St. Lucia may be a Caribbean island neighboring Jamaica, but there's a music scene here that's a world away from what we generally associate with the indigenous culture of Rastafarians. While Bob Marley and emblematic cannabis leaves may be the typical tableau across the Caribbean islands, here in St. Lucia, the predominantly-black population gets down to a wildly different white-bred tune: that of the Wild Wild West. That's right, the most popular music on the island is country western.
It's almost midnight on a Saturday, and I've decided to venture out into St. Lucia's capital to check out the prairies and plains of the island's musical landscape myself. In a warehouse space above a shuttered food market, there's ruckus. Cars are double-parked outside and vendors on the street are selling their keystone apocalypse-survival wares: rum, beer, and chicken. There's a Caribbean "western" dance party in full swing, with heels passing on the stairs and, to perfect the scene, someone doffs his Stetson to me as I pass. I'd dragged my reluctant cousin to Prio's Country Palace (formerly Nashville Palace), the go-to spot for country jiving, to take a twirl in the capital of Castries with the country swingers showcasing their practiced steps late-night above the napping grub huts of the daytime market.
Prio's Palace is where the western kids go to get their kicks. People of all ages are rum-wasted and grinding a foot-swivel with ballet-accuracy through the floorboards. Screwdriver-toes, grooving country. And not everyone is clad in lonesome ranger garb; there are plenty people here in everyday clothes, which suggests that there's not even a hint of novelty about these gatherings; everyone just really digs it. I tried my best to get in the spirit of things by joining in a bit, but got a feeling I was just making myself stick out more. Even a Rasta in the corner (who I'm pretty sure was just slowly falling over slumped against the wall) was moving his hips more convincingly. These scenes weren't so much of a surprise; I'd seen evidence of the Caribbean Country Institute a year ago when, during a taxi ride from Hewanorra airport up through the countryside while on a visit, I'd glimpsed some boots and wide-brimmed hats boogying in a roadside shack serenaded by a Hank Williams LP. But the country love doesn't stop at the nightlife; St. Lucia boasts its own home-grown country western singers, too.
L.M. Stone has loved country since he was a child hearing his mother's imported records turning on her gramophone. He's taken his music from St. Lucia to Nashville, where he placed number one out of 50 other country stardom hopefuls in a contest at the Wild Horse Saloon. He was the only black man to take the stage, and he tore it up. "When I arrived on stage, there was a silence from the bar," says Stone. "The fellas stopped playing pool and the ladies started dancing at the foot of the stage. But when I started playing, things changed. By the end of the song, there were hats at my feet."
Stone's discovery of country coincides with the western flux in St. Lucia ignited during World War II, when the US had two bases on the island. Soldiers brought their records to the bases and found that the western sound was remarkably compatible with an age-old native tradition called "Cordrille," which—like country music—is a complicit story-telling branch of folk. The reggae and calypso that's indigenous to the island can't hold a crowd quite the same way a western dance can. In fact, the neighboring French island of Martinique holds country western dances to attract the illegally nesting St. Lucians. The music's pull is so strong that border control is able to round up and send back the "Looshans" playing hooky from their own country. Germaine Anius, who has been playing country music on Radio Caribbean since 1973, attributes the music's prevalence to the idea that it offers an intimacy not felt in other music. Before Anius brought country to the island airwaves, St. Lucian country fans could pick up some AM radio stations from the States to hear favorites like George Jones (whose recent death brought a surge in western shindigs across the island). "In St. Lucia, if people want to raise funds for anything, they'll organize a western dance. It's a sure way to attract the most people."
The home-spun tunes of the Caribbean canon may have fazed out of popularity in St. Lucia but the American country music of the west lives on here with a new found integrity. And the parties are wild, too.