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A man holds a fiddle. A boy to his left holds an accordion. A boy to his right holds a triangle.
Steve Riley (center) flanked by sons Burke (left) and Dolsy (right).

Homegrown Plus: Steve Riley and the Riley Family Band

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In the Homegrown Plus series, we present Homegrown concerts that also had accompanying oral history interviews, placing both together in an easy-to-find blog post. (Find the whole series here!)

We’re starting a new season of Homegrown Plus with the last full season of Homegrown concerts, Homegrown 2020. Our audiences will notice some differences between these and previous years of Homegrown. The COVID-19 pandemic changed the way we did these concerts in 2020, and we’ve retained the changes for 2021. Instead of doing live concerts in the Coolidge Auditorium and Whittall Pavilion, we asked the artists to produce concert videos, either solo or with whatever musicians they could safely work with in pandemic conditions. We got a great range of videos, from solo artists in their homes and studios, to bands who played outdoors while observing social distance guidelines, to artists who ventured out to beautiful locations to shoot fantastic videos.

I’m very happy to continue the series with Steve Riley, an artist I’ve personally known for over 20 years. Steve is a widely acclaimed master of the Cajun accordion, and also sings and plays fiddle and guitar. He began his musical career at seven, growing up in Mamou, Louisiana. As a teenager he honed his craft as a student of NEA National Heritage Fellow Dewey Balfa, touring and playing throughout south Louisiana with Dewey until the older musician’s death in 1992. For the past 31 years, Steve and his renowned group, the Mamou Playboys, have traveled the United States and the world as ambassadors of Cajun music and culture.

Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys have won numerous awards and been nominated for many Grammys over the years. We would obviously have loved to have the band in the Homegrown series, but of course, in the pandemic the band’s activities ground to a halt. Luckily, Steve has two very talented sons in his household: Burke, who was 10 when the concert was recorded, and Dolsy, who was 7. They both play multiple instruments like their father, and had already logged hours playing and singing with him onstage and online. In this concert father and sons perform together in their own backyard, billing themselves as The Riley Family Band. See the concert below!

In the oral history interview, I asked Steve about his whole musical history: his upbringing in Mamou and his earliest musical memories; learning from his grandfather and from the great Dewey Balfa; attending the Festivals Acadiens et Creoles; meeting David Greely and founding The Mamou Playboys; and taking the band from playing the local restaurant and dancehall market to being an internationally famous touring band. Along the way, we talked about his composing and songwriting, and about other friends and influences, including Sean Ardoin, Keith Frank, the Savoy family, Zachary Richard, and Barry Jean Ancelet. We also talked about some of Riley’s other projects, including the dance group High Performance, the more traditional outfit called Racines, the swamp-pop project Li’l Band of Gold, and The Band Courtbouillon, a project which Riley formed with Wayne Toups and Wilson Savoy, and with which he won a Grammy award in 2012. Naturally, we also talked about his family and his work with Burke and Dolsy. I first interviewed Steve Riley in 1994, so it was great to catch up with him after all these years!  See our conversation in the player below.

You can find both of these videos with more bibliographic information on the Library of Congress website, with the concert here at this link and the oral history at this link.

Read more about Steve Riley at the Mamou Playboys website.

Thanks for watching, listening, and reading! The American Folklife Center’s Homegrown Concert Series brings music, dance, and spoken arts from across the country, and some from further afield, to the Library of Congress. For information on current concerts, visit the Folklife Concerts page at Concerts from the Library of Congress. For past concerts, including links to webcasts and other information, visit the Homegrown Concerts Online Archive.

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