Somewhere down in the rural, swampier parts ofLouisianathere exists an essence that seems to coil and snake up from the water and soil in wispy, faint tendrils. It is comprised of the decomposition of both man and alligator, the spiritual residue of long-gone Voodoo queens, singing Creoles, sweat and blood of freeman and slave alike, Spaniard, Frenchman, African; they all contributed to this essence, this amorphous tangency, and such a rich, complex constituency wouldn’t be constrained only to the New Orleans of lore. It spread like contagion to all reaches of the state. If you’re from there you are made of it. If you’re not from there you come face to face with it immediately upon arrival. It’s as stark and real a thing as it can be. Soil like this is steeped in legend, deed, story, and character, and it produces men and women of legend, deed, story, and character.
Back in 1957, in one of those backwoods towns, Summer Grove, south of Shreveport, where folks don’t take to strangers very readily, Gus Samuelson was born and a life steeped in character and color ensued. For, you see, he is one of those humans that is made of that essence that possesses the soil down there. Summer Grove was back in the sticks, as Gus recalls, in those days but is now home to strip malls and fast food chains, having been enveloped by the expanding Shreveport just north. Shreveport itself is a storied place, being practically “New Orleans North” and much lore is fed into Shreveport by some smaller towns surrounding it like tributaries. Gus relates a story about the little “feud” between Gibsland and Acadia over who might claim the illustrious title of “Place Where Bonnie and Clyde Died.” They were actually ambushed and killed in Gibsland, as Gus tells it, but there was no morgue in Gibsland so they were taken to Acadia, the nearest morgue, and pronounced dead, so both places want claim to the dubious honor. You must love these little tales of quaint, old towns from way back then and Gus Samuelson relished sharing some of these with me, to my enjoyment.
“Big Gus”, as he’s widely known in the Dallas/Ft. Worth metroplex, remembers early life steeped in what many would call, at the time, adversity. You see, in the old Louisiana of the 50′s and early 60′s a young divorced mother with two boys wasn’t exactly looked upon as a shining beacon in the community (Ah yes, the damned ol’ Jim Crow south…). Add to that circumstance a black live-in housekeeper for the five-day work week (she would return to her home on the weekends) and you, again, have potential social trouble. The young lady was just a few years older than Gus and was loved by the family. Gus relates how she was a best friend-sister figure to him, taking him to events and various places and having to separate, once there, and enter by the established “Whites” and “Blacks” doors, often not even afforded the convenience of being seated together. Another hair-raising story Samuelson relates is of being called out to fight a neighborhood boy, and Gus, being the obliging gentleman that he is, granted the boy’s request and gave the kid a deserved pounding (in a day when it was expected and accepted that boys would fight.) The boy then goes in to get his father involved (heroic, huh?) who came out and landed a blow to Gus’s forehead leaving a golf ball sized knot, for which there is slight evidence to this day. Gus’s mother learned of the incident and called the police to investigate. Upon learning the identity of the father, the police officer urged her to “let it go and forget about it” stating that the man was a Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. These are the stories, locales, and social settings that produced the man who leads a fabulously talented combo known as Swampadelic today.
Music was as much a part of life as was anything else at the Samuelson home. Gus’s mother was a fan of jazz and records by Joe Williams, Nat King Cole, and Sarah Vaughan were a common sound. Gus recounts hearing the old Clarence Carter song “Patches” and the watershed moment it represented for him. Other firsts that were significant in the musician’s life were a first concert – Paul Revere & The Raiders. His first album bought with his own money was Johnny Cash “I Walk The Line.” The first guitar the youngster owned was a well-used 1968 Silvertone. We must mark well the foundation stones, and recall from whence we came.
1968 brought a change of venue for the mother and her two sons as they made the decision to move to Texas. Dallasit would be, and Gus would find a new home that would add strength to strength where his love of music was concerned. Dallas had for decades been a place where the language of Blues was spoken fluently, and in a stroke of complete serendipity he wound up enrolled at Thomas Jefferson High where he would be classmates with blues great Freddie King’s children. Gus continued to trod the path many would-be guitar players have followed and formed or played in bands throughout high school, and actually played his first paying gig at an old venue, now gone, called Adobe Flats, which was on Lemmon Ave.in Dallas. At seventeen there was another watershed moment. At an old venue called Fanny Ann’s, Gus met Dallas blues great Bugs Henderson. The Fates were forging young Samuelson’s life, but music was a tough way to pay bills and he found other means supplementing the coffers. Watching the ease and finesse with which he plays guitar and directs his band, one would never surmise that Gus Samuelson was a bull rider for six years after high school. Given his gentle temperament and soft-spoken manner one would never guess he owned and operated a boxing gym in Richardson, Texas for six years…a gym which produced several medaled champions. At somewhere around 6′-4″ he’d easily bring to mind an old Jimmy Dean song which stated: “a crashing blow from a huge right hand sent a Louisiana fellow to the Promised Land…Big John.”
When 1982 rolled around it presented the opportunity for Gus to put music back at the fore of his efforts and he was asked to fill the role of band manager for Merle Haggard’s Strangers during the “Back To The Barrooms” tour. Oh yes, there are Hag stories Big Gus can tell and we’ll leave those to Big Gus for the telling. For a young man in his early – mid twenties those are priceless experiences, which included any guitar enthusiast’s dream: owning a guitar shop, Songbird Guitar Shop, from ’82 to ’84.
Fast forward to a more present time…Big Gus & Swampadelic have been honing, gigging, performing this musical alchemy which incorporates his mother’s jazz, some zydeco seasoning from his native Louisiana, a country delivery that is as much influenced by Johnny Cash as Dr. John, and blues that he drew from every rich vein Dallas and Ft. Worth had to offer. In 2011 he was honored by the people of Dallas by being named Best DJ for his defining efforts at KHYI 95.3 The Range, where, in particular, he hosted Big Gus’s Orbit Lounge which featured some of most eclectic music on any radio station in the region. Today Gus is still a much loved and revered on-air personality for the station, now in the earlier hours of the day.
It’s interesting to talk earnestly with gifted and articulate songwriters. There are the cliché questions that always get asked and I simply didn’t ask those, preferring to let Gus tell me about songwriting from his standpoint. He shared with me that he grew up hearing pop classics and to this day listens regularly to stations that feature pop hit songs from the 50′s and 60′s and challenges himself with the task of dissecting a given song and determining what elements actually made it resonate with the public. Of course there exists potentially any combination of elements that can contribute to a song becoming a hit but one common thread throughout: the eternal courtship of lyric and melody. We talked in depth about what alienates or unites music lovers. The answer to that query is no small feat as American cultural traits are multiplying as time passes. Back in the early 70′s (some of Gus’s most formativenyears) a single rock radio station would feature The O’Jays, Eddie Kendricks, Alice Cooper, The Marshall Tucker Band, Grand Funk, Leon Russell, Sly & The Family Stone, and Joan Baez, all in the space of a couple hours. Things are very glaringly not like that now. Clear Channel radio has dictated to us that we must segregate into neat little compartments and the rest of the story is well known.
So what does a Louisiana boy do when he is still enamored of all those glorious elements? Exactly what Gus Samuelson did: created a musical combo that defiantly and lovingly incorporates whatever the hell he wants into what he writes and plays. You will hear the R&B of Allen Toussaint and Irma Thomas, the soul of Clarence Carter, the Blues of Freddie King, Howlin’ Wolf, and Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, the Jazz of Nat and Sarah, the Cajun of Jo-El Sonnier, the pure Louisiana of Tony Joe White or the Nevilles, the Pop of Paul Revere & The Raiders, but only traces of these influences will be discernable. He mystically melds them together into a living organism that is steeped in Gus Samuelson’s own DNA. He doesn’t do covers. He stated that it takes longer for him to learn somebody else’s song than it does to write one of his own. He writes everything Swampadelic performs. He brings to the stage a soul that is chiseled and forged from the collective experience of having lived when, where, and how he lived. That friends is what I will offer as a reasonable definition of the word “soul.” Some would contend that there is some difference in “spirit”, which seems like that essence of us that is connected to an ethereal umbilical cord to the universe, and “soul” which seems to be tethered to the human experience, a thing in which we store everything life has made us. Gus has a full soul.
At the time of this writing, he has a new solo album about to be recorded called “Big Snake,” on which there will be a song entitled “In My Soul” in which Samuelson’s soul truths become evident:
In my soul
Are Reminders of the places
That I come from
In my soul
I leave behind the traces of my loved ones...
In my soul
Is the place I make mistakes
And hang my choices
In my soul
Holds the sweetest sounds
And where I find my voice
Its where I know right from wrong
Its where I know I belong
In my soul.
That song, alone, stands as a testament to what the places, people, and experiences have influenced “Big Gus” to be: a refined, gentleman with soul stories to share with you and me.
Swampadelic fans need not fear, along with the new Gus solo, there is an as-of-yet untitled new Swampadelic record in the offing as well. Busy man, that one. If you’ve been to the Free Man Cajun Cafe & Lounge on any Monday night recently you’ve seen Big Gus & Swampadelic do what they do – there and at any number of other venues. If you haven’t, make that amendment in your schedule and include their gigs in your entertainment calendar…and remember the rich, storied soil that produced what you are witnessing.
Jeff Hopson resides in Garland, TX and has been in the Lone Star State since September of 1989, when he moved here from his native Tennessee. After three and a half years in Nashville, he channeled the spirit of his upper East Tennessee kinsman, a certain diplomat named Crockett, and stated, “You may all go to hell…I will go to Texas”. Jeff is a songwriter and performs often in the North Texas region, and has a collection of short fiction in the works.
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