In Sept. 2008 issue of Country Roads
Thanks to the antiquated blue laws in East Baton Rouge Parish, Sunday’s are often a dead spot in the week of an adult, so much so that I forget that other places are open on Sunday’s until some mouth-agape out-of-town visitor suggests we go somewhere. Fortunately, the rest of the state sees fit to interpret the day of rest by having a drink on one’s hand, and a short drive can bring you to a bright vibrant kind of Sunday afternoon.
I took the Henderson exit off I-10, at the end of the Atchafalaya Bay Bridge that stretches between Baton Rouge and Lafayette, and like every time I cross that expanse, I was struck by the difference a stretch of swamp makes. You quickly leave behind the art-deco bustle of downtown Baton Rouge and the steaming tangles of pipes that form the plants along the river and you are jetting across a still, alien horizon, with the stumps of cypress poking up through the water as if they are startled by the sound of the road. And then once you hit dry land on the other side, you are confronted by people who talk, dress, eat and live differently than in the place you left. I’ve grown up with Cajun culture in my back yard for most of my life, but to this day, I feel like an awkward but welcome visitor in it—and this is a good feeling to have. It is a reminder that the world is not about you.
I’d never explored Henderson more than a stop at the gas station for a fill up and some boudin, and could not quite wrap my head around exactly where this Whiskey River exists, outside of Willie Nelson’s discography. Technically, Angelle’s is on the south tip off Lake Bigeaux at a point dubbed Cypremort Cravasse on Google Maps, but for all intents and purposes, this is the mythical Whiskey River our friend Willy with the braids sings about—Angelle’s serves as a port of call for motor boats and party barges to depart for a drunken lazy afternoon in the swamp.
Under the auspices of this column, I like to find the places off the beaten path, but it’s rare that I end up at a place you can’t even see from the road—once you hang a right by the landmark lighthouse at Pat’s a wooden sign leads you up on a gravel road over the levee to Angelle’s insular world. Cars and campers are strewn in loose order in the grass surrounding the small club. An airboat was sitting in its trailer behind a white pickup near the wooden porch at the entrance. I don’t know if I’ve come up with a magic formula that would indicate how fun a place is from the outside, but I can safely say that the presence of an airboat in the parking lot is a good sign. As I marveled at it, a guy with an inspiring silver helmet of hair and a waxed moustache said “Ya’ll come on in.”
What I saw as I entered was a gargantuan screened back porch attached to the bar. Jeffery Broussard and the Creole Cowboys were playing on a stage on the water side, grinding away that familiar zydeco stomp groove under a wooden sign that had WHISKEY RIVER spelled out in holiday lights. For something as down home as this place was, it was rather fabulous. The dancefloor ebbed and flowed with each number as couples made their way around the room, igniting the air with their salacious moves. Compared to some of the more genteel settings, Whiskey River landing was positively libidinous in nature.
“People come out here to party, where there’s not going to be any trouble,” said Don Brasseaux, a furniture maker from Breaux Bridge and expert Cajun dancer. He also was a bartender at Whiskey River Landing back before it was a dancehall. “This was a swamp bar, and this covered deck was used for weigh-ins for fishing tournaments. Sometime in the early nineties, the bandstand was added and the porch was screened in, and the dancehall took off.” He confirmed that a lot of single people came out here to meet people in this relaxed fun atmosphere, that folks wander in to continue the party after an afternoon on the rented barges. “There’s a lot of freedom without it being a free for all.”
The moment that got me was when one of the rousing numbers from Jeffery Broussard slowly transformed into a gospel roll, just the accordion and washboard, punctuated by a stomp from the kick drum. It was an amalgamation of Sunday tradition, sacred and profane that had the room clapping, dancing and rejoicing on a cypress porch out in the swamp, people of all ages, races and states of inebriation coming together in this one place for a glorious moment. It seemed to me that this is what Sunday should really be about.