Country Roads Magazine
Growing up in New York, Kerry Beary wanted to be an artist; but records kept inserting themselves in her life.
Kerry Beary has always collected records. Not because she considers herself a record collector, but because that’s the best form of music you can buy. She’s also always known she wants to be an artist. She remembers selling her very first piece at only fifteen years old—a version of Iron Maiden’s record cover for Seventh Son of a Seventh Son reproduced on the back of a denim jacket for one of her “burnout” classmates.
As an adult, she goes into teaching and soon finds the day-after-day, year-after-year repetition maddening. She is bored and miserable but good at what she does. She teaches brushstrokes, color, lines, always with the radio playing under her voice in the background.
1950s—Ville Platte, Louisiana
Music is something passed down in Floyd Soileau’s family. He is the descendant of generations of fiddle players, but the only thing he can play is the radio. KVPI radio station hires him because he can speak French. There, he is introduced to a range of popular and local music genres—KVPI plays country; it plays pop; it is one of the first stations to play rhythm and blues. The Little Richards and the Fats Dominos ride the station’s airwaves; and in the afternoons, Floyd Soileau gives the newscast in French: “Bonjour. Ça c’est Floyd Soileau. Il bienvenu la Rendevous d’Acadian.”
2001—New York, New York
“Good morning, and it is not a good morning in New York City. A major disaster has occurred; a plane crashed into the World Trade Center,” reports the 9 am newscast on 1010 WINS in New York City. Amid the chaos that follows, Kerry and her husband decide to move away from New York. He has family down in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. They pack up their things and say goodbye to their old lives.
Kerry reclaims her art in the Deep South. She opens a studio and, alongside her own artwork, begins to sell vintage, mid-century modern, ‘50s atomic antiques and art—items she finds at thrift stores and yard sales, things once loved. Like records.
Country Roads Magazine
Floyd Soileau's lengthy career in the music recording industry can be traced back to the fact that he was hired at KVPI radio station in Ville Platte because he spoke French.
Records. It’s Floyd’s boss who suggests to him that he should start selling them. People in Ville Platte have to drive forty-five minutes to Opelousas just to buy music. Floyd takes him up on it. He and his brother drive to New Orleans, to Baronne Street. They return to Ville Platte with a $60 Columbia record player and a $200 inventory of records. Floyd sets up a display in a room at the Evangeline Bank, next door to the radio station’s room, and announces on air that records are now for sale in Ville Platte.
2010—Baton Rouge, Louisiana
People are coming to Kerry for her records. They are coming to her with records. The records are taking over. She no longer has time to search for antiques, and she has even less time to work on her art. In an unintended progression of fate, Kerry winds up a saleswoman of vinyl because Baton Rouge wants records.
Kerry opens The Atomic Pop Shop full time. She intends to incorporate her art studio into the building while she sells records. But the overwhelming demand for records once again takes over. She makes up her mind to focus her time on the music, thus beginning her journey as a gatekeeper of vinyl in Baton Rouge amidst the twenty-first-century digital revolution.
Ville Platte wants records. Floyd finds himself rushing around Evangeline Bank, giving his newscast, turning on the taped commercials, and hurrying down the hall to sell records. After he accidentally runs a Christmas program on air in July, Floyd’s boss demands that he make a choice: “I tell you what, you gotta make up your mind. You’re either gonna sell records, or you’re gonna be on the air.”
Floyd opens Floyd’s Record Shop full time, beginning his journey as a cultivator of music in small-town South Louisiana during vinyl’s golden era.
Country Roads Magazine
Flat Town Music, Floyd Soileau's production company, was responsible for the Cajun hit single by Vin Bruce, “Jolie Blonde.”
Coming to the end of the hour-and-a-half drive from Baton Rouge to my hometown, I pass the faded buildings of Main Street—the pizza restaurant, close to going out of business for the second time this year, the chipping murals decorating once-beautiful buildings, Donny’s Bar where underage kids flock for the sole source of weekend entertainment. I’ve made this drive hundreds of times before, and as I approach my former high school, I pass a large warehouse building, now painted over and owned by a CPA firm. I remember distinctly the brightly painted mural that not too long ago leapt from its walls: “Floyd’s Record Shop” written in red on top of a fiddle and accordion. I feel an overwhelming regret that I never went inside.
[From the archives: "If you are looking for any south Louisiana music, be it Cajun, zydeco, gospel, country, swamp pop, whatever, Floyd’s Record Shop has it, and likely, proprietor Floyd Soileau put it out on one of his labels." —Alex V. Cook]
I reach Floyd’s house, and he invites me in. Records are crammed in cabinets lining the walls of his living room. He rushes me past so that I only catch a glimpse of them. The man is 78 years old but moves as energetically as if he were 30. It’s been almost seven years since I’ve seen Floyd, but he treats me just as warmly as he did when I used to come swim in his pool with his granddaughter all those years ago. He sits down across from me at a table in the corner of the living room. I quickly scan the familiar space with newly appreciative eyes, and I point at the record plate displayed on the wall above the fireplace. Before I can utter my inquiry, he nods at it, looks at me with bright, excited eyes, and asks, “So where do you want me to start?”
When Floyd opened up his shop in 1956, he was selling the popular hits of the time. During that year, Elvis was top of the charts with “Hound Dog” and “Don’t Be Cruel.” Doris Day and Dean Martin weren’t far behind; and legends Johnny Cash, Frank Sinatra, and Nat King Cole were making it as well. Rock and roll and country and western were in high demand, and that’s what Floyd was selling.
However, what Floyd found in his customers was a constant and persistent inquiry about Cajun records. There were countless artists at the time that were recognized locally by name, and the Cajun people had an enormous love and pride for their musical culture. At the time, very few recordings of the music existed; it lived largely within the confines of dance halls and bars, family gatherings, and lullabies.
I remember distinctly the brightly painted mural that not too long ago leapt from its walls: “Floyd’s Record Shop” written in red on top of a fiddle and accordion. I feel an overwhelming regret that I never went inside.
When Milton Molitor and Austin Pitre, two Cajun dancehall musicians from the area, performed their music at a party, Ed Manuel, owner of Manuel’s Bar, recorded the song on tape. He wanted to call it the “Manuel Bar Waltz” and place it in all the local jukeboxes to promote his bar. So he approached Floyd with a proposition. He had the funding, and Floyd had the connections with recording studios. This was exactly the kind of thing Floyd’s customers were asking for: “Let’s get some records made.”
The interior of The Atomic Pop Shop on Government Street presents visual cacophony. The place is part comic book, part art studio—a blast from the past and a geometric wonderland. Images, colors, and shiny, indiscriminate objects seem to pop from every surface. And the records—the records are everywhere. Broken discs are arranged into colorful collages, and intact records—organized alphabetically in boxes, sorted by genre—spill out of the store.
Kerry is an extension of her shop, with bright hair and a Rolling Stones t-shirt worn underneath a black apron. When I walk through the door, she greets me over the shoulder as she carries a box of records to the back. She hurries around the room, and I hear her let out a hushed shit when something falls. She comes back in, greets a customer, and turns to lean over the counter to give me her full attention.
“How did it start? I couldn’t exactly say,” she says. “It was just kind of a natural progression of things and this is where we wound up.”
Kerry has developed a keen eye for what sells and is very particular about the albums she chooses to display. Though sometimes her customers surprise her: “It’s like, who wants eight copies of Kenny Rogers Greatest Hits?” she asks. “I don’t know; but you know, I put my foot in my mouth because the other day someone asked for it, and I was like, ‘Oh! It’s right here! For a dollar …’”
The interior of The Atomic Pop Shop on Government Street presents visual cacophony. The place is part comic book, part art studio—a blast from the past and a geometric wonderland.
Record making has become a barely sustainable side project for music producers. Though some artists will still release a number of LPs, the reality is that the money—such as it is—is in digital purchases. Less than six percent of music purchased today consists of vinyl sales; instead, music is often viewed as another mass-produced, inexpensive, and ephemeral possession.
Country Roads Magazine
The exterior of The Atomic Pop Shop on Government Street hints at the visual cacophony you will find inside.
But not for everyone. Kerry’s customers represent a variety of ages, and the younger collectors approach vinyl differently than older collectors who might have grown up buying records. Kerry suggests that these younger customers are using records to access the past: “That part of it is a lot of fun, to see the younger people getting into it and talking with people old enough to be their grandparents. It kind of, you know, mixes the generations or something.”
While some young people do buy vinyl as an actual method for listening to music, convenience will continue to win out; and Kerry mourns the age when music was an investment, a physical purchase worth holding in your hands. “It’s like, this record that I like so much—I have it. I physically can hold it with the artwork and the notes and the lyrics and everything. It brings you a little more into the experience of it all.”
The experience of holding a record etched with their own music was something that South Louisiana Cajun musicians of the time couldn’t pass up. Floyd soon established a record label dedicated to Cajun music; he called it Swallow Records. “I took hell from my dad for spelling it like that,” says Floyd. “But I had this dream that maybe these records would go all over the world, and people wouldn’t be able to pronounce the name spelled right [Soileau].”
The old Cajun legends came to Floyd one by one, hoping to achieve new life and endurance for their music—Lawrence Walker, Aldus Roger, Adam Hebert. Even Vin Bruce, one of the few Cajun musicians who had managed to attain fame outside of Acadiana with his hit “Dans la Louisianne” and who had performed at the Grand Ole Opry, came to Floyd.
[Listen to this: Platter Playlists: Heartbreak sung in style.]
It was 1961 when Bruce signed a recording contract with Swallow Records. By now, Floyd had developed his production company, Flat Town Music, and had been able to create a recording studio of his own in the back of his shop. It was there that Vin Bruce recorded his next hit single, “Jolie Blonde.”
Floyd attempts to fold his thick Cajun accent into a mock British one for me, recreating the monumental conversation over lunch that marked the next stage of his career.
Floyd had gotten involved in what was then known as “South Louisiana Music,” which had made its way overseas and produced a kind of cult following among the British. “The music being played around the area was a distinctive blend of country, with a little bit of Cajun mixed in there and rhythm and blues and pop,” says Floyd. “And it was a good gumbo of sorts—the sound that came out. Some called it South Louisiana rock and roll.”
Officially dubbed “Swamp Pop” by the British, Floyd began recording this genre under a new label, Jin Records, named after his sweetheart at the time, Jinver. “I said, ‘Let’s make a few points here. I’ll call my record label Jin,’” Floyd explains, pointing across the living room at his wife of over fifty years, who looks up from her work to smile, “and that worked out pretty good.”
“This Should Go On Forever,” by Rod Bernard, was Floyd’s first national hit. Chess Records in Chicago got wind of the song’s popularity in Houston and wanted to take control of distribution past the local level. Floyd told Chess it was a done deal so long as Rod got an appearance on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand, a wildly popular TV program at the time; the song was played on WLAC Nashville, a 50,000 clear watt radio station; and he got $1,000 up front.
Officially dubbed “Swamp Pop” by the British, Floyd began recording this genre under a new label, Jin Records, named after his sweetheart at the time, Jinver.
After that, Floyd remembers a rush of records coming at him. There was Joe Barry, who sounded like Ray Charles on one recording and Fats Domino on another. His song “I’m a Fool to Care” took off like a storm and became a big hit. Then there was Gene Bourgeois, who had a Fats Domino-ish sound of his own. His song, “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do,” went up to the Top 40 in the charts.
Floyd’s first million-record seller received its kickstart from a source he won’t forget. One day he got a visit from the owner of a particular house of ill repute in the woods between Oakdale and Ville Platte. Floyd remembers the conversation:
“‘Floyd boy, you got a hit record.’
I said, ‘I do? Which one you talking about?’
‘“Sweet Dreams.” Boy, those ladies of the night over there, they play that thing twenty-four hours a day; they don’t stop. I’m here to get a new copy cause they’re ruining the old one. But man, the ladies know their records. They know their music.’”
Country Roads Magazine
The experience of holding a record etched with their own music was something that South Louisiana Cajun musicians of the time couldn’t pass up. Floyd soon established a record label dedicated to Cajun music; he called it Swallow Records. “I took hell from my dad for spelling it like that,” says Floyd.
Nine months later, Tommy McLain’s “Sweet Dreams” reached the top of the charts.
The final door of Floyd’s rise in the music industry opened the day zydeco musician Clifton Chenier came into his shop and told him, “Look, you gotta get on that zydeco, I’m telling you it’s coming on strong.”
Floyd’s record label, Maison de Soul, became the first label dedicated solely to zydeco music. This music brought Floyd’s career to its peak when Sidney Simien, known as Rockin’ Sidney, recorded his single, “Don’t Mess With My Toot Toot,” which gained incredible fame nationally and internationally.
“The grandmas loved it, the tiny kids loved it, everybody loved it,” said Floyd. “Simple little song—but everybody loved it. The funny thing about it was you couldn’t go down Bourbon Street without hearing that song continuously from one joint to the next; all the jukeboxes had it on.”
In an attempt to continue the old record-shop tradition of “in stores”—free performances held by musicians in record shops—Kerry has developed a venue out of the back room of her shop. It’s not big, but it has hosted comedy performances, theatrical events, and so, so much music. The space has attracted countless touring artists from places as far as California, New York, Tennessee, and even bands like Cement Matters, which came from England to tour America.
Kerry rarely turns artists down. “We’ve met some amazing, talented musicians, and we’ve met some really sucky ones too,” says Kerry. “But we wanna give everyone a chance; we’re not here to judge what they’re doing, we’re just here to provide an experience for not only our customers and patrons but for them as well. We provide them a space to express their art, whatever it may be.”
In 1985, Floyd and his wife sat in attendance when Simien received his Grammy for “Don’t Mess With My Toot Toot.” Floyd said that moment was the climax of his whole life’s work: “From that point on, it started dribbling down; but it was a wonderful ride to get to the top of it.”