Ernest James has lived an itinerant life.
Since high school, his journeys have taken him from Oakland and the Bay Area in California to Austin, Texas, to the Canyonlands in southern Utah, to Taos, N.M., and then to Kansas City, which he has called home since 2004.
But the music James fell in love with comes from the region in which his father was raised, from a place he has only visited: southern Louisiana, just north of Cajun and Creole country.
“My dad moved to Oakland in the 1950s,” said James (born in 1974 as James Ernest Ratcliff). “He has always been mysterious about why he left Louisiana. Whenever I’d asked about it, he wouldn’t say much.
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“But when I was growing up in the ’80s, there was this kind of renaissance in the music and culture in Louisiana, and it became very commercialized and trendy. It was a big deal.
“So I became curious about it. I was like, ‘Daddy, you grew up in this cool place and it’s all over the TV.’ And he’d say, ‘Ah, Louisiana, you don’t want to know about that.’ So over the years, I went there to visit family and in the process I encountered this great music and fell in love with it.”
And then began the process of finding the best place to make that music.
Finding a home
James grew up in Oakland, listening to what a lot of teenagers were listening to in the mid- to late-1980s: “lots of hair metal and the Seattle sound. Then I gravitated to folk music and the blues.”
His interest in the blues and the rough-and-tumble sounds of legends like Muddy Waters flourished into an urge to explore more roots music.
During a visit to his father’s old stomping grounds, he got his first hearty taste of traditional zydeco, a lively style of roots music indigenous to southwest Louisiana — blues- and roots-based dance music that evolved among the French-speaking Creoles, people of African, Afro-Caribbean, American Indian and European descent. It was music born in his father’s native land but not the music heard in his parents’ household.
“My parents listened to classical music and opera and show tunes and pop music that was pre-Sinatra,” he said. “My dad might have had a record or two of Cajun or zydeco music in the back room, but I was never really exposed to it.”
His first big influence was the music of zydeco legend Boozoo Chavis, a native of St. Charles, La.
“It was so perfect,” James said. “It was so raw and almost punk. It has so much energy and no filigree. It spoke to me. It would sit on one idea and go with it and drive it. Maybe it was because I’m not a fancy musician and I like sitting on one idea. But it grew from there.”
James bought his first accordion, the heartbeat of zydeco music, in Austin, Texas, in 1998, not long after he and his wife, Jessica Ratcliff, had moved there. He quickly figured out how to play it.
“I’d played piano, classical and jazz, so that part with the right hand wasn’t hard,” he said. “But the hard part was the bellows and the buttons with the left hand. That was Greek to me. I eventually found a chart that showed me the patterns.”
He started his first band, the Ernest James Taos Zydeco, after they’d moved to New Mexico (on Sept. 11, 2001). In 2003, the band recorded its first album in “an earth ship, these off-the-grid houses we were living in with solar panels and water collection. A cool place.”
Then in 2004, he and Ratcliff decided it was time to find a place to take root and raise a family. So they went on a five-month home-searching excursion that brought them to the Heartland and his wife’s birthplace, Nebraska. While out here, they dropped into Kansas City for a look-see. It was nearly love at first sight.
“Kansas City totally clicked,” he said.
Their first day here included a stop at B.B.’s Lawnside BBQ, where Lee McBee and the Confessors were performing.
“It was 7 p.m. on a Sunday night, and they were tearing it up,” James said. “They were the real deal.”
He introduced himself to the Confessors’ drummer, Jaisson (pronounced HICE-on) Taylor, who has toured with Tina Turner, Bill Withers, B.B. King and other blues and R&B greats. It was the start of a long-term friendship.
“I said I played zydeco music and I was trying to find a place to live and play music, and I asked if this was a good place to settle down, raise a family and be in a band,” he said. “And Jaisson said, ‘It’s a lot better than Austin.’ Then he gave me his card and said to call him if we ended up living here. He was very encouraging. I was really impressed.”
James didn’t know it then, but he and Ratcliff had found their new home. They scouted more places up the West Coast, but nothing clicked like it had in Kansas City.
“We kept saying, ‘If this doesn’t work out, we can always try Kansas City,’ ” James said. “Eventually, Kansas City wasn’t the alternative, it was the answer.”
Finding a band
The first-ever Ernest James Zydeco show was on the Fourth of July in 2005 at Berkley Riverfront Park, opening for a Lynyrd Skynrd tribute band.
“It was an odd match,” James said.
James had booked the show before he’d formed a band, then recruited two others to join him: Kent Burnham on drums and Barry Barnes, a veteran percussionist from Lawrence, on washboard.
Through Burnham, James met Mike Stover, who became EJZ’s bassist in 2006. Through a Craigslist transaction that involved a guitar swap, James met Tony LaCroix, now the band’s guitarist. He found a permanent drummer by calling Taylor, one of the most decorated drummers in Kansas City. When Taylor isn’t available, Mike Meyers fills in on drums, as he did when the band performed at an international zydeco festival in the Netherlands in 2014.
Ernest James Zydeco has recorded four albums, most recently “Automatic Harvester,” released in September. James describes the band’s style as a hybrid of everyone’s influences.
“With the accordion and Barry on washboard, there’s a very traditional Louisiana influence,” he said. “The other guys are Kansas City musicians who bring their styles into it. Jaisson has a history of R&B and blues stored deep inside. Mike Stover brings some Kansas City/Americana vibe. Tony is a Chicago blues/Kansas City blues guy.
“Our style is different from modern zydeco. Not all zydeco bands are the same, but there’s this similar feel and way they record albums and auto-tune their vocal harmonies. They’re into the pop-zydeco. Ours is more ’80s style, with more Clifton Chenier blues and Fats Domino kind of R&B feel that we incorporate. So there’s more of a Kansas City sound injected.
“And what carries over from the Ernest James Taos Zydeco days is you can hear some reggae in it every once in a while,” Barnes said, “or Tony will do some ska.”
For Stover, who plays a variety of styles with several bands, it took a while before he was “getting it in the pocket.”
“Much like blues music, groove and feel is everything in zydeco,” he said. “The important thing is locking in with the drummer — pushing the beat ahead when it needs to be there or digging in and making it greasy.
“I knew my way around the bass guitar when I joined the band and I could play the changes easily, but it took a couple years before I was really playing with the band, really getting it in the pocket. I have to give credit to Jaisson Taylor, the best blues/R&B drummer in town, as far as I’m concerned, and Ernest James for helping me develop those tools.”
Bringing it back home
Ernest James Zydeco plays lots of traditional zydeco songs, but some of its original songs are infused with sentiments for Kansas City. “YJ” pays tribute to YJ’s Snack Bar near 18th and Wyandotte. “Knock Me Over With a Feather” is a tale about a couple who meet at a Mardi Gras celebration in Kansas City.
James and his family are as comfortably ensconced in Kansas City as he is in the music he plays. He and Ratcliff live near the University of Kansas Medical Center, where they home-school their two daughters and where Ratcliff is a grant writer for sustainable farmers across the nation.
“They used to go to the French academy (Academie Lafayette),” James said, “so they speak French. They translate a lot of Cajun and zydeco music while we’re in the car. I’ll ask, ‘What’s this about?’ And they’ll go, ‘Well, I don’t really understand what the guy is talking about but it’s something about his dog.’ ”
James has brought the music into the lives of his parents, who have seen him perform live — “that’s when I’m the most nervous,” he said. And though they haven’t come full circle as fans of the music, they appreciate it in their own way. Consider the son visiting upon the father a slice of family heritage.
“My parents didn’t even know what the blues was when I started getting into it,” he said. “So there’s a big cultural gap between them and me. But I’ve introduced them to it. They don’t go out and buy it. But I can have meaningful conversations about songs and aspects of the music with my father. It’s new territory for them, but they love what we’re doing.”
Ernest James Zydeco performs Friday night at B.B.’s Lawnside BBQ, 1205 E. 85th St. Showtime is 9 p.m. Admission is $5.