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Singing To The Strength Of New Orleans

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Beneath the benevolent gaze of a statue of Saint Roch, the patron saint of dogs, invalids and bachelors, Alynda Lee Segarra sings: "People are dying. No one understands."

Segarra is the lead singer of the band Hurray for the Riff Raff. She's singing one of several songs off the group's new album Small Town Heroes — not the genteel uptown life or the bawdy scene on Bourbon Street, but stories from the neighborhoods most tourists never see, like St. Roch.

"This is the neighborhood I lived in for a long time," Segarra says. "This is kind of where I first settled down when I decided I wanted to live in New Orleans, and I lived on Music Street, actually."

Walking down the tree-lined street in front of the cemetery, we pass brightly painted shotgun houses: long, narrow homes with a straight line, open shot from front to back door.

As in much of New Orleans, there's renovation underway here, but also signs of disrepair and poverty. St. Roch has struggled with crime, too; Segarra recalls a rash of home break-ins and murders a few years ago.

"It was the first time I really felt close to the violence in New Orleans," she says. "It just really changed just the way I wanted to write songs."

She says the experience also taught her a lot about community, and about the city's strength.

Not yet 27, Segarra seems an old soul. She has a tiny frame and big, dark eyes that hint at her stirring voice. She grew up in the Bronx but left home at 17 and wandered around the country, hitchhiking and riding rails before being drawn to stay put in New Orleans.

Her musical career started here, on the streets of the French Quarter, busking for tips from tourists in a loose-knit collaboration called the Dead Man Street Orchestra. She played the washboard and sang.

"At first I was learning a lot of Bessie Smith songs and Ma Rainey, a lot of blues women," says Segarra. "It taught me to project because I had to sing on the street."

She's moved up from washboard, and now plays bass drum, banjo and guitar. She's also fine-tuned her sound.

"I realized that I loved microphones, that I didn't really want to have to project," she says. "That wasn't really what I loved about singing."

She turned to classic country.

"Learning Loretta Lynn stuff, and Hank Williams Senior songs," she says. "That really helped me find my niche."

Small Town Heroes covers a lot of musical ground, from stripped-down country to bluegrass to doo-wop. Seggara says Hurray for the Riff Raff aims to unite outcasts, mixing different worlds into their own. The result is a modern take on traditional storytelling.

The song "The Body Electric," she says, is her feminist retort to the classic murder ballad.

"Over the years they've started to turn into more of a controversial, detached way of songwriting that's really macho," she says. "Just like, 'Well I killed that girl 'cause she cheated on me.' ... And one day it struck me that I wanted a woman to be a part of the conversation."

Hurray for the Riff Raff has toured with Alabama Shakes and Amos Lee. Soon, the band will headline its own tour to promote Small Town Heroes, returning in time for the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival this spring. But don't expect Segarra to stay in one place too long.

"Even when I'm at home, I seem to be going somewhere all the time," Segarra says. "I've been like that ever since I was a little kid. That was kind of my happy place: the journey, not really getting anywhere."

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