St. Lucia may be a Caribbean island neighboring Jamaica, but there’s a music scene here that’s a far cry from what we typically associate with the indigenous culture of Rastafarians. While Bob Marley and the iconic cannabis leaves may be the typical scene across the Caribbean islands, here in St. Lucia, the predominantly black population comes down to a very different white air: that of the Wild Wild West. It’s true, the most popular music on the island is country western.
It is almost midnight on a Saturday and I have decided to venture into the capital of Saint Lucia to experience the meadows and plains of the island’s musical landscape on my own. In a warehouse above a closed food market, it’s a heckling. Cars are double-parked outside, and street vendors sell their key apocalypse survival merchandise: rum, beer, and chicken. There is a Caribbean “western” dance party in full swing, my heels go up the stairs and, to complete the scene, someone takes their Stetson off as I pass. I had dragged my reluctant cousin to Prio’s Country Palace (formerly Nashville Palace), the favorite spot for country jiving, to take a tour of the capital of Castries with the country swingers showing off their late night steps above. from the nap grub huts to the day market.
Prio Palace is where western children go to have fun. People of all ages are wasted on rum and squeak a swivel foot with ballet-like precision across the boards. Toe screwdriver, country grooving. And not everyone is dressed in a lone prowler costume; there are a lot of people here in everyday clothes, which suggests that there isn’t even a hint of novelty in these gatherings; everyone really likes it. I tried my best to get into the spirit of things by joining in a bit, but felt like I was just making myself stand out more. Even a Rastafarian in the corner (who I’m pretty sure was slowly falling slumped against the wall) was moving his hips more convincingly. These scenes weren’t so much of a surprise; I had seen evidence from the Caribbean Country Institute a year ago when, on a taxi ride from Hewanorra airport through the countryside on a visit, I saw boots and hats wide-brimmed boogying in a roadside cabin cradled by a Hank Williams LP. But the love of the countryside doesn’t end with the nightlife; Saint Lucia has its own country western singers, too much.
LM Stone has loved country since she was a child, hearing her mother’s imported records turn on her gramophone. He took his music from St. Lucia to Nashville, where he placed number one out of 50 other country celebrity prospects in a contest at the Wild Horse Saloon. He was the only black man to go on stage, and he tore it up. “When I got on stage, there was a silence from the bar,” says Stone. “The guys stopped playing pool and the ladies started dancing at the foot of the stage. But when I started playing things changed. At the end of the song there were hats on my feet.”
Stone’s discovery of the country coincides with the western flow to Saint Lucia that began during World War II, when the United States had two bases on the island. The soldiers brought their records to the bases and found that the Western sound was remarkably compatible with a centuries-old Aboriginal tradition called “Cordrille,” which, like country music, is a complicit branch of folk storytelling. The reggae and calypso which are native to the island cannot hold a crowd the way a western dance does. In fact, the neighboring French island of Martinique organizes country western dances to attract Saint Lucians who nest illegally. The attraction of music is so strong that border control is able to round up and dismiss hooky-playing “Looshans” from their own country. Germaine Anius, who has been playing country music on Radio Caraibes since 1973, attributes the predominance of music to the idea that it offers an intimacy that is not felt in other music. Before Anius brought country to the island’s airwaves, country fans in Saint Lucia could tune in to some US AM radio stations to hear favorites like George Jones (whose recent death spurred an increase in western shindigs across the island). “In Saint Lucia, if people want to raise money for anything, they’ll put on a western dance. It’s a sure way to attract more people.”
The home-made tunes of the Caribbean cannon may have faded in popularity in St. Lucia, but West American country music lives here with a newfound integrity. And the holidays are crazy too.