So singular was Doug Kershaw when he burst on the mainstream country rock scene in 1969 that the fiddler was practically a sub-genre unto himself.
Brashly blending the pungent Cajun sound of the Louisiana swampland with rock-tinged instrumentation and manic energy levels that rendered his music mesmerizing to folks well outside the confines of the bayou, the Ragin’ Cajun dazzled television viewers on a legendary episode of The Johnny Cash Show and then in major rock concert halls from coast to coast. Before long, the Louisiana Man was a national sensation. And he’ll no doubt be every bit as dazzling at this year’s Stomp.
Born on the Bayou
Kershaw had paid his dues and then some by the time the heartland finally caught up with him in 1969. He’d already wielded his trusty fiddle for decades, honing his craft first with his family’s band and then as a hit-making duo with his younger brother Rusty prior to heading out on his own.
“We were doing French Cajun music since I was nine years old,” says Doug. “I was five years old, actually. Nine years old professionally.”
Born January 24, 1936 in Tiel Ridge, Louisiana — a minuscule island off the Gulf of Mexico in Cameron Parish that was little more than a spot in the water where the Kershaws anchored their houseboat — Doug was the son of a father who hunted alligators and trapped game to scratch out a meager living and feed his hungry brood. Cajun French was the Kershaws’ primary language (Doug began speaking English when he was eight), and music was everywhere in that shadowy bayou.
“Everybody played in my family,” says Kershaw. “My mom played the fiddle and guitar. My dad played accordion, and my two older brothers played fiddle and accordion and guitar. So it was just there, and I picked it up.”
So endemic were those exciting sounds around their home that the wee ones had little choice but to follow suit.
“You see, we used to hear the fiddles,” he says. “Us little ones would be in the bedroom while the grownups were playing music and dancing in the other room. I couldn’t help but hear every one they were playing. Subconsciously, I know every melody that was ever played there.”
The Bucket of Blood
Doug debuted professionally alongside his mother Rita and Zenis LaCombe at a local tavern aptly named the Bucket of Blood.
“That was my first gig, in Lake Arthur, Louisiana,” says Kershaw. “That was during World War II. There were so many fights, that’s why they called it the Bucket of Blood. That’s why they finally put chicken wire around the bandstand, so a kid like me wouldn’t get hit!”
Along the way, Rusty, who was two years Doug’s junior, took up the guitar.
“He taught himself on the bandstand by watching us,” says Doug.
Kershaw’s older brother Nelson “Pee Wee” Kershaw put together a band titled the Continental Playboys in 1948. Doug and Rusty both joined their ranks before eventually breaking away to do their own thing.
“We went to Rusty & Doug actually when Bewley Flowers out of Fort Worth, Texas came in town in Jennings, Louisiana and wanted a band on the radio,” he says. “You know, a country band of some sort. So hell, man, we practiced a few songs and got on the radio. Pretty soon we were on television when they opened a TV station in Lake Charles, and took it from there.”
Those 1953 broadcasts over KPLC-TV and KSIG radio in Crowley raised the duo’s local profile.
Much has been written regarding the mammoth role independent producer J.D. Miller played in the development of what later became known as swamp blues (he produced the seminal work of Lightnin’ Slim, Slim Harpo, and Lazy Lester at his studio in Crowley), but Miller’s roots were originally planted squarely in Cajun and country soil. He launched his Feature label in 1947, recording Bill Hutto, Al Terry, Jimmy Newman, and plenty more.
Doug officially joined Miller’s talent roster in 1953, waxing “When Will I Learn” and “My Heart Is Broken” with the Bewley Gang early the next year as his straight-ahead country Feature debut.
Hitting the Charts
“He had been using me on fiddle with some of his artists, and I talked him into doing a record one time,” says Kershaw. “I think he printed 300. They all stayed back on the shelf. Then I wrote a song called ‘No, No, It’s Not So.’ And me and Rusty started singing harmonies to it, and so we went and auditioned that. And wow — it was a local hit!”
That beautifully harmonized duet single — Doug shared writers’ credit with J.D., flipped with the Miller-penned rouser “It’s Better To Be A Has Been (Than Be A Never Was)” — was issued on Feature in 1954 under the handle of Rusty & Doug, and the brotherly duo was on its way. The Kershaws were also working with Wiley Barkdull, backing him on his early 1955 Feature single.
“He was our piano player, and he was a singer too,” says Doug.
Miller’s reputation as a writer of hits grew exponentially when Kitty Wells covered “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels,” J.D.’s clever answer to Hank Thompson’s blockbuster “The Wild Side Of Life,” and topped the country hit parade in 1952 with it on Decca (Miller released the original on Feature by female singer Al Montgomery as “Did God Make Honky Tonk Angels?”). Miller struck up a working relationship with Wesley Rose, A&R boss at Hickory Records in Nashville, obtaining pacts there for his artists Al Terry and Tommy Hill (Fred Rose, Hickory’s founder and co-owner of powerful Acuff-Rose Music with country pioneer Roy Acuff, died in December of 1954, leaving son Wesley in charge).
A Fortunate Mistake
Barkdull’s booming vocal played a major part in Rusty & Doug’s 1955 encore.
“He had the greatest bass voice. So I wrote a song for that,” says Kershaw. “I wrote a song called ‘So Lovely, Baby.’ And we did that with the band, including Wiley Barkdull singing bass.” Instead of pressing it up on Feature, Miller sought a Hickory deal for his young charges’ latest creation. Things didn’t quite go as planned.
“When we got to Nashville, J.D. was bragging about the thing, and he had one copy,” says Kershaw. “So Wesley Rose of Acuff-Rose put it on. And it caught the tape and ripped it! That’s the only copy! So Wesley Rose said, ‘Hey, I’ll record those boys!’ That’s how we got on Hickory — totally by mistake!”
The rollicking interplay between the high-spirited vocals of Rusty & Doug and Wiley’s unusual deep-toned retorts was replicated expertly by Rose at a Nashville session in May of 1955 with Tommy Jackson manning the other fiddle and Chet Atkins on guitar. “So Lovely, Baby” became a national C&W hit for Rusty & Doug on Hickory during the late summer of 1955, despite cover competition from the well-established duo of Johnnie and Jack on RCA Victor. Barkdull would continue to record regularly with the Kershaws clear into 1959.
Hickory issued a steady stream of Rusty & Doug singles after that — “Can I Be Dreaming,” “Let’s Stay Together,” “Your Crazy, Crazy Heart,” “Mister Love” — all imbued with Doug’s fiddle and the duo’s scintillating harmonies. “We were brothers,” says Doug. “We could feel whatever we wanted to.”
Blissfully Blurred Lines
Miller’s moniker still graced many of Rusty & Doug’s Hickory releases as composer, but both sides of their 1957 pairing of “Going Down the Road” and “You’ll See” were generated by the brothers themselves.
“I was a writin’ fool back then!” says Kershaw.
“Love Me To Pieces,” the pair’s next C&W chart entry for Hickory in the autumn of 1957, took them in a more pop-slanted direction. Wheelchair-bound songsmith Melvin Endsley, the man behind Marty Robbins’ smash “Singing The Blues,” penned the swinging number and rockabilly queen Janis Martin had waxed it for RCA Victor at the beginning of the year, but it was pop chanteuse Jill Corey’s perky rendition on Columbia that grabbed the duo’s attention.
“The writer with Acuff-Rose had written it, and Jill Corey had recorded it,” says Doug. “It was beginning to hit, so we just did it. Wesley Rose wanted us to record it. And we did.”
Corey racked up the pop spins, but the Kershaws nailed the country hit with “Love Me To Pieces.”
The lines between genres had grown blissfully blurred.
“Even if it’s in Cajun, it’s still rock and roll-type stuff. We never thought country. In the old jukeboxes, there was no labels. You just picked a song you liked and played it. That’s how I thought, as far as writing was concerned, and so did Rusty.”
Rising Stars on the Airwaves
The duo progressed from appearing on Louisiana Hayride in 1955 to the Grand Ole Opry in late 1957.
“We went to West Virginia, the WWVA Jamboree, for almost two years before we signed with the Grand Ole Opry,” Kershaw notes.
But by 1958, when they cooked up the hard-driving “Hey Mae” without any Miller involvement and cut it that March at a session at RCA’s Studio B with Hank Garland and Chet Atkins on guitars and Floyd Cramer on piano, Rusty & Doug had been transformed into full-fledged rockers. “I had an idea I wanted to write for Dick Clark,” says Kershaw. The ploy worked: the duo guested on American Bandstand.
“We did that a couple of times. We were like crossovers,” says Kershaw. “That was different. But we had been doing live television for so long that we were pretty used to it.”
The temporary detour in musical direction was fine with them.
“We worked so hard at getting in the Top 40, the rock and roll thing, ‘cause it was comin’,” says Kershaw. “That’s what we wanted.”
Another sizzler waxed that same day in March of 1958, “Hey Sheriff,” came from the fertile minds of husband-and-wife songwriting team Boudleaux and Felice Bryant, responsible for the great majority of the Everly Brothers’ smashes. Boudleaux took an interest in Doug’s musical development.
“He was instrumental a lot in showing me how,” he says. “I was very curious and I wanted to learn. I’d ask questions and sit by him, and he’d direct me. Great, great writers.” “Hey Sheriff” dented the C&W hit parade in late 1958 for the sibling duo.
Despite their compositional brilliance, Rusty & Doug didn’t accept everything the Bryants offered them — even when they should have.
“Actually, I turned down a song called ‘Bye Bye Love,’” says Kershaw. “So they went and got the Kentucky boys!”
Any regrets over that move?
“Many times!” he laughs. “But I loved the Everlys. So they needed a shot. Maybe we’d have not done it as good as that, or ours wouldn’t have been a hit.”
A Real Louisiana Man
Then Uncle Sam beckoned, and both Kershaws entered the service together. “They were going to draft me. So we decided with Acuff-Rose and Hickory Records, instead of three years and then you come out and he goes in, why don’t we just sign up volunteer draft for two years? And that’s what we did.”
It was a wise move. The boys fulfilled their military obligations together and were both free to resume recording for Hickory in October of 1960. That session produced two genuine classics. Just about everything their fans needed to know about Rusty & Doug’s childhood and their father’s hardscrabble existence during their early days was contained in the splendidly concise lyrics of “Louisiana Man,” Daddy Jack navigating the swamp in a pirogue, skinning and peddling muskrat hides to eke out his family’s existence.
“That’s how my dad made his living,” Doug says. “Even the names are all true.” Kershaw found inspiration to write the song “when I came out (of the service). The same month. I was just lonesome one night. That was the seventh song I had written.”
Garland, Atkins, and Cramer were all on hand for that fateful session along with steel guitarist Pete Drake, but it was Doug’s sawing fiddle and whipsaw duet vocal with Rusty as well as his highly atmospheric narrative that made “Louisiana Man” a Top Ten C&W smash in early 1961.
“Diggy Liggy Lo”
The other seminal number laid down that day was “Diggy Liggy Lo,” first out on Feature circa 1952 by Terry Clement & his Rhythmic Five.
“It was an old Cajun tune that the Clement Brothers had written,” says Doug. “Actually, Jimmy C. Newman recorded it before. It’s still J.D. Miller’s song.”
Clement’s original rendition was lyrically impenetrable to anyone outside the deepest recesses of the swamps, but Rusty & Doug made it accessible. Their high-energy remake became a national C&W hit later in 1961. The same date also spawned “(Our Own) Jole Blon,” an updated take on Harry Choates’ 1946 Cajun classic.
“I wouldn’t mind betting that was the first song I ever learned on the fiddle,” says Kershaw.
Hickory wouldn’t contain the Kershaws for much longer. Their last session for Rose at the close of 1961 produced the self-penned stomper “Cajun Joe (The Bully of The Bayou).”
“It was a story I heard from my grandfather, how he’d always wanted to whip a bully, and how he wound up conning the bully into laying down and getting on him — and he beat the hell out of him! So I just wrote a song,” says Doug. “Don Gibson one time said, ‘Why don’t you write a song about a bully?’ And I thought of that story, and that’s what I did.”
Perhaps that’s why the duo cut Gibson’s “Sweet Sweet Girl To Me,” a rocker previously waxed by Warren Smith for Sun and by its author on RCA Victor, for the flip side. “What a writer!” exclaims Kershaw.
“We used to go looking for material from Acuff-Rose writers. Of course, he had recorded it anyway. But we decided to do that.”
Even though they exited Hickory after that, Doug maintains fond memories of the label.
“All the Hickory people were like family,” he says, singling out Wesley Rose for praise. “Great guy. And his father, Fred Rose, had written all them beautiful songs. Wesley, that whole bunch, was just super. They did so much with the Everlys.”
RCA was where Rusty & Doug landed in 1963 following their Hickory exit. They made four 45s for the company.
“My Uncle Abel,” the first, was done with Atkins at the production helm and once again strongly emphasized the duo’s Cajun upbringing (Doug wrote it with Jimmy Newman). So did its flip “Pirogue,” with RCA helpfully adding the phonetic spelling “Pero” on the label.
Atkins let the boys cut loose in their native patois on their next RCA offering, “Cajun Stripper,” entirely rendered in French. Chet turned the pair over to A&R man Bob Ferguson on their next single, pairing Harlan Howard’s “Cleopatra” with the duo’s own “Malinda.” For their RCA farewell, they trotted out W.C. Handy’s evergreen “St. Louis Blues,” granted an up-to-date rock and roll treatment.
Mercury gave the pair a solitary single in 1965, “I’d Walk A Country Mile (For A Country Girl),” bringing them back to a more conventional C&W approach. Then the Crazy Cajun himself, colorful producer Huey P. Meaux, latched onto Rusty & Doug, issuing a pair of their 45s on his Princess logo. When “It Takes All Day (Just To Get Over Nite)” and then “Little Papoose” failed to ignite, the brothers went their separate ways. Despite a 1970 album for Cotillion produced by Doug, Rusty’s solo career never ignited. He died of a heart attack in 2001.
Doug took the solo plunge in 1967 with “Ain’t Gonna Get Me Down” for the K-Ark logo, its authorship credited to Rusty and Doug (the flip, “Fa-Do-Do,” sounded a lot like what he’d be lionized for before too much longer), but he really didn’t take off until his appearance on the June 7, 1969 episode of The Johnny Cash Show.
The Man in Black informed his loyal viewers that Doug could play 28 other instruments in addition to his fiddle, then let him rip on a slam-bang rendition of “Diggy Liggy Lo” that was followed by a stylized arrangement of “Louisiana Man.” Decked out in a fancy crushed velvet suit with a frilly collar, Kershaw danced around like a man possessed, pumping away on his fiddle all the while. He was in good company that evening—Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell were Johnny’s other guests. Before year’s end, Doug opened for Eric Clapton’s Derek and the Dominoes at Fillmore East in New York.
The Warner Years
Warner Bros. recognized a potential star in the making and brought Doug aboard. Although the label started out during the late 1950s with very little to show for it on the sales ledgers apart from 77 Sunset Strip heartthrob Edd “Kookie” Byrnes sharing the novelty “Kookie, Kookie (Lend Me Your Comb)” with Hawaiian Eye starlet Connie Stevens, the label did eventually learn how to score hits with the youth market.
During the 1960s, Warner Bros. belatedly began building an impressive rock roster with the Association and the Grateful Dead, and by the end of the decade, the company had added Van Morrison, Black Sabbath, Little Feat, and James Taylor to its roster. Kershaw wasn’t going to move platters on their stratospheric levels, but he did dent the country charts in late 1969 with a remake of “Diggy Liggy Lo” that was culled from his debut Warner Bros. album The Cajun Way (it also featured a remade “Louisiana Man”).
The wild man fiddler paid tribute to the Rouse Brothers with a 1970 revival of the eternal crowd pleaser “Orange Blossom Special.” “Spanish Moss,” the LP it hailed from, was something of a “best of” collection, containing no less than five remakes from the Rusty & Doug catalog (and two intriguing fresh pieces of material: “Swamp Rat” and “Mama Rita In Hollywood”). Warner chose “Natural Man” as the single from the fiddler’s 1971 eponymous third LP, where he also tackled Johnny Horton’s “Battle Of New Orleans” and the sequel “Son Of A Louisiana Man,” and the title track of his 1972 long-player “Swamp Grass” was pressed up as a 45. Warner Bros. kept fresh Kershaw product in the pipeline with “Devil’s Elbow” (1972), “Douglas James Kershaw” (1973), and “Mama Kershaw’s Boy” (1974), which contained his first C&W chart single in more than four years, “Mama’s Got The Know How.”
1975’s “Alive & Pickin’” captured the fiddle master in all his live glory, and “Ragin’ Cajun” led off with Kershaw’s next hit single, a revival of “It Takes All Day (To Get Over Night),” which charted during the spring of our Bicentennial. Doug harked back to his rockin’ 1950s days for the title track of his 1977 album “Flip, Flop & Fly,” which also saw him revisiting his Pelican State countryman Fats Domino’s “I’m Walkin’,” which made a wee bit of chart noise for him. Kershaw closed out his long Warner Bros. stay in 1978 with “The Louisiana Man,” which logically opened with a fresh version of Hank Williams’ immortal “Jambalaya (On The Bayou).”
“He was one of the very few people I never met,” says Doug. “Been friends with his son forever, and his ex-wife Audrey. But he died just before I could have met him.”
Doug teamed up with Hank Jr. for the 1988 duet “Cajun Baby,” which made a solid country chart appearance on the BGM imprint. Kershaw’s initial post-Warner home was Scotti Bros. Records. The cover photo of his 1981 album “Instant Hero” pictured him in Superman-style attire, and it featured “Hello Woman,” his biggest C&W solo seller.
Rest assured that when Doug Kershaw hits the Ponderosa Stomp stage in October, this Cajun is sure to be ragin’!