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Alive and Kickin': Life After Hurricane Katrina for One New Orleans Musician

Updated on May 11, 2010
Courtesy of Threadhead Records
Courtesy of Threadhead Records

Book Review: Paul Sanchez's Pieces of Me

About two minutes into our initial and to this day only conversation, Paul Sanchez looked me in the eye and implored me to alter the direction of my life. His advice was sincere and earnest; it touched, inspired, and persuaded me. Sanchez can have that effect on people.

In his new book Pieces of Me: Essays on Life, Love, and Music in the New New Orleans, Sanchez reaches out from the pages and talks about experiences so personal and so real that he may persuade and inspire you as well.

Paul Sanchez is a master storyteller. He has been telling stories with his guitar and voice for his entire life. Pieces of Me, which is a collection of essays and blog entries chronologically presented and written in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, is a story about loss, heartbreak, anger, and frustration. It is the story of a man trying to survive in post-apocalyptic conditions who was stripped of his home, his possessions, and eventually his livelihood. Ultimately, however, Pieces of Me is an uplifting story about love and redemption. Love for the woman that obviously means the world to him, and redemption by way of a solo career that might not have ever happened. 

Works By Paul Sanchez

There are many reasons why Paul Sanchez could be bitter, and his book could have just been an angry diatribe. He and his wife Shelly lost everything in the flood. He saw first hand how the city he loved became a shell of its former self. He experienced first hand the ineptitude of the government in the immediate and the ongoing aftermath of the storm, and to make things worse, Cowboy Mouth, the band that he co-founded and had been playing with for over fifteen years, essentially tossed him aside by forcing him and his wife out in a cold, calculated, and unfeeling manner.

Cowboy Mouth is a touring rock band that had achieved a mild amount of success and had built up a following over the years. Reading the accounts of Cowboy Mouth in Sanchez’s book, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the fictional band Stillwater from the movie Almost Famous: “a midlevel band dealing with their own limitations.” For better or worse though, Cowboy Mouth was Sanchez’s life, his living, and someday would have provided his retirement money.

Courtesy of Paul Sanchez
Courtesy of Paul Sanchez

With no home and now no band, Sanchez looked within himself and started writing. A friend showed him how to blog on the internet. As anyone who has done it knows, you have no idea who or for that matter if anyone is reading what you write, but that is not why you do it. Sanchez, as he writes, had reached the bottom professionally, emotionally, spiritually, and physically. He needed an outlet, and needed to feel connected. He thought that there must be others out there with similar feelings of pain and loneliness in the wake of Katrina. He was right.

As Sanchez found his voice through his writing, others began to notice including Tanya Younger and Chris Joseph of Threadhead Records, a non-profit organization formed to help New Orleans musicians who were victims of Katrina. Younger and Joseph approached Sanchez about turning his blog into a book.

Because of the format, Pieces of Me, at times, lacks cohesiveness, but the stories are rich and textured providing a unique perspective on New Orleans and life in the music industry. One great example of this occurs when Sanchez is in the studio working on Exit to Mystery Street which his first solo record since the storm and his departure from Cowboy Mouth. Sanchez tapped famed Soul Asylum front man Dave Pirner to produce the record, and he assembled an impressive lineup of New Orleans musicians to contribute.

Photo by Denise Sullivan. DLS Music Photo. Used with Permission.
Photo by Denise Sullivan. DLS Music Photo. Used with Permission.

Something was missing, however, on the song Ride With the Devil, a rocker which Sanchez had reluctantly agreed to include in the mix. Out in back of the studio during a break in recording, Pirner suggested that what they needed for the song to work was “some ripping lead guitar”. Wondering who they could get, Pirner looked next door where, coincidently, Alex McMurray was doing yard work.

Even though McMurray had built a great reputation in many different New Orleans bands over the years as a song writer and guitar player, he and Sanchez had never met. That didn’t matter to McMurray who agreed to put down his shovel, grab his guitar, and join them in the studio, poison ivy and all. McMurray then went on to, as Sanchez describes, transform the song, “From something that was just wood and wire into a live fire-breathing dragon of which [McMurray] was the master.” After just a couple of takes McMurray unplugged his guitar and went back next door to his house to continue his yard work.

That, in a nutshell, is New Orleans. People helping people. Musicians helping musicians. And dragon-slayers masquerading as gardeners.

Photo by Denise Sullivan. DLS Music Photo. Used with permission.
Photo by Denise Sullivan. DLS Music Photo. Used with permission.

If all you know about New Orleans is Mardi Gras and Bourbon Street, then you really don’t know New Orleans. I first discovered New Orleans music in 2003 when my friend dragged me to Jazz Fest. My eyes and ears were opened and I have been going back every year since for either Jazz Fest or French Quarter Fest weekend, but I do not pretend to really know the city. The truth is for people like me who are tourists in New Orleans one or two weekends a year, the city really hasn’t changed that much post-Katrina, but for people like Sanchez and McMurray, it will never be the same.

I doubt he would remember, but I met Sanchez last year when a mutual friend introduced us. He had just finished an incredible show at a small venue called D.B.A. on Frenchman’s Street with Shamar Allen who is a talented young trumpeter. We chatted briefly, and he shared a bit of his amazing journey with me. The journey that he chronicles in Pieces of Me. He also inspired me by imploring me to take a chance and make a major change in my life. In a way, he demanded it. I took what he said to heart; it stayed with me, and now a year later, while not doing exactly what he suggested, I have taken some big steps in the right direction.

Paul Sanchez has that effect on people.

Bill Komissaroff
May 2009
(Thanks to Paul Miller, Bill Brakefield, and Denise Sullivan)


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      A.M. Gwynn 9 years ago

      This is an excellent piece! Drew me in completely. We need to hear more of our New Orleans musician stories, how they are rebuilding the music community within the rebuilding of New Orleans Herself. I used to live in New Orleans, and I know how vital the music is to Her. Beautiful work Bill!

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      Denise 9 years ago

      Nice piece and yes you get it I think there is alot of New Orleanian in your heart!

      Paul Sanchez is truly an amazing and inspiring person and I am so glad that is being recognized it is well deserved. His enthusiasm never ceases to lift me up.

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