By Rich Collins
AUGUST 11, 1997: Paul Sanchez grew up in the Irish Channel, a working-class Catholic neighborhood with its share of rough edges.
Sanchez saw some neighborhood buddies get into trouble with the law. He watched other friends stay on the straight and narrow only to be derailed by unexpected tragedies. And he witnessed his widowed mother work hard to raise 11 children and send them safely out into the world.
After he successfully avoided the pitfalls that claimed others, it's no surprise that Sanchez developed the strength to weather the slings and arrows of a rock 'n' roll music career.
Following a stint with the Backbeats in New Orleans, Sanchez joined the burgeoning "anti-folk" scene in New York City in the late-1980s. He signed a deal as a solo acoustic performer with CBS Records, but the deal went sour after a change in management at the label. Sanchez ultimately returned to New Orleans and helped form Cowboy Mouth, the live rock powerhouse that has won over fans across the country -- including MCA Records -- thanks to years of touring. In his time away from the group, Sanchez released three solo albums, the most recent of them titled Loose Parts.
Needless to say, Sanchez has supported himself in the biz longer than most who try. And he thinks that his good fortune might have something to do with his lean early years.
"Being poor gave me a hunger," he says. "Not having the most natural gifts in the world, I had a tenacity born of wanting to survive."
Perhaps it was also those days in the Irish Channel that gave Sanchez the courage to bare his soul in intimate rock and folk songs. That honesty has become the trademark characteristic of his solo career.
In contrast to the guitar-slinger persona he assumes with Mouth, Sanchez uses his own discs -- and marathon acoustic shows -- to tackle themes that are intensely personal yet universal at the same time. His songs draw on his experiences growing up in New Orleans, struggling with the ways of the world and ultimately finding the love of his life.
Sanchez says he just likes to write about what he knows.
"I don't consider myself a writer of fiction," he says. "I think I should stick to real life, remain true as possible. Then it's true to someone else's life. I was playing in D.C. the other night and somebody said, `You don't have much in common with us.' I said, `You know, we're not so dissimilar. People like clean clothes, a good meal in their belly, a good home and someone to love when they get there. Being a lawyer, teacher or truck driver is just the thing you do on the way to get those things.
"My favorite moments in other people's songs are when they articulate something that's been inside of me."
Listeners might find many moments of connection on Loose Parts, which includes tunes about falling in love (and working to stay in love), growing up but not growing old, and staring in wonder at a vista many take for granted. On "St. Louis Cathedral," Sanchez describes the French Quarter's mysterious allure in vivid detail. "Remember When" is a snapshot of a life speeding by. And "Hurricane Party" is all about a New Orleans get-together that got out of hand.
Sanchez performs all of the songs -- with voice, acoustic guitar and a bit of accompaniment from local heroes Peter Holsapple and Susan Cowsill -- with the intensity of a guy who's truly in love with his art. In fact, Sanchez says some of his happiest moments are when he's got a guitar in his hand. And that pleasure goes beyond the rush of being in the spotlight.
"Some people meditate, some pray and some sit on the beach and lose themselves in that moment," says Sanchez. "For me, singing and strumming is that moment. When it's over, I open my eyes and say, `Oh, I'm sitting in this room. In this city. In this state. On this planet.' For that moment, I've escaped poverty, all pain. If I could do a four-hour set every night with just my acoustic guitar, I would do it. It's pure joy."
Of course, playing an acoustic show in an intimate room is not the same as cranking up the tube amps for a stadium of 20,000, which has been the Cowboy Mouth modus operandi of late. That's why Sanchez says the audiences at his solo shows have to "cooperate" to get the most out of the experience.
"In Mouth, it's agreed that you come to throw your troubles at the sky and try to have as much fun as possible," he says. "With my shows, it's, `Come in, relax.' I promise to be honest, reflect a moment and make you feel better ... or sometimes worse. Music, for me, has been the journey to rediscover my lost self that maybe abuse, poverty or hard times took away."
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