NEW ORLEANS, La. – As 84-year-old Cajun music legend Doug Kershaw looks back, he's still looking ahead too — fiddling, singing, writing and performing as the quintessential “Louisiana Man.”
Kershaw taught himself to play by surreptitiously using his daddy's fiddle at age 5. And in a life marked with struggles, drug addiction and family trauma, he's never really stopped. But with his memoir published in October, and upcoming performances at a rockabilly festival in Spain and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, he's once again in the spotlight.
“I'm relearning songs I wrote 65 years ago. I have to laugh about it. I am so honored that my music has lasted this long. It's just incredible," he said during a telephone interview from his home in Greeley, Colorado. Friday is his 84th birthday.
In addition to the Rockin' Race Jamboree in Torremolinos, Spain, the New Orleans festival and other upcoming gigs, he's still recording music. In 2014, he and accordionist Steve Riley released an album of Cajun songs.
Kershaw said he's recorded nearly 500 of his own songs. His biggest hit was the autobiographical 1961 song “Louisiana Man,” filled with boyhood memories of his Cajun father who roamed the bayou on his pirogue, catching muskrats and fish to support his family.
“'Louisiana Man' is one of the great oral histories of a life,” said Nick Spitzer, host of public radio's American Routes program. "I think ‘Louisiana Man’ is one of the great American songs, and it helps to define Cajun Louisiana to the world.”
In his new memoir, “The Ragin' Cajun: Memoir of a Louisiana Man,” Kershaw and coauthor Cathie Pelletier describe Kershaw's hardscrabble childhood, his high-flying, hard-drinking and drug-wracked career and his hard-won happiness.
Douglas James Kershaw was born Jan. 24, 1936, on a houseboat in an obscure corner of southern Louisiana called Tiel Ridge. His mother bore her first child when she was just 13. The baby girl lived only six hours. Out of Rita Kershaw's nine pregnancies, only four boys survived.
Kershaw taught himself to fiddle at age 5, using his father's instrument. When he cracked it, his father, Jack Kershaw, told him he wouldn't be whipped if he could play a song. Doug played three.
But his father killed himself when Doug was 7.
Kershaw said the hardest part of writing the book was reliving the day he found his father's body. But he said Pelletier got him to dig out memories he'd avoided for years — a process that ultimately relieved him of guilt and anger.
“I told the truth and it lifted the world off my shoulder,” he said.
After his father's death, the family moved into a one-room chicken coop in Lake Arthur. At age 8, Kershaw started a shoe-shining business, offering a free song with each 10-cent shoe-shine. His fiddle drew a crowd that protected him from boys who had beaten him up for poaching on their territory, and the songs brought in huge tips.
“I could work for a song shining shoes, or I could let the song work for me and make some good money, ” he wrote.
All four Kershaw boys played instruments, but it was Kershaw's musical relationship with his younger brother, Russell, that most changed his life.
As “Rusty & Doug,” they made their first record in 1954 — the same year Rusty introduced Doug to amphetamines. Three years later, at ages 18 and 21, they became the youngest duo to join the Grand Ole Opry.
Kershaw wrote that he dived deeper into pills and began drinking hard during a stint in the Army. When he later went to Nashville, he wrote, amphetamine use was widespread.
Though he's often said he composed “Louisiana Man” in the Army, he says in his book that it was written during a three-day, speed-fueled Nashville “picking party.” It got Rusty & Doug into Billboard's country top 10.
In 1969, Johnny Cash asked him to perform on his television show, and Kershaw got his first taste of huge audiences. Late that year, “Louisiana Man” was broadcast from Apollo 12. He went on to perform with many of the world's biggest musical stars and gained a reputation for wild onstage antics. Offstage, there were fights with band members.
But Kershaw says his third marriage saved him.
Kershaw married Pam Eson Kershaw in 1975. She was 23; he was 39. They planned to wed June 21 in Colorado, where she's from. Then the Astrodome's event booker asked if Kershaw would play at a big Cajun festival that day. When Kershaw said no, the booker suggested they marry in the Astrodome. They did, before 40,000 fans.
After years of drug- and alcohol-fueled volatility, Kershaw entered rehab in 1981, then again in 1984. That time, Pam Kershaw said they were through. She relented after getting his written promise: no drugs, no temper tantrums, and no more second chances.
They're still together — and the Louisiana Man is still going strong.