, Christopher performed on albums by Cedric Watson, Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys, Johnny Nicholas, the Daiquiri Queens, CourtneyGranger, TommyMcLain, April Verch, Brass Bed, the Red Stick Ramblers, and more; he performed as a member of a variety of bands including The Bucks, Racines, the Viatones, Cedric Watson et Bijou Creole, Trouble Down Teche, and his little sister’s newly formed group, Chére Elise… 

As much as public mournings zeroed in on his career in Cajun music, Chris is arguably best understood as a savant of melody, who just happened to like Cajun music. 

Of course, to his family and friends, Chris was so much more than that.  

Man smiling with an open mouth gran playing a guitar
Photo by Jo Vidrine

Like many of his friends, I came to love him after first knowing him by reputation. 

Of course, I’d heard of Feufollet. But I first met Chris when he played Rhodes piano in a greasy punk band called the Crackbabies. Make of that what you will. 

Chris and I later bonded over The Beatles and recording equipment. We played together in a band called The Viatones, which trafficked in nostalgia for mid-60s, garage-inflected British and American pop. 

He recorded a song I wrote — “If I Was a Farmer” — an honor and a gift that I will cherish, painfully, forever, and not solely because his version is superior. 

He was darkly funny, a total goofball, who didn’t take himself — or anyone else — very seriously, outside of his affection for them. He once introduced me in a cameo performance with Feufollet as Lafayette’s “rock and roll investigative reporter.” He also tried, for years, to get the word “Cajun” to stick as slang for anything cool. 

He was earnest in how he loved his friends and how freely he let them know it. 

As often as he told his friends he loved them, he could communicate it cosmically in his musical relationships. 

Melody was Chris Stafford’s first language and his love language. As a musician, to watch Chris perform was, in turns, to marvel at his talent and rage at how effortless and indifferent he seemed to go about it. 

He could tell jokes with his playing, a mimicry he could bend into parody to make his musician buddies laugh while dazzling the dance floor. 

(There’s really no other explanation for Feufollet’s Zydeco cover of Brian Eno’s “Baby’s on Fire.”) 

That he could have made it as a Nashville session player wasn’t lost on him or those around him. But, from a young age, he valued his relationships and his simple comforts more than his ambition. 

“He had such a sense of peace of who he was, what made him happy, and what he wanted out of life — a quality that is extremely rare and one that most people are still searching for,” his brother Mike says. 

He hated to be called a child prodigy. But there’s no way around it. He was. 

By 4 or 5, he was outrunning music teachers. A frail child whose brain overmatched late developing motor skills, Chris played instruments as a kind of occupational therapy. He showed an innate talent and sense of musical grammar quickly, picking up accordion, fiddle and guitar in rapid succession. 

“It’s such a young age that he did all that. So it can only be attributed to a godly phenomenon,” says Lisa. 

Read more community coverage

In maturity, Chris’ fingers, long and slender, crawled the fretboard of a telecaster like a spider’s legs, weaving deceptively simple patterns of melody and counterpoint. He could rip barroom country like Clarence White or saw a prairie Cajun waltz with sweetness and edge like Rufus Thibodeaux, observes Billeaudeaux. He always reminded me of George Harrison, and it’s genuinely not hyperbole to say Chris was the superior player. 

Fluency like that is uncommon on one instrument. To deploy it across half a dozen — and with a native speaker’s sense of irony and intonation — is uncanny. 

“He knows melody better than I know the English language,” says Billeaudeaux. 

He was not the first modern icon in Cajun Music. Zachary Richard, Michael Doucet, Steve Riley and others had well established careers by the time Chris and Feufollet emerged. 

They were cute, sure, but they could play. Both Staff and Chris Segura — who auditioned fiddles for each other by phone — had command of the music and the tradition at a level that got the band booked to Festivals Acadiens et Créoles when few youth bands were allowed. 

Chris with his accordion on the cover of Feufollet’s first record.

At age 11, Stafford wrote three songs on the band’s debut record, including an instrumental two-step called “La danse du Feufollet,” which kicks off with a droning, syncopated swing. Steve Riley, father of Chris’ sister Elise Riley, produced the record. Impressed, Steve produced two more after it. 

“I didn’t have to do a whole lot,” Steve says. “… All of these kids had a pretty good grasp of what was going on — especially Christopher. He knew how to articulate what he wanted to do.” 

What set Staff apart was his uncanny mix of proficiency, curiosity and range. He couldn’t be confined to one musical language, even as he’s come to be identified most closely with the Cajun tradition. 

“If you look at all of the bands over his life that he was kind of developing and participating in, I don’t know what percentage of them would be Cajun bands, probably not the majority,” says John Troutman, a friend, bandmate and now the curator of music and musical instruments at the Smithonian’s National Museum of American History. 

“Part of his loss to the community is the fact that, whereas he had founded one of the most interesting and innovative bands in the canon of Cajun music making,” Troutman says, “he was also developing projects and facilitating music that really just kind of crossed all kinds of boundaries, in terms of the music industry, or in terms of genres and interest.” 

Man playing an organ
Staff, playing a Hammond B3 organ, deployed an uncanny fluency with melody on virtually any instrument. Photo by Jo Vidrine

For as easy as Chris made it look, you could imagine that it was hard being Chris Stafford.  

Chris was seen, from an early age, as part of the vanguard of a resurgent Cajun music tradition, a tall order for a scrawny kid with a bookish introversion. 

Viewed as the “savior generation” emerging after the mid-20th Cajun renaissance, the rotating cast of Feufollet and its peers were the first to be raised with institutional force behind Louisiana French and Cajun cultural traditions. 

Among the very first students enrolled in Lafayette’s French Immersion schools, Staff was quickly bilingual. He became a literal poster child with a bowl cut, foisted into the marketing apparatus of Louisiana’s alphabet soup of cultural tourism and advocacy organizations. He was on billboards and magazines smiling like a cherub with an accordion on his chest.

French Immersion was the feedstock for the band of junior torchbearers that would become Feufollet, by far Chris’ longest running musical project and the act for which he’s likely best known. 

Some 31 people cycled in and out of the band over the course of two decades as the band evolved from something of a French Immersion promotional act to a Grammy-nominated creative force. 

Chris became Feufollet’s default front and center, a band leader more comfortable as a side man than a tradition personified. Performative cultural saviorism wasn’t Staff’s thing. 

“There’s all this talk about, you know, he was this cultural ambassador,” says his brother Mike Stafford. “I guess he was. But, I mean, he would laugh at that. Satirically. It’s always something that me and him had like, ‘Oh, yeah, you’re saving the Cajun culture.’ We were just going and playing music.” 

Feufollet would grow to weather criticism. The right mix of two-steps and waltzes was a meal ticket for players who made a living on the road. They experimented, and for traditional players, experimentation can come at a cost. 

The irony is Cajun music has a long tradition of innovation. Staff himself often bristled at pretensions of authenticity, wherever he found it, and eagerly pointed out that the version crystallized in the minds of tourists and cultural importers was itself an invention that borrowed aggressively from honky tonk country of the early to mid-20th century. 

As much as Chris was mourned as a boundary pusher, the label doesn’t feel right — because I’m not convinced Chris would have acknowledged boundaries. 

“What if we say it, not in terms of pushing boundaries, but opening doors?” says folklorist and Festivals Acadiens et Créoles co-founder Barry Ancelet. “You know, he was opening doors and saying, ‘Hey, there’s another room. Yeah, go check this out. This, this house ain’t one room — it’s more than one room.” 

A musician playing Cajun accordion with a fiddler in the foreground
Chris Stafford was a living, breathing exception proving a rule: For tradition to live, it has to change. Photo by Jo Vidrine

Now Staff could be a purist. He was particular about how the many subgenres of Cajun music were performed, down to the sequencing of, for instance, dance hall Cajun arrangements: accordion, vocal, steel, fiddle, accordion.

And he was fiercely protective of the French language. Chris was a stickler for pronunciation and articulation. Artists who recorded with him trusted his command of vernacular, and he became a go-to authority on writing and singing in Cajun French, even though he abandoned his pursuit of a degree in French Studies at UL Lafayette. 

I got a glimpse of that when my band, Brass Bed, and Feufollet swapped songs for a 2011 collection we called The Color Sessions, a thematic nod to Feufollet’s En Coleur and our record Melt White. 

I could never get the sound right for how Cajun French slurs the phrase a cette heure and must have run that line in Blake Miller’s “Des Promesses” a dozen times before Staff was satisfied. (I’m not sure he was ever satisfied.) 

“Chris hated bullshit,” says Billeaudeaux. And to Staff, there was a lot of it on the airwaves. Singers on local radio often sounded more like they were imitating French, albeit earnestly. And language is the beating heart of the tradition.

“If you’re just going to be singing in French gibberish you might as well make up your own language. You’re not saying anything at that point,” Staff told Oxford American in 2015.  

His sense of propriety, however, is not what makes the boundary pusher label ill fitting. Rather, it miscasts Staff’s understanding of himself, his ambitions and Cajun music’s own tradition of reinvention. 

To wit, this terse exchange with French Creole artist Jonathan Mayers from 2015, accompanying a heavy acrylic portrait of Staff, with a cloak of black hair, playing accordion in the control room of his studio: 

JM: Who is your biggest influence?

CS: Probably The Beatles.

What’s your favorite meal?

Rice and gravy.

When did you begin playing music?

Started playing music at 8 years old.

What piece of advice would you give a stranger?

Don’t waste time. (Because I waste so much time)

What would you say is your biggest moment in your music career so far?

I got to back up Dr. John on a cd of music written by Bobby Charles.

Do you have a favorite color?

No favorite color.

What’s your goal in creating and playing music?

No goal. I just like it.

With Cow Island Hop, released in 2008, Feufollet began a three-record sequence of increasingly progressive, inventive and sonically ambitious recordings.

En Couleurs earned Feufollet national attention and the admiration of Elvis Costello, one of Staff’s idols. The New York Times shortlisted the band as one to watch at the 2011 Grammys. 

Pouncing on an ascendant appetite for Americana among music consumers, Feufollet took aim at escaping the roots festival and VFW hall circuit and inching into the mainstream with Two Universes, a title chosen to capture the record’s bilingual and bicosmic ambitions. 

“We speak English primarily, as our first language, so to write songs in English is not that crazy,” Chris told Oxford American in 2015. “But a lot of the way we’ve built our careers was attached to the French cultural preservation side of the music, so we’ll see if people get upset about our singing in English. We’ve done the cultural preservation thing for a very really long time, and right now we just want to be songwriters and musicians and make art first and foremost.” 

Old-timers groused. Roots festivals occasionally declined invites, which cut into the band’s bottom line. Staff mostly brushed it off. 

Feufollet’s restlessness was vital. The band’s explorations fell in line with a long tradition of circulating new ideas into the bloodstream of Cajun music-making. 

In a sense, Chris Stafford was a living, breathing exception proving a rule: For tradition to live, it has to change. 

“Chris represented the fact that [Cajun music in Acadiana] was clearly a wellspring of music-making that was not staid and archaic,” says the Smithsonian’s Troutman. “But it was something that convinced kids and teenagers that this was the coolest thing that you could do.” 

Convincing teenagers is an existential proposition for any musical tradition. Without them, traditions are mothballed, withered and left to dry up in smoke-filled dance halls. And we often take for granted that they self-perpetuate. 

There’s a natural tension at the membrane that circumscribes tradition, dividing and defining it from the world swirling around it. 

But the line is permeable. Ideas flow in and out of the organism. Figures like Chris metabolize them and make the creature grow. 

“To have someone of his musical genius working with our traditional music — it uplifted and galvanized and expanded the entire system. Like Bela Fleck and Chris Thile working from within bluegrass outward,” says former bandmate Josh Caffery, now director of the Center for Louisiana Studies at UL. 

“And by the same token, it makes the loss harder to bear in practical terms,” Caffery adds, looking ahead at the peculiar problem that will face whatever musical tribute will honor Chris. “Who do you turn to to know how that song is supposed to go? He knew how every song was supposed to go, and everyone knew that he did.” 

Man sitting in a chair in a recording studio control room holding a plastic cup of beer
Staffland studio was a hub for all kinds of musical projects and Staff’s innovations. Photo by LeeAnn Stephan

Setting the philosophical aside, Chris was after something much more elemental. Love. Joy. Expression. 

He was self aware inasmuch as his talents cast in him the mold of a torchbearer. But his fundamental pursuit was creation. A kid lying upside down on his bed, a telecaster flopped on his chest, content to play for hours. 

“He just did what he wanted to do,” says Segura. “And it wasn’t about saving the culture. It wasn’t about any event, I think it was just he enjoyed it.” 

Joy was the wellspring of his creativity. So too were his friendships.  

Luke Huval, who grew up watching Chris, found his footing as a frontman and a fiddler with Chris Stafford as something of a wingman and a guide. Their relationship began as a musical one, a connection through mutual friends, as Chris coaxed confidence out of him, encouraging him to step out and own the stage. 

One night at Blue Moon not too many years ago, Chris sauntered over from his perch at the bar to Huval, then in his early 20s and trying to piece together a social identity as a new kid on the scene. 

“Dude, I just want to let you know, I love you,” he told Huval. 

“I guess sometimes when people tell you that, you never really know what they mean or what they actually feel,” Huval says. “But I think I got to know pretty quickly that Chris meant that. And I think he meant that with a lot of people.”  

About three weeks before he died, Chris called Mike to chat. The brothers, close as twins, spoke regularly, even after Mike left the band to settle down and start a family. 

Mike talked Chris through his finances, helping him organize his income and expenses. There was one red flag: the studio.

“I called him back and said, ‘Man, you gotta shut down the studio,’” Mike recalls. “Think about it logically. I said, ‘You’re paying money to keep the studio operating. You’re in the red.’” 

Mike urged him to at least start charging the network of bands that rehearsed there, who had access to the spare key, the location of which was the worst kept secret in Lafayette. Chris couldn’t bring himself to do it. 

“I’m in most of the bands that are rehearsing there,” he told Mike. And that was that. 

There’s a practical side to Chris’ defense of course. By the time of his death, he was maybe the most in-demand player in the market. Hideaway on Lee, a haunt for many of Chris’ bands, shut down for the weekend after his death, not just for grief’s sake, but because Chris was in three of the bands scheduled to perform. 

But the reality of the charity case at Staffland was Chris’ pathological generosity. He couldn’t say no if he tried. 

The studio is a hodgepodge of broken and adopted equipment, some acquired on trades for studio time, some held as a favor for a friend. 

Staffland was accessible. Chris rarely charged much, and the studio was often booked by hobbyist musicians who could, at an affordable rate, hire a burgeoning legend to engineer their record, and likely play on it too. 

“He created a home with a studio for folks to work out their ideas, to see what’s possible and to record them,” says Troutman. “He was working with some of the most creative people in the area for various types of projects, including his own. And he also would create with the studio a place where a non-professional musician, and their friends or their family could find a place to work in a real live recording studio, and make a record.” 

Man waving on the stage in black and white
Photo by Jo Vidrine

Considering the volume of projects that were published with his name on it, it’s easy to connect him, with few degrees of separation, to the hundreds that descended on his memorial, giving it the air of a state funeral. 

Roughly a month on, these are still early days for the bereaved. His loved ones have taken on the emotional lumber of his legacy. A key piece is what to do with Staffland, a center point for the music scene he helped foster in nearly three decades of professional performance. 

“The fact that our musical journey just got started not long before it was forced to end is really devastating to me,” says his sister, Elise Riley. In the days after his death, she grabbed Staff’s most intimate instruments from the studio — his fiddles, accordions and telecasters — all now bittersweet tokens. He was teaching her accordion and played in her band, Chère Elise. 

“I love him so much it hurt even when he was alive,” she says. 

Staffland is in stasis. Prep work for Chris’ last session is in suspended animation. Mics are lined up unplugged in front of a drum kit. His patch bay is wired. 

It’s been that way since the Thursday he died.

Gigs are back on the calendar. But Staffland is quiet while many of those who would occupy it are away on summer tours, a productive and lucrative seasonal rotation for Cajun and Zydeco players. It’s no doubt a welcome distance from trauma.  

When they come home. A new normal will set in.

They will swallow the lumps in their throats and ask, what do we do without Chris?