In Memoriam: Courtney Granger (July 10, 1982 – September 18, 2021)

This past weekend we got the news that Cajun artist Courtney Granger had passed away tragically on Saturday, September 18, at the young age of 39 from complications related to diabetes. Heir to the Balfa family tradition of Cajun music (the Balfas were his great-uncles), Granger toured the world as a member of modern Cajun bands Balfa Toujours and the Pine Leaf Boys before releasing an acclaimed country album in 2016 on Valcour Records. He was a preternaturally talented fiddler, growing up in the tradition in Eunice, Louisiana, a heartbed of the music, but it was his hair-raising Cajun vocals that, to me, were the key to his music. The old school of Cajun singing features high, stepped vocals, a kind of equivalent to the high lonesome sound of Appalachia, though scholars say Cajun vocals were influenced early on by Native American music traditions in Louisiana. Inspired by this tradition of Cajun singing, Granger brought a slightly lower and more emotive sound to his vocals, making a difficult tradition seem both effortless and magical. Soft spoken and humble, Granger was beloved by everyone in Louisiana’s Cajun and Creole music community and internationally renowned from his tours around the world.

Granger guested on many albums as an in-demand fiddler and vocalist (and cut a hard-to-find duo album with Cajun accordionist Jason Frey), but only had two solo albums to his name. Of these, he recorded the first, Un Bal Chez Balfa, in 1999 for Rounder Records at the tender age of 16. Considered a phenom at the time, Granger enlisted Balfa family members and friends to highlight his ties to the heritage of the Balfa Brothers. In a story that Granger loved relating, Cajun music in the 1950s was looked down on in Louisiana as “chanky-chank” music until the Balfa Brothers received a standing ovation from 17,000 people at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival, a moment that galvanized them and many into a life of touring and spreading the music. The Balfa Brothers went on to lead this new wave of Cajun music revivals, becoming legendary names in the tradition. Cajun/Appalachian artist Dirk Powell produced Granger’s Rounder album and spoke movingly of a dream that Granger had where Dewey Balfa symbolically passed the torch to him. “As I listened to Courtney tell me the story,” Powell says in the liner notes, “with tears streaming down his face, I knew that something had been passed on, but I did not try to define what it was. Only Courtney knows what Dewey’s night time visit meant, and, truthfully, it is not for him to say either. There are some things that can only be said with music.”

Courtney Granger teaches the Cajun song and Balfa classic “J’ai été au bal”:

Following his Rounder Records debut, Granger joined Balfa legacy band Balfa Toujours, guested on Tim O’Brien’s seminal Two Journeys album and on albums with Ray Abshire before joining The Pine Leaf Boys in 2008, replacing Creole fiddler Cedric Watson. He played with the Pine Leaf Boys for the next 13 years, touring the world even as his health began to fade from diabetes. With the Pine Leaf Boys, Granger garnered multiple Grammy nominations and was invited to tour the Middle East and Europe by the US State Department as cultural ambassadors. “Until the Pine Leaf Boys, I didn’t play with anyone my age,” Granger told Creole journalist Herman Fusilier in a 2020 podcast. “[The people I played with before] were all in their 70s and 80s, that’s who I grew up with. I guess that’s what made me who I am today. I learned respect at a young age.”

In 2016, Granger released a much anticipated new solo album, Beneath Still Waters, on Valcour Records. Those expecting an album of Cajun fiddle and song were surprised instead to find an uncommonly brilliant album of country covers from Granger’s idols George Jones, Waylon Jennings, Keith Whitley, and others. Though Granger came to Cajun music at an early age, he’d grown up in the honky-tonks around Lafayette, hanging around the bars while family members set up for the evening dance and listening to Jones and country greats on the jukebox. “Some people learned to sing in the church,” he said at the time, “but I learned to sing in bars.” I interviewed Courtney in 2017 at the Pickathon festival in Portland (I had run publicity for his country album) and he told me “I remember crying to George Jones at 8 years old, and didn’t know what I was crying for.” Beneath Still Waters garnered national acclaim, especially from Rolling Stone magazine who called Granger the “Best George Jones Disciple” at AmericanaFest 2016. As his publicist at the time, it was a joy to watch music journalists fall in love with his music as the first call of his voice rang out on stage. Beneath Still Waters was to be his last album.

Courtney Granger at Pickathon 2017

A lifelong diabetic, Granger had retired from touring last year in late 2020 and was on a short list to receive a kidney transplant before he passed away. Granger was soft spoken, caring, a thoughtful artist with an astonishing talent and deep ties to a uniquely American heritage. If you knew him, you loved him, and if you heard him sing, you believed him.

Donations are being accepted to an online fundraiser to cover Granger’s funeral costs.

Courtney Granger with Kelli Jones and Joel Savoy

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