RHETA GRIMSLEY JOHNSON: Cajun singer mom does it all

By Rheta Grimsley Johnson

Yvette Landry sings like a gutsy gal who is sick and tired of being sick and tired. World-weary, rode hard, unlucky in love and life, jaded. The words are full of easy-loving and hard-drinking.
It’s standard country fare, K.T. Oslin meets Gretchen Wilson.
But it’s wise not to confuse Yvette’s original songs with Yvette the person. If you only read the resume, you might expect to meet a dilettante. Except Yvette isn’t dabbling, she’s conquering worlds, sometimes two or three a day.
A teacher, single mom, author and classically trained pianist who somewhat by chance ended up playing bass guitar with several famous Cajun bands, these days Yvette has turned her dead-eye sights on country.
A mutual friend introduced me to the music. It is industrial-strength, my brand. Later, when Yvette invited me to her grandparents’ house that she renovated for an amazing crawfish breakfast she cooked, I thought of another singer, Patti Austin, who brags in song: I can cook, too, as well as the rest….
Yvette’s newest country CD is “No Man’s Land,” the aptly named album from a female’s perspective, a hard-bitten female who has about had it with men. “I’d Love to Lay You Down,” for instance, talks of laying her man down in “a house with no windows, about six feet under the ground sounds good to me.” That kind of thing.
Again, the cynical songs sound nothing like the cheerful former beauty queen dishing up etouffee and explaining herself in a modest, funny way. From a family of musicians, she played piano and woodwinds through high school but preferred sports. After school, she abandoned music.
Years later, when her father had brain cancer and she stayed with him a lot, the athletic Yvette had to find a substitute for the competitive volleyball that had been an outlet for her energy. She bought a bass guitar. It was off to the races. She’s spent years playing with the best Cajun bands: Lafayette Rhythm Devils, Balfa Toujours and the all-female group Bonsoir, Catin.
What’s new, at least only three years old, is the songwriting part of the equation. That, even for enthusiastic Yvette, once seemed formidable. And then at a songwriting course she took in her “spare time,” an instructor unlocked the secret: “All you’ve got to do is just pay attention.”
While camping, she started thinking about how today’s children didn’t stay and play in the woods. She put her thoughts down on paper, picked up her acoustic guitar and “Where Memories Are Gold” became her first original song and wound up on her first solo album, “Should Have Known.”
That album sent her to the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and created national buzz. “The songs just come, I don’t know from where,” she says. “The other day I was cooking, and I had to stop and grab my guitar. I ended up with a song and burnt meat.”
That supper was a rare failure. Her new children’s book, “The Ghost Tree,” already is selling well, and Yvette somehow juggles a solo career, her Cajun bands, mothering her teenaged drummer son Trevor and teaching. She even teaches university courses in songwriting and signing for the deaf.
“My grandmother used to tell me I had to slow down, make choices,” she says. “I never could.”
Some hope she never does.
Rheta Grimsley Johnson lives near Iuka. Contact her at Iuka, MS 38852. To find out more about Rheta Grimsley Johnson and her books, visit www.rhetagrimsleyjohnsonbooks.com.