Channeling Johnny Cash
By David Kattenburg
With Adrienne Clarkson’s CBC Massey Lectures about citizenship and belonging in mind, consider a Winnipeg-born singer-songwriter named Marcel Soulodre. Listen here:Marcel — currently paying homage to the late-great American country singer Johnny Cash in bistros and restaurants across Europe — grew up in Winnipeg’s French-speaking neighborhood St. Boniface. His mother was from Nebraska and his father from France. Although seventh-born Marcel was given a French name, English was the language spoken at home.
It was as a stagehand at St. Boniface’s Franco-Manitoban Cultural Center that Marcel first started speaking French. There, he realized that performing in front of audiences was what interested him the most, that stagecraft had been a means to that end.
Marcel pursued his epiphany on the streets of Quebec, busking Dylan, Springsteen and Neil Young standards. Back in St. Boniface, he formed a band called The Ministers of Soul and launched onto Winnipeg’s club circuit.
Life took another turn. At the city’s French-language Festival du Voyageurs, he met a Cajun fiddler named Hadley Castille. The two hit it off, and down to New Orleans he went, performing a whole lot of songs in both French and English. With Hadley’s encouragement, Marcel started writing French songs of his own.
He also began working as a carny, re-exploring his fascination for backstage work, living life on the road.
Soulodre recorded a bunch of CDs, breaking through with the 1995 disk J’Avais Dans Les Yeux — a coherent set of snappy songs strongly cajun in flavor, co-written with French songwriter Bernard Bocquel. Track 3, Giddy-Up, got lots of airplay. Que Je Recommence followed in 1999, capturing a Western Canada Music Award.
But North America isn’t the best place to make a living performing songs in French, and Marcel Soulodre was ambitious. In 2003, he started performing the songs of a great songster hero of his, Johnny Cash, across North America.
No sooner had Marcel’s Wanted Man tour begun, when, without warning, the Man in Black suddenly died. Soulodre would spend the next three years offering solace to saddened fans from Saskatchewan to Sacramento, under the stage name M. Soul.
But life’s road would take another fateful turn. Weary of his beloved stage — wondering where he belonged — Soulodre set off to France to visit family and friends. There, someone suggested he do a gig. Sure, said Marcel! In a little club in the lovely city of Strasbourg, he sang a bunch of Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Howling Wolf and Rolling Stones songs, a few of his own — and of course a bunch of Johnny Cash.
A German came up to him. “I vant you to play in my club in Germany!” the man said.
“Sure,” said Marcel. “Who will take care of my visa,” he asked?
“You don’t need a visa here in Europe,” the German happily replied (i.e. once you get into a country with a standard performer’s visa, you can play anywhere in Europe you want). In the wandering, traveler’s mind of Marcel Soulodre, the idea of putting down musical roots in the land of his father felt good. In 2007, he moved to Strasbourg, France.
The rest, as they say, is history. It’s just a story about a guy named Marcel Soulodre … A Canadian? Franco-Manitoban? American music lover? European expat? Where he comes from, where he’s been, where he is now, where he’s going; digging for roots, pulling up roots, discovering roots, implanting himself wherever the soil seems best.
Wherever Johnny Cash fans are found, and people love American music.
Listen to Marcel’s story above.