Tales of Bessman: Jimmy C. Newman and his Cajun Joke

I still consider myself a Grand Ole Opry groupie, even if I haven’t been to the Opry now in years.

Used to get there three, sometimes four times a year. Parked in the artists’ lot and hung out backstage with Roy, Minnie, Porter, Grandpa. They’re all gone and now so is Jimmy C. Newman.

“Folks often tell me that my dad is one of the nicest folks in country music. Jimmy C. Newman was, too!” George Hamilton V told me, and both he and the folks who told him so were right.

“He was the water mark in leadership of being a professional musician who followed his own path, believed in his culture and his vision,” said BeauSoleil’s Michael Doucet. “And he always had a joke going that kept everyone around him uplifted in the spirit of the moment in doing and being the best they could be in any situation.”

He had a special joke for me every time I greeted him backstage at the Opry, though it wasn’t so much a joke as a code.

“Bessyl’s out in the parking lot checking the tires,” he said. “You better go help him.”

Jimmy C.’s longtime accordionist Bessyl Duhon, son of Cajun fiddle great Hector Duhon—and why couldn’t I have been named Hector, or Bessyl, or at the very least, Jimmy C.?—was indeed out in the parking lot, but he surely wasn’t checking the tires, if you catch my splift.

“I always encouraged my band to smoke pot,” Jimmy explained to me many years ago. “When they drank, they tore up the bus!”

He was speaking mainly of Rufus, I think. Rufus Thibideaux. The legendary Cajun fiddler who played with everyone from Bob Wills to Neil Young—I saw him when Neil played at the pier across from the Intrepid in 1985, I think, when Young was touring with the top Nashville session players he used on Old Ways–and played with Jimmy from 1952 pretty much up until his death in 2005.

I loved Rufus, but Rufus was from a different part of the culture. He used to tell me N-word jokes backstage at the Opry and I laughed, heartily, out of respect to him. He was already an old man, his prejudices ingrained, and by this point, harmless; after all, he was a fiddler.

Jimmy C. never told jokes like that, at least not in my presence. He truly was one of the nicest folks in country music. I’m proud I wrote the liner notes to his 1991 album Alligator Man, and was there to extol the merits of his last album, Jimmy C. Newman Sings Swamp Country.

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