“The show must go on,” and rockabilly legend Jim Oertling is the personification of that mantra. The historic floodwaters that have devastated huge swaths of south Louisiana came within just 6 inches of his home north of New Orleans in the rural St. Tammany Parish hamlet of Goodbee. The towns to his west, from Robert to Albany to Livingston and beyond, look “like a disaster area,” he laments. Nevertheless, Oertling — who vanished from the music scene for decades before being reeled back in via the 2015 Ponderosa Stomp and its ravenous fans hungry for his early songs — is slated to perform this Saturday night at the Ace Hotel in New Orleans.
Oertling’s greatest musical claim to fame, of course, is his epic 1963 fish tale “Old Moss Back,” about one Louisiana fisherman’s never-ending battles with an elusive largemouth black bass. The rollicking tune’s themes of unflinching determination and courage in the face of a brutal and indefatigable foe could almost serve as an anthem for Louisiana’s thousands of flood survivors, some of whom have suffered more than one such catastrophe in their lifetimes (e.g., Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Rita, etc.).
‘CAJUN NAVY’ EPITOMIZES LOUISIANA’S RESILIENCE
“What I’ve seen is the resilience of the Louisiana people, not to mention how everybody helps everybody,” Oertling observes of the ongoing disaster. “Like the ‘Cajun Navy,’ they’re on their boats out there rescuing everybody. And those people come back. …
“The absolute resilience of the Louisiana people is just uncomprehensible. You see ’em interviewed on television and the reporters ask them, ‘Are you going to leave?’ ‘No, I’m gonna stay right here.’ That’s just something else, I mean, it really is.”
The Louisiana native spent his formative years in San Antonio but immersed himself in swamp culture during long summer vacations at his grandfather’s house in Bayou Lacombe, where he conceived the idea for “Old Moss Back.” Oertling was a student at Louisiana State University in 1963 when he entered Cosimo Matassa’s famed New Orleans recording studio to cut his biggest song. Matassa “was a good friend of mine,” Oertling says, crediting the eventual Rock and Roll Hall of Fame sound engineer with encouraging him to write songs in his early days.
“Old Moss Back” became a sleeper hit for Oertling, getting radio and jukebox play everywhere from San Antonio to the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and its popularity helped keep his band booked nonstop. However, the song failed to score a national distribution deal.
Oertling followed up with another Hammond single (“Back Forty” / “The First One”) before moving on to Lafayette’s legendary La Louisianne to wax the rockabilly gem “Louisiana Gambler.”
JACK-OF-ALL-TRADES HALL OF FAMER
Eventually, though, Oertling’s musical career went on hiatus when he joined the Army in 1965. After decades spent as “a bull rider, cattle ranch foreman, combat infantry officer, commercial banker, and always an outdoorsman,” he finally realized how significant “Old Moss Back” was — with his 1997 induction into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. He has since released a CD of newer songs titled “Mossback Revisited.”
Oertling’s performance at the 2015 Ponderosa Stomp — which marked his first major appearance since meandering into nonmusical pursuits — was a revelation for the garrulous good ole boy as much as his fans. Unable to find local gigs because of the waning mass-market popularity of classic country, Oertling was amazed to meet fans at the Rock ‘N’ Bowl who had come from all over the world just to hear him and drink a few beers together.
THE FISH TALE HEARD ‘ROUND THE WORLD
Their lack of native English skills was no deterrent. “When I got the beer, they all started singing ‘Moss Back,’” he marvels, recalling an informal meet-and-greet drinking session during the Stomp before he hit the stage. “They all knew my music. They knew the words! … What they know about black bass is beyond me.”
Oertling notes that his Facebook page “looks like the United Nations. I got friends from Australia. I got friends from Russia. I got friends from South Africa. I got a bunch of them from England, from France. I couldn’t believe that ‘Moss Back’ is still going big on those rockabilly stations over there in Europe and Scandinavia.”
“‘Old Moss Back,’ ‘Louisiana Gambler,’ they’re about south Louisiana,” Oertling recalls, “because coming over here three months out of every year for a long time on the bayou out there, I got well-acquainted with swamps and bayous and alligators and all that stuff, cottonmouths.”
But “country and cowboy music” is just as much in Oertling’s blood as rockabilly. He cites the lasting influence of two legendary radio stations from his youth: KWKH-AM in Shreveport, which broadcast “The Louisiana Hayride,” and WSM in Nashville, which featured the music of the Grand Ole Opry.
FROM CONJUNTO TO TEXAS SWING TO ROY HEAD
Attendees of Oertling’s Ace Hotel performance also will get a Texas-size dose of Lone Star State musical culture. “I’m going to do some Texas stuff I wrote,” Oertling says. “San Antonio music really influenced me. The Mexican conjunto, stuff like that, which is Mexican honky-tonk; the music of el norte, the music of north Mexico. And of course, naturally, when I was a kid coming up, on the radio you had Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, and Hank Thompson and the Brazos Valley Boys, and of course naturally you had the old Hank Williams, and that really influenced me big-time as far as my music and ballads.”
Other Texas inspirations for Oertling include Marty Robbins as well as the great R&B shouter and stage dynamo Roy Head, who played at the 2015 Stomp on the night after Oertling’s set. “I played a show with him at Edison High School in San Antonio,” when Oertling was still in high school and fronting a band called the Sidewinders, after the rattlesnake.
LIL’ BUCK SINEGAL AND E.J. MATTHEWS CO-STARRING TOO
The Ponderosa Stomp is stoked about Oertling’s Aug. 20 performance at the Ace Hotel, where he will be joined by fellow guitarists Paul “Lil Buck” Sinegal, who hails from the flood-hit Cajun/Creole regions around Lafayette, and E.J. Matthews of Texas. DJ Pellegrin of WWOZ also will be spinning rare 45s.
Besides playing the obligatory “Moss Back,” Oertling also will offer up another fish saga, “Perch-Jerkin’ Fool.” In the meantime, though, he’s counting his blessings for having escaped the floodwaters that rose from the nearby Tchefuncta River. “I think Moss Back probably swam by the house,” he jokes.