MELISSA BLOCK, host:
We travel now to Austin, Texas, the city know for its music scene. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Austin's musicians and fans have welcomed a number of artists from New Orleans. Members of The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, The Iguanas and some of the celebrated Neville family have sought shelter and work in Austin. Recently performers from the two music cities joined forces on an album to benefit New Orleans relief efforts. David Brown of member station KUT visited them in the studio.
DAVID BROWN reporting:
A little more than a month ago, shortly after Hurricane Katrina hit, Cyril Neville of The Neville Brothers was in great spirits: happy to have found shelter in Austin, lots of places to play, looking forward to returning to New Orleans, he said. But recently, as Neville took a short break at a recording session in south Austin, he seemed different.
Mr. CYRIL NEVILLE (The Neville Brothers): I wouldn't want to go back to a place that they're saying is going to be a combination of Disneyland and Las Vegas. I read somewhere that people were saying that New Orleans had died. Well, New Orleans was murdered and New Orleans is a crime scene. And I just want to go back and get whatever I can salvage and be part of whatever class-action suits against whoever, you know, because I lost things that nobody can ever give back to me. You know, 15 years of recordings that, you know, I can't never retrieve, you know. So I'm hurt and I'm pissed and somebody need to pay for it.
BROWN: The producer noticed his star talent getting a little worked up and gently pulled his man away. Neville ducked into a soundproof booth, slipped on his headphones and started strategizing with a quartet of musicians on the other side of the glass wall, including a couple members of The Meters, the fathers of New Orleans funk.
(Soundbite of music studio)
Mr. NEVILLE: You know, go to the sixth bar and something, man, say it a little funkier. Say it a little more...
Unidentified Man #1: As everyone says, skank it up a little. The groove.
Mr. NEVILLE: No, I'm talkin' about the groove itself.
BROWN: The song they were working up wasn't especially New Orleans-sounding but certainly not unfamiliar, especially if you're old enough to remember 1968, the Vietnam War, student protests, civil rights unrest.
(Soundbite of "This Is My Country")
Backup Singers: Do, do, do.
BROWN: Against that backdrop Curtis Mayfield wrote this title track for the Impressions LP "This Is My Country."
(Soundbite of "This Is My Country")
Mr. NEVILLE: (Singing) Too many have died in protecting my pride for me to go second-class. We've survived a hard blow and I want you to know that you'll place us at last. And I know you will give...
BROWN: So as Cyril Neville's new version began to take shape in the studio, it was clear that this wasn't just another recording session in south Austin. This was, in its own way, a kind of political gathering.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. NEVILLE: (Singing) Some people are thinking we don't have the right to say this is my country. Before they can live they've got to fight this fight and say it's my country.
BROWN: Grammy-nominated producer Leo Sacks paced the floor behind the mixing board. And then he came over, leaned in and whispered, trying hard not to disrupt the mood.
Mr. LEO SACKS (Producer): There's an undercurrent going on here. I mean, their lives are in transition. They're dealing with FEMA. They're wondering where they're going to relocate to, if not permanently, certainly temporarily. They're dealing with the emotion of what kind of New Orleans could they potentially be going back to. What's going to happen to the neighborhoods that gave the city its music and its flavor and its culture. What's going to happen? Is it going to be, you know--is New Orleans going to turn into one big casino or Bourbon Street? It's just been a powerful ...(unintelligible).
BROWN: Sacks has brought together nearly two dozen artists from Marcia Ball to Irma Thomas, from Dr. John to Willy T to record "Sing Me Back Home," an album to benefit New Orleans' food banks, musicians' clinics and street ministries. In a rehearsal booth, New Orleans pianist Henry Butler was warming up for his turn in the big room.
Mr. HENRY BUTLER (Pianist): My house was in the Gentilly section of New Orleans. I'm still homeless at the moment. We're, at this point, in the middle of doing the record. Probably in about one or two weeks, I'll have to more seriously consider this.
BROWN: For some here this session is a kind of therapy, not just a way to pass the time but to make a meaningful contribution to help get New Orleans back on its feet. The producers of this recording will soon start shopping around for a distributor. But there's something else going on here, too. It's a growing concern among New Orleans musicians that no matter how much is done to rebuild their city, the street music scene may be lost for good, that reconstruction will leave little more than a plastic family-friendly imitation of what the Crescent City once was. That may be unfair and these are still early days, but one senses that for some prominent musicians with ties to New Orleans, Austin's looking like more than just a temporary home. For NPR News, I'm David Brown in Austin, Texas.
(Soundbite of recording studio)
Mr. NEVILLE: All right. Hit it. How that feel to you, ...(Unintelligible)?
Unidentified Man #3: It felt good.
Mr. NEVILLE: How you feel inside?
Unidentified Man #3: Sweet.
Mr. NEVILLE: Let's see a smile.
SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.