"When you come to see me, if you don't get up and shake a leg, call the undertaker. You're dead," says Nathan Williams, the frontman of Lafayette, La.'s Nathan and the Zydeco Cha Chas.
Raised in a creole-speaking home in St. Martinville in south Louisiana, an eight-year-old Williams climbed on top of a washing machine to watch through a window in fascination as zydeco pioneer Clifton Chenier played at a town dance. He soon moved to Lafayette at age 12 to live with his big brother, Sid, who owned El Sid O's Zydeco Blues Club.
"I started foolin' around with music and never stopped since," says Williams.
Before long, Williams found himself on stage with his idol, Chenier. He hadn't picked up the accordion yet, but Williams was already making his name as a singer.
"I sang a song with him called 'Hunger,'" Williams recalls. "He said, 'Oh yeah, you gonna be good.'"
After Williams graduated high school in 1983, he developed thyroid problems that left him bedridden in the hospital. It was there that he determined to hone his accordion skills and where he came up with his band's name.
"I said, 'When I get well, I'm going to name my band Nathan and the Zydeco Cha Chas.' Everyone was laughing. They said, 'Why'd you come up with that?'" laughs Williams. "I wasn't aware that Chenier had a song called 'Zydeco Cha Cha.' That's just what I wanted to name my band. The name was catchy."
Twenty-seven years later, Williams has toured far and wide, spreading the contagious zydeco rhythms propelled by washboard percussion and accordion grooves.
We caught up with him after his recent concert in Germany —not long after the band's performance at the Rounder Records 40th anniversary party at the Grand Ole Opry. (That performance also featured Alison Krauss, Irma Thomas, and Béla Fleck; it's currently airing on PBS).
But even when traveling, he's never far from home. William's brother, Guitar Dennis, plays in the band, and cousin Mark Williams sings and plays the scrub board. His son, Lil' Nathan, often joins him on keys, but these days, he keeps busy with his own group, Lil' Nathan and the Zydeco Bigtimers. A couple of old friends, Robert LeBlanc on bass and Herman "Rat" Brown on drums, round out the touring band.
The group is currently recording a new album, a follow-up to 2007's Hang It High, Hang It Low, but no release date is set. For Williams, it's all about taking it easy.
"God is good. I ain't got nothin' to complain about. Just keep on. If I can help somebody going around the country and enjoying making people happy, that's what life is all about," says Williams. "Instead of getting all stressed out, you just kinda let your hair down. Enjoy life. When you see me, you forget about all your troubles for that hour and a half or that two sets that I do. Then you're all right, you know?"
Williams will get some help in making people happy at the 19th Annual Lowcountry Cajun Fest from Leroy Thomas and the Zydeco Roadrunners, a fellow group of Louisiana musicians. There's also plenty of Cajun cuisine, running the gamut from étouffée to jambalaya to alligator. At 2:30 p.m., the annual crawfish eating contest always draws an enthusiastic crowd, and there will be carnival rides and inflatables to entertain the kids.
"When you come see me, you come see the fun side of life," says Williams, who says his last appearance in Charleston was at a small blues club years ago. He's excited to get back for Cajun Fest, which will hopefully be reminiscent of the Williams family reunions back in St. Martinville.
"My uncles would throw house parties, with everybody singing. Now we get together once a year and have a party for Mardi Gras at my mom's house," he says. "We play for the public and let them enjoy themselves, make a big gumbo and give 'em a little bit of everything. We just keep the ball rolling, tryin' to make people happy.
"Going around the country all these years, it's a blessing," he adds. "I'm like a Coca-Cola sign, you know? You might see me anywhere, man."
With one of the foremost zydeco bands in the world coming to Charleston for this year's fest, expect an exciting day of dancing on a full belly.
"I'm bringing the real deal," says Williams. "Tell them people to bring their dancing shoes, cause I'm gonna sock it to 'em."