But not before he established himself as one of the best Cajun accordion players ever.
Playing the accordion ran in his family. He was born June 27, 1913, near Gueydan in western Vermilion Parish, the first of Mr. and Mrs. Lanas Abshire's six children. His father, his mother, and at least one uncle also played.
At the age of six, Nathan was already getting in trouble for sneaking his uncle's accordion away to practice. By the time he was eight, he played well enough to begin playing at house dances in the neighborhood, then in public dance halls throughout the area.
According to John Broven's book, "South to Louisiana: Music of the Cajun Bayous," Asbshire began to record in 1936 on the Bluebird label, backed by the Rayne-Bo Ramblers, "but a decade of obscurity followed the disastrous decline in the popularity of the accordion," when Texas swing music began to influence Louisiana French bands.
But after serving in World War II, Nathan began to build up his career through a weekly gig at Quincy Davis' famous Avalon Club in Basile and he is credited, along with Iry LeJeune, as responsible for the renaissance of the accordion in Cajun music in the years after the war.
He became so popular that at one point he was booked all seven nights of the week at the Avalon Club, eventually bringing him to settle in Basile.
Although Nathan made more of a living from his music than most Cajun musicians, he could not depend on it entirely. He worked at many odd jobs throughout his life and finally became guardian of the Basile town dump. In his cluttered front yard, he collected used objects to sell, and his front porch became a cultural salon of sorts as he held forth daily on Cajun music. Abshire, like almost all of the accordion players of his generation, was influenced by the legendary black Creole musician Amédé Ardoin.
Abshire told to Barry Jean Ancelet in an interview some years ago, "Every Saturday afternoon, we used to go to John Foreman's saloon. I'd see Ame•de• Ardoin coming full-stride down the way. He'd say, 'Abshire, you've got to come help me tonight.' 'Oh, well,' I'd say. 'Ame•de•, I can't help you.' 'Oh, yeah,' he'd say, 'we're both going to play. I'll play for a while, then you'll play for a while.' I'd say, 'I don't feel much like going, Ame•de•,' but I'd go. And we sure did make some music."
Broven calls Abshire "the best known accordionist of modern times," and says his hit recording of "Pine Grove Blues" was the source of much of that notoriety.
According to Broven's account, "Pine Grove Blues was a record of considerable importance; it kept the Cajun bandwagon rolling ... and helped to reestablish the accordion following .. Iry Lejeune's breakthrough with Love Bridge Waltz."
Abshire was one of the early representatives of Cajun music on the national scene, accompanying the Balfa Brothers to the Newport Jazz Festova; in 1967 for a performance that is credited with turning on the outside world to Cajun music. His dramatic style immediately made him a favorite performer in college towns and festivals throughout the United States and Canada, but he declined several offers to go to France because he disliked flying.
"When we first started going on trips," he remembered, "I was playing with the Balfa Brothers, with Dewey and Will and Rodney and their group. We liked it a lot. We had never seen things like that, thousands and thousands of people at
A portion of a mural in downtown Basile bears the likeness of the late Abshire. once who were clapping and screaming at the top of their lungs because they liked our music so much. It was strange, but you can imagine how much we appreciated that."
Nathan Abshire died May 13, 1981 in Basile. His music still lives.
You can contact Jim Bradshaw at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 1121, Washington LA 70589.