As fireworks rolled over many North Carolina towns Sunday night, Mel Melton was doing what he had done the night before: resting. Melton’s brother had arrived a day earlier from Colorado, but a small welcoming party had been scrapped after Melton turned in early, exhausted from an eight-hour shift on Saturday.
Melton is a blues musician, a fierce harmonica player and an accomplished songwriter. He doesn’t turn in long days at the office. His work involves late-night convocations spent stageside, preaching the New Orleans-bred tunes he cooked up after spending years on the road with slide guitar maestro Sonny Landreth, Zachary Richard and the late Clifton “King of Zydeco” Chenier.
But Saturday was different, even though it was at his preferred local haunt, Hillsborough’s Blue Bayou Club. Melton–the University of North Carolina creative writing student turned Louisiana harmonica man turned award-winning Chicago chef turned local Zydeco-meets-jazz ‘n’ blues bandleader–is making a music video. And he’s the first to admit it’s been exhausting.
“That shit’s harder than playing a gig,” moans Melton on the afternoon of July 4 from his Yanceyville home. “We had to play the songs three or four different times…and they had to get over five hours of film to make a five-minute video.”
Michael Corbett, director of the film and video department at Piedmont Community College, said shoots can be tough. “We teach our students that workdays in film are typically twelve hours long, and a lot of them are doing pretty exhausting work,” says Corbett. Melton, he says, wasn’t exactly climbing or lifting Saturday, though. “I guess I had him standing up a lot.”
Melton studied creative writing at both the University of South Carolina and North Carolina, but admits he hasn’t done a lot with it–songwriting excepted–since his college days. He’s kept a daily journal throughout much of his life, though, recording stories alongside lyrical and musical ideas, from the road and from the stage.
Melton showed those journals to Fetzer Mills (writer and editor for Inside North Carolina Politics) after catering a party for him a few years ago. Mills insisted that vignettes from Melton’s life were good enough for the screen. The idea stuck with both writers until Clifton Chenier–the subject of many Melton recollections–died, relinquishing the “King of Zydeco” throne and leaving it surrounded by what Melton calls “a really silly” controversy. Mills and Melton began work on a script entitled The King of the Bayou, a Richard III-inspired take on the tale of Chenier’s life and death, ending with his son–Texas hornman and former Melton collaborator C.J. Chenier–returning to claim the top spot in his father’s band.
“I read Mel’s script, and it intrigued me. Then I saw his band a few times, and I really enjoyed their music,” says Corbett. “It’s this unique mixture of the cultures of South Louisiana, New Orleans and the blues, and it’s just different from other things you hear now.”
Nearly a year ago, Corbett approached Melton, telling him that for the next year’s Summer Film Institute–a skills-building program which costs in-state students just over $100 for an intensive, four-week session–he hoped to run a music video clinic in which one of Melton’s originals would get a full treatment.
Melton’s wife, Mary, who works at the college, helped locate grant money and equipment for the program. Six months later, the project was given the green light, and Melton penned “Papa Mojo.”
Corbett and 15 students have spent the past five weeks preparing the shoot, finalizing the script (in which Melton plays a voodoo spell-casting musician who attempts to use the craft to get two women into bed) and building the sets.
In addition to a shoot at Blue Bayou, Corbett’s students have also been learning their way around Carolina Pinnacle Studios, a 55,000 square foot, seven-building movie studio in Yanceyville that includes an authentic antebellum estate on 300 acres.
Melton spent Friday shooting with Corbett in Yanceyville, followed by a long day shooting on location on the Blue Bayou stage. After recuperating Sunday, Melton and Corbett headed back into the Yanceyville studio to finish the shoot.
“The students can now team up to make edits on the film, and, during the last couple of days, Mel will come in and pick which video will represent the band,” says Corbett, who will enter the video in film festivals across the state later this year.
Melton, who says “Papa Mojo” will be the title track for his upcoming album with The Wicked Mojos, is excited about the chance the video stands in the festivals, too.
“To just get this handed to me–a video that would have cost $100,000 to have made–and to have it marketed this way in these film school competitions is just incredible,” Melton says. “I’m really lucky.”