Louisiana is sinking, and Johnny Sansone is on a mission to help save it. An acre an hour of the Bayou State is disappearing under salt water. In recent years, a lot of voices have been raised in protest, but nothing seemed to be getting done. In 2004, Louisiana musician Tab Benoit gave the problem a voice and a helping hand. The Houma, La., native started the nonprofit Voice of the Wetlands organization, asking his fellow musicians for help raising money and awareness of the problem.
Sansone was one of the first to sign up and has been touring the country ever since with Benoit and a cadre of Louisiana's finest performers including Anders Osborne, Cyril Neville, Johnny Vidacovich, Waylon Thibodeaux and Big Chief Monk Boudreaux.
Hurricane Katrina intensified Sansone's dedication to the cause. "After actually getting walloped and having friends die, this is an extremely large wake-up call, to see what happens to people here firsthand, and six years later, to be looking around and saying, 'Oh, I don't have that anymore.' I go to get something and I forget, I don't have that anymore," Sansone says. "And it doesn't go away."
Although he's an Orange, N.J., native, Sansone's heart belongs to Louisiana. When he got interested in music and started taking sax lessons at the age of 8, he was drawn to the swampy sounds of Jimmy Reed, Slim Harpo and Lazy Lester he heard on Excello records. By 13, he had switched to harp and guitar, and by the time he got to college in Colorado on a swimming scholarship in '75, he had started a swampy blues band.
He later moved to Austin, sneaking down to New Orleans for long weekends, then settled in North Carolina in the early '80s, playing with R&B band the Alka-Phonics before founding his own group, Jumpin' Johnny and the Blues Party, recording one record, Where Ya At? for King Snake records. The band frequented the Double Door as well as blues joints along the East Coast. He had a stint with Ronnie Earl and the Broadcasters before finally moving to New Orleans in the late '80s.
Sansone took up accordion after attending Zydeco king Clifton Chenier's wake in '85. With the addition of the Zydeco feel the accordion added, a mix of blues, R&B and swampy Creole and Cajun influences, Sansone's sound took on a new dimension. His latest release, The Lord is Waiting and the Devil is Too, on his own Shortstack label, is some of the meanest, low-down and downright satisfying blues of Sansone's career. Backed by Galactic drummer Stanton Moore and Anders Osborne on guitar, Sansone comes out blasting and keeps his foot to the floor all the way through. It's raw and dangerous, swamp-soaked voodoo from a stripped-down power trio.
The Voice of the Wetlands message is that Louisiana has a man-made problem needing a man-made solution. "I can't go down there with my backhoe and try to fill in the marshes that were left behind from the oil companies that dredged them out and let the salt water come in," Sansone says. "The only thing I can do is to be part of something that's gonna bring awareness to people."
Even though the foundation has raised awareness, people need to realize that Louisiana is on the front line of an environmental problem that affects every citizen and every state.
"The No. 1 issue here is the wetlands," Sansone says. "That is the first line of defense. That slows down hurricanes. So if we get another direct hit, and we lost 30 miles of wetlands, that means we're gonna get hit 30 times worse.
"We have to start trying to save ourselves," he adds, "'cause nobody's gonna do it for you. That's really what this band is about, to let people know you gotta get off your ass and do something."