The Cotati Accordion Festival’s 2009 Honorary Director
Big Lou, the Accordion Princess began her accordion career as a C&W piano player. Living in Austin, Texas, she was walking in the park one day and stopped to listen to an alfresco accordionist. He handed her the instrument and suggested she take a stab at it. It was a keyboard accordion, so she was able to jump right in with her right hand. The accordionist said “You know, that accordion is for sale.” Big Lou bought it and started to practice. It took a few years for her to get comfortable with the left hand buttons, but she perservered.
The honky-tonks of Texas in the late ’70s were fertile ground for Lou’s eclectic/eccentric musical tastes, and introduced her to many facets of the accordion. The area had a large population of Czechs and Germans who mixed their accordion-driven folk and polkas with country music.
Big Lou also developed an enduring love of Norteno music and was fortunate enough to see many touring Zydeco musicians, among them her favorite all-time accordion player, Clifton Chenier.
In 1980, Big Lou moved to the bay area. She played piano in The Stir-Ups, an all-girl rockabilly trio, and gradually began adding accordion on a few numbers. She played it even more in Thee Hellhounds, and got her first ever all-accordion gig playing with Polkacide.
She founded Those Darn Accordions! and played with them for 12 years. In the early days of TDA!, Lou and co-pranksters Tom Torriglia and Joshua Brody came up with the concept of accordion raids. A dozen accordionists would burst unannounced into a series of restaurants, play Lady of Spain, and run out again. They billed themselves as the Accordion Liberation Army and handed out a list of demands, including Accordion Studies in the state colleges, and beatification for Flaco Jimenez.
One of those demands, to make the accordion the official instrument of San Francisco, was fulfilled when Tom and Lou met then-supervisor Willie Kennedy at a cocktail party. She agreed to sponsor a bill to that effect. The city council passed the bill, but Mayor Art Agnos would have none of it and refused to sign it. He forgot to veto it, and a year later the accordion became the city’s official instrument.
The accordion has been very, very good to Big Lou. She has played all over the US, as well as in Lithuania, Slovenia and Botswana. She has played at weddings, art openings, parties, festivals, TV shows, street fairs, dog shows, drug rehab centers, ballparks and funerals. She has had the good fortune to open for, or play with, many of her teenage and current idols: acts as diverse as Dick Contino, Weird Al, Donovan, Buck Owens, Roger McGuinn, Warren Zevon and Jerry Lee Lewis.
What she likes best about the accordion is the music. What she likes second best is the variety of places it has taken her. It has enriched her life enormously.
Big Lou currently leads her own band, Big Lou’s Casserole. She also plays with the French cabaret trio Salut Matelot, and has a thriving solo career. ▲