Zachary Richard, typically prone to long, winding dissertations when queried about his two favorite subjects--himself and his music--on odd occasion waxes succinct.
"Basically, I'm just a French pop singer," he says.
And his offbeat yet accessible blend of Cajun rock, he says, boils down to simply "Southern Louisiana dance music."
Not bad, as thesis statements go.
For a singer/songwriter whose influences include not only Clifton Chenier and the Rolling Stones, but the Quebec French separatist movement, anti-war protests of the Vietnam era, beat poet Gary Snyder and a 75-year-old Louisiana fiddle maker, Richard's self-descriptions are about as accurate as any of the myriad bantered about in critical circles for the last 15 years.
So for Richard--a thoroughly American musician widely overlooked outside Cajun country, Quebec and France--it is an unexpected yet natural progression that, after two decades at his craft, he finds himself at the threshold of commercial success.
Since landing one song on "The Big Easy" movie soundtrack, the Lafayette, La., native has latched on with a major label, A&M Records, and has just embarked upon his biggest national tour, opening for Jimmy Buffett and the Coral Reefer Band. The Buffett-Richard show arrives at 4 p.m. Sunday at the Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre.
Speaking by telephone from New Orleans, Richard said he is exhausted yet exhilarated amid the whirlwind of relative fame, having played the previous four days in Richmond, Birmingham, Milwaukee and Chattanooga.
"At this juncture with our record company, we didn't have to think twice about opening up on this tour," he said.
And, he insists, sharing a bill with party-monger Buffett--who also sings backup vocals on a track from Richard's latest release, "Women in the Room"--is not as contradictory as it might seem.
"I've always had a lot of admiration for Jimmy," he said. "He's maintained himself without a record company and without a hit for 10 years. He's not a Bozo. . . . But, honestly, I'd have gone on any tour of this size. I'd have probably gone out with Bozo the Clown."
Richard's big chance comes on the heels of a record he considers the best of his 11 releases, but one that may well ostracize some longtime fans who haven't already been frustrated by his often-unpredictable artistic turns.
"Women in the Room" retains much of Richard's Acadian accordion-charged kick ("My Nanette" and "Zack's Zydeco," in particular) and his sprinkling of ballads, but also includes a French a cappella number ("Aux Natchitoches") and, overall, represents his furthest encroachment--for better or worse--into mainstream rock.
While Richard says he revels in the "magical experience" of performing his music, he has always had a difficult time recording it. "I credit (co-producer) Jim Scott with this latest record, which I think is the best thing I've ever done. He was able to conduct the sessions in a way that put me at ease about a lot of things. But recording is still a hang-up for me."
In songwriting, however, Richard says, he finds the same spiritual sensation as he does on stage: "First and foremost, I'm a songwriter."
Thematically, Richard delves incisively and passionately into the pains and ecstasies of the human condition, the tribal celebration of zydeco and his personal, militant political crusade: the preservation of Cajun culture and its French heritage.
Having grown up in Southwest Louisiana and lived for more than a decade among French separatists in Quebec, Richard has witnessed and struggled against melting-pot efforts to eradicate the French language.
"I encountered this at a very critical point," said Richard, whose roots in Cajun Louisiana date back two centuries. "During my generation, assimilation was accomplished. Through TV, radio and school, our experience was pretty much like the rest of the country. But my grandpa didn't speak English."
Cultural assimilation, he points out, "was accomplished in the schools (with) physical violence toward the children for speaking French. And that was done by French-speaking people. . . . So the Cajun culture I was vaguely aware of, nobody talked about."
But, although stridently traditional about his culture, Richard's music, although steeped in zydeco, is a mongrel hybrid that shatters the boundaries of its traditions--often to the condescending dismay of Cajun purists.
Comparing the two, though, is "apples and oranges" to Richard: "I'm not an archivist. I don't associate traditional music with the preservation of the culture. What interests me is the creation of music. I come from a very typical American music background. . . . What I want to do is to contemporize (traditional zydeco) for the young kids.
"I'm really not that mercenary about it, but for this music to be appealing to a new generation, you have to have a modern approach. . . . I'm a musician who happens to be Cajun. But as a songwriter, I can't allow myself to be limited to that music."