A full-blooded Cajun, Richard can trace his family tree straight back to Acadia, where his ancestors lived for 200 years before the British forcibly exiled them in the mid-1700s. During the '50s and '60s, Cajun culture, due to prejudice, was on the decline. Richard's parents did little to instill cultural pride in their son and even refused to speak their native French. While earning a B.A. at Tulane University in New Orleans during the late '60s, Richard began his longtime campaign on behalf of Cajuns. The eclecticism of his own music reflects his personal tastes. Early influences included Ray Charles, Professor Longhair, Howlin' Wolf, Little Walter, Muddy Waters, the Byrds, and Bob Dylan.
He went to New York in the early '70s and signed with Elektra Records to produce a country rock album. Largely due to Elektra's merger with Warner at that time, the album was never released. After that he went back to Louisiana to further hone his musicianship. At that time he played piano, accordion, and guitar. With a little tutoring from Clifton Chenier, the accordion became Richard's favorite instrument. He, his cousin Michael Doucet, and Kenneth Richard teamed up in 1974 to form the Bayou Drifter Band and play a mixture of Cajun and rock they called "swamp rock". The new style didn't catch on in Louisiana, but it was extremely popular in Canada. With socially conscious lyrics penned and performed in French, Richard's music found particular favor in politically charged Quebec, where the secession movement was gaining momentum. He remained in Canada through the early '80s and during that time earned several gold records. Richard also spent time in France learning more about folk music. He returned to Louisiana around 1981 and suddenly found that Cajun culture and music had become a national fad. He formed a new group and dove right in. In the late '80s, Richard signed to Rounder and released a pair of albums, Mardis Gras Mambo and Zack's Bon Ton (1990). After that he signed a major contract with AM. His debut album for the label, Women in the Room, featured some of the best sessionmen in music and made several year-end best-of lists in notable publications. Snake Bite Love, featuring a harder, grittier sound as well as a star-studded cast, followed in 1992. Richard and his road band toured the world for most of the next two years. In the interim, his contract was dropped by AM as a result of its consolidation into Universal Music. In 1994, after an extended absence from the French market, Richard returned to Canada to play at the Acadian World Congress in New Brunswick. Newly inspired by his heritage, he began writing a collection of French songs that resulted in 1996's Cap Enragé for Audiogram. The album went double-platinum in Canada and established Richard as one of the foremost singer/songwriters in the French-speaking world.
That same year he founded Action Cadienne, a volunteer organization dedicated to the promotion of the French language and the Cadien/Cajun culture of Louisiana. His contributions to the arts and French culture were recognized by the government of France in March, 1997. He was a decorated Officier de l’Ordre des Arts et Lettres de la République Française. He was also initiated into the Ordre des Francophones d’Amérique by the government of Québec that year.
While in Montreal, Richard began focusing intently on writing poetry. He published three volumes, among them, 1998's Faire Récolte, which was awarded the Prix Champlain. His third volume, Feu, was awarded the Prix Roland Gasparic in Romania; the jury noted not only his unique writing style, but also his militant commitment to the defense of the French language in North America. In addition to poetry, Richard co-authored three children's books with his daughter Sarah. In 2000, a greatest-hits album was issued by Rhino Handmade that covered his Warner years, Silver Jubilee: The Best of Zachary Richard. That same year, a studio album titled Coeur Fidèle was issued by Audiogram. In addition to writing and making music, Richard has produced and narrated numerous television documentaries. In collaboration with Louisiana Public Broadcasting, he produced, narrated, and scored Against the Tide, the story of the Cajun people of Louisiana. It was awarded Best Historical Documentary by the National Educational Television Association in 2000. (A French version, Contre Vents, Contre Marées, received the Prix Historia from the L’institut d’Histoire de l’Amérique Française in 2003.) Other documentary projects included Coeurs Batailleurs, a 26-part series exploring the Acadian diaspora; the film Migrations, which dealt with avian migration in North America, was awarded the Liriot D’or at the International Ornithological Film Festival (France) in 2008. A year later, he worked on Kouchibouguac, which investigated the social upheaval following the expropriation of 250 Acadian families in 1978 for the creation of a national park.
Richard continued to record when he could. In 2007, he released Lumière Dans le Noir on Warner Music France, another of his albums universally celebrated by critics. Two years later, he released Last Kiss on Fontana (Canada) -- the set included a duet with Celine Dion on a cover of the Band's "Acadian Driftwood." Le Fou followed in 2012 on Avalanche Productions, followed a year later by J'Aime La Vie for Montreal's Spectra Musique. In early 2017, Richard undertook a successful Kickstarter campaign to record and release his 21st album. Titled Gombo and released in the early fall, the album reflected bicultural, bilingual experiences in locales ranging from Saskatchewan and Manitoba to Newfoundland, Acadia, and Louisiana. ~ Sandra Brennan, Rovi
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