When Dr John first emerged in the late Sixties, it was as if a voodoo priest had risen up from the Louisiana swamps and immediately landed a record deal. It was an image the New Orleans-born singer-songwriter played up to, dressing like a medicine man in an elaborate feather headdress and performing with skulls and candles strewn around his piano. His real name was Mac Rebennack, and he was a 26-year-old session pianist for Sonny and Cher when he recorded his mind-bending 1968 debut album Gris-Gris, a bubbling gumbo of lysergic grooves, ritualistic percussion and growled incantations.
Rebennack embraced his shamanic character over the course of his half-century solo career, which took him to a host of unexpected places. He appeared alongside The Band during their farewell concert film The Last Waltz in 1976 and crooned the theme to Disney’s bayou-set The Princess and the Frog in 2009. Rich and intoxicating, his music was drenched in the many influences of his hometown, incorporating blues, jazz, funk and R&B. Towards the end of his life, though, he came to feel there was a piece of the puzzle missing. In the years before his death from a heart attack on 6 June 2019, at the age of 77, Rebennack set out to fulfil a lifelong dream by recording a country and western album. Titled Things Happen That Way, it will finally be released this Friday, following a long and troubled gestation period.
“He talked about it for years,” says Shane Theriot, a session guitarist and Grammy Award-winning producer who worked on the record. A fellow Louisiana native, Theriot – who is also the musical director for Hall & Oates – first met Rebennack in the 1990s. The producer was then in his twenties. “A lot of his friends that knew him way before I did said Mac always talked about making a country and western album,” he tells me over lunch in an LA diner. “He loved Hank Williams. He loved Johnny Cash.” After hearing Rebennack discuss this long-held ambition, Theriot volunteered to help turn it into a reality. In October 2017, the pair started meeting regularly at the producer’s New Orleans home to begin choosing covers and writing original material.