A visit to New Orleans is not complete without a John Boutté gig.

A singer with grit, soul, passion and beauty, his sound is one of the most beloved in his hometown. John Boutté is one of those New Orleans entertainers who seems like a force just barely contained. He’s a jazz and soul singer and a wickedly effective communicator. He works hard to connect with his audiences, and more often than not he succeeds mightily.

A small, wiry man with a high, grainy voice, Boutté can often evoke the sound of Sam Cooke — he doesn’t seem to discourage the comparison — but his stage manner, his choice of repertoire, and his rapport with musicians all point back to New Orleans.

Born into a Creole family in the 7th Ward, Boutté grew up listening to hometown legends as well as the music of Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye, and he was later influenced by Allen Toussaint and the popular R&B players of New Orleans. His older sister Lillian Boutté, a gifted gospel singer, was also a huge influence on him. He had front-row seats to many great times with musical veterans like James Booker and the Humphrey brothers at Preservation Hall.

After studying business at Xavier University of Louisiana, Boutté served four years in the U.S. Army. Later, he had a fateful encounter with a musical genius that would change his life. He spent the day with Stevie Wonder, who told him that he had a “signature voice.” That prompted him to “change vocations immediately,” Boutté says. He joined his sister’s band on their tour of Europe, and his musical career began.

Fans of HBO’s beloved series Treme also know John Boutté for not only writing and singing the ultra-infectious theme song, but also as a fine actor.

He says: “To see the kids playing on the street; the masters in concert; the fragrance of jasmine and sweet olive trees; the ruckus of festivities; the solemn oaks; the graves above ground, almost like we’re going to miss something if they bury us; the drums beating from every direction on a cool, fall evening; the history, the future and the now… I am one poor, lucky fool.”

Boutté joined us for a conversation about his early life and some of the most affecting moments in his career.