“We’ve been through a lot of ups and downs in this business, which is a very tough busines. To see it all come out makes everything worthwhile. It’s almost like all your dreams come true.” Billy Joe Tharpe, singer, songwriter, rapper
Denham Springs’ singer, songwriter and rapper Steel Bill, aka Billy Joe Tharpe, has the title song on the new CD soundtrack for History’s Louisiana-set reality show, Swamp People.
Tharpe’s “Swamp People” joins a swampy set of classics including Hank Williams’ “Jambalaya,” the Neville Brothers’ “Fire on the Bayou,” Tony Joe White’s “Polk Salad Annie” and Bobby Charles’ “See You Later, Alligator.”
“When I first saw the CD cover,” Tharpe said this week, “where it said Hank Williams, Jerry Reed, Neville Brothers and all those guys, with a new Swamp People song by Steel Bill, I tell you, I got chill bumps. These are guys in music we look up to, legends, especially Hank Williams.”
Tharpe recorded his swaggering, country-rock “Swamp People” song at Piety Street Studio in New Orleans. Grammy-winning producer and Rounder Records vice president for A&R (artists and repertoire) Scott Billington led the session.
The quick turnaround between recording the song in March and the album’s release this week shocked Tharpe.
“Man, so quick,” he said. “Scott said, ‘C’mon.’ I went in there, recorded it. Next thing you know we’re shooting a music video for it and, I’m go’ tell you, a few weeks later the music video is out and, bam, it’s in the stores.”
Paulette “Pete” Elkins, a music industry veteran who manages Swamp People stars Troy Landry and the Landry family, encouraged Tharpe to write a song for the show.
“She and I were friends on the music end of things,” Tharpe said. “And I was writing some music for one of her friends, to help him out. She said, ‘Hey, you got the title. Write a Swamp People song.’ ”
Tharpe composed the song in 20 minutes.
“It came real easy,” he said. “I wrote about everyday life in the South. I grew up fishing in the swamp and doing all that stuff. I know how the swamp smells when you get there in the morning.”
After he’d written “Swamp People,” Tharpe phoned Elkins.
“I said, ‘I got it, baby.’ I sent it to her and she said, ‘Bill, this is it.’ ”
But several months passed, during which the prolific Tharpe wrote many more songs. He finally got a call from Billington, a producer who’s helmed many dozens of Louisiana music projects through the years. Billington suggested that Tharpe flesh his “Swamp People” song out by adding a bridge, as it’s called in music.
The original plan for “Swamp People” was to have a singer other than Tharpe record it.
“But nobody else had that enthusiasm and spirit that he puts into his own songs,” Billington explained. “So we decided he should cut it.”
Billington assembled a band of New Orleans musicians to record the song’s backing tracks, including Johnette Downing, a busy children’s entertainer and author who’s also the producer’s fiancée.
Tharpe had a suggestion of his own for the session.
“I said, ‘Scott, buddy, I’m go’ do this song for you. I’m go’ sing it and love it to death and let y’all have it — under one condition. You play the harmonica on it.’ And he nailed it.”
Despite Tharpe’s 18-month stay in Los Angeles and his previous work with Maurice Starr, Macy Gray and many others, his appearance on the Swamp People soundtrack is his biggest break yet.
“We’ve been through a lot of ups and downs in this business, which is a very tough business,” he said. “To see it all come out makes everything worthwhile. It’s almost like all your dreams come true.”
“I hope this can be a springboard for him,” “Billington said. “He’s an engaging young performer.”