We’re in the bar at Anse Chastanet Resort, on the southern part of luxuriant St. Lucia, waiting for the band to come onstage. I order a Stairway to Heaven cocktail—which, I’m told by our waitress, contains an aphrodisiac called Bois Bande—and my wife opts for a Caribbean Kiss, with plenty of local rum.
The bar is an open-air affair, with palm trees painted on the support columns and waxy, red anthuriums in a vase on the table. The vibe is distinctly Caribbean—until a group of five local men appear on the stage and begin tuning their instruments, which consist of a drum kit, guitars and an organ.
The lead singer, L.M. Stone, is wearing a black cowboy hat, and soon he and his band launch into “Heckel and Jeckel,” a George Jones country music classic. Right after that song ends, Stone, who sounds like he grew up on the south side of Nashville and not the south end of St. Lucia, switches to Garth Brooks, singing jauntily of “friends in low places.”
The bar is packed with tourists and locals alike, and the dance floor shakes with folks doing a do-si-do or at least a couple of “swing-your-partners.”
The genre of music and hoedown atmosphere don’t come as a surprise to me. On a previous visit to St. Lucia, I had discovered that locals here have a deep affinity for country and western music, mostly the old-timey kind with broken hearts and battered bottles and loyal dogs that get hit by pickup trucks.
Really, you can’t get away from hurtin’ country songs in this Caribbean paradise. Strong southern twangs are a mainstay on local radio, with stations often playing nothing but country and western for hours on end on the weekend.
Denise Murray, a young woman who gives me a tour of the historic fort at Pigeon Island, tells me she adores country music, especially Conway Twitty. “It’s easy for dancing, 1-2-3. And I like the lyrics. They teach us about love,” she says.
L.M. Stone is equally passionate about the genre. Back at Anse Chastanet, he tells me his mother was a huge country music fan. “At church, [my family] would change the hymns into country tunes,” he says.
Stone appeared at an open country music competition at the Wild Horse Saloon in Nashville a few years ago and came out on top. “I was the only black guy in sight,” he tells me with a laugh.
Now something of a country legend in St. Lucia, he has appeared on stage with American country music singer Mark Chesnutt and performs several days a week at different spots up and down the island. He also recorded an album in 2005 titled Looking Through the Mirror of My Life. Among the tunes are such classic-sounding country titles as “She Took Everything but the Kitchen Sink” and “Don’t Let the Bottle Take Control of Me.” The album continues to sell well on the island.
It’s not quite clear how this part of the Caribbean turned country. While some suggest the genre was introduced to locals by U.S. military workers who came to St. Lucia to build airports during the Second World War, others maintain it was St. Lucians who went to Texas and Louisiana to work the sugar cane fields who brought country and western music back with them. The music seems most popular in the southern part of the island, which is relatively poor and heavily Christian—not unlike the old American South.
Naturally, more Caribbean-sounding music also thrives on St. Lucia, including calypso, which often features political commentary, and soca, which is faster and usually apolitical. Reggae is omnipresent, too, of course.
On a night in the village of Gros Islet, we pull up in front of the Irie Bar and order a Piton beer for about $1.50. A lone, skinny fellow with thick dreads dances by himself, as Bob Marley, on the stereo, belts out, “I and I will see you through.”
As the song fades, we hear the rising notes of music from another bar—the Almo—just down the road. Instead of reggae, it’s George Strait ringing loud and clear: “It was a mighty big step, when I started stepping out of line.”
Almo owner Stephen Bruneau later tells me that Saturday nights are best for live country music.
“My wife is from Laborie, near Castries, and they’re really crazy for it. Oh, my God, they love it there. I think it’s the lyrics but also the rhythm,” he says, mimicking a slow dance and grinning a huge grin.
It’s a quiet night at Almo when we stop in, but we spot a local woman with jeans and a brown blouse dancing with a guy in grey slacks and a white shirt. They do a few paces around the dance floor. The man has one of his hands on a cold Piton and the other on a dangerously low spot on the woman’s back.
When they come off the floor after a particularly rowdy tune, the man lets out a loud, “Yahoo!”
Getting There: WestJet flies to St. Lucia three times a week from Toronto.