Fiddler on the Loose : A Somewhat Tamer Wild Man, Doug Kershaw Takes His Manic Cajun Style to the Crazy Horse


It's still one of the great images in country music:

Doug Kershaw standing at the microphone, fiddle tucked under his chin at an odd, vertical angle. He sings in a high, crazed yodel that evokes the unspoken mysteries of his backwoods bayou home. Huge, pie-shaped eyes bulge from his head; unkempt, bushy hair seems to stand on end. He attacks the strings with the ferocity of a starving jungle beast; horsehairs pop from his bow and form a cloud of strands around his sweat-drenched head. This is a man in the midst of some twisted, unholy rapture.

At 57, Kershaw--who plays the Crazy Horse in Santa Ana on Monday night--long has had a reputation as one of the wildest men in music, both on and off the stage. He's been settled down and sober in his personal life for nine years, but his music remains as down-home and untamed as the Lou'siana swamps from which he came.

Born on a tiny island in the Gulf of Mexico, Kershaw grew up in a French-speaking Cajun community, steeped in the musical and cultural heritage of the region. Dad fished and hunted alligator, and older brother Rusty was a fiddle player who showed Doug the ropes.

"My hometown of Tiel Ridge wasn't even on the map," Kershaw said during a recent interview. "I grew up listening to the real French Cajun stuff, and I played all that stuff for years. As a matter of fact, French was my first language--I didn't learn to speak English until I was about 8 years old."

He and Rusty moved to Nashville in 1954 to pursue a career in music. In 1957 they became fixtures on the Grand Ole Opry, and as Rusty and Doug had a pair of C&W; hits in 1961 with Doug's original "Louisiana Man" and the Cajun stomp "Diggy Liggy Lo." But with no follow-up success, the brothers went their separate ways, and Doug Kershaw enjoyed little more than regional acclaim for most of the decade.

But 1969 proved to be his big year. Taken under Johnny Cash's wing, Kershaw appeared on Cash's television show during the legendary broadcast that featured reclusive Bob Dylan. The same year also saw the release of Kershaw's watershed album, the Cash-produced "The Cajun Way."

Rock audiences of the day were starting to be intrigued by country music, and Kershaw's wild stage show and uninhibited Cajun energy made him a special favorite of young music fans: He attacked the fiddle as aggressively as rock guitarists approached their instruments.

"My style of playing is something that just happened naturally," he said. "It developed by listening to a bunch of old Cajun people when I was growing up, plus Bob Wills, classical music and a lot of other stuff. I just kind of piled it all up together. I play fiddle like I sing--that's how I look at it. I make the fiddle sing to me."

One of the first musicians to bring the sounds of the bayou to a mass audience, Kershaw was as authentic and distinctive as he was dynamic and audacious. But he fell victim to excesses. Drug and alcohol abuse took their toll, and he acquired a reputation for surly and unpredictable behavior (enhanced perhaps by the demonic dimensions of his stage image). By 1983, Kershaw decided it was time to clean up his act.

"I've been sober for nine years now, and it's made a difference in me, oh yes it has. I'm more consistent now. I don't create as much as I used to, but I'd rather not create if that's what it's going to take. It wasn't fun anymore. I'm a lot more focused now; I know what I'm doing; I'm paying attention. It may not be as good of a show, but I'm playing better than ever before."

Since Kershaw's commercial heyday, country music has undergone massive changes. The sounds of Garth Brooks, Clint Black and Billy Ray Cyrus have taken over the country charts, leaving little room for authentic, undiluted music. Although he remains a popular concert performer, Kershaw hasn't released an album since "Hot Diggedy Doug" in 1989, an overlooked album that found "the Ragin' Cajun" still in top form, uncompromised in his approach and unconstrained as ever.

He said he keeps a happy outlook and harbors no bitterness toward the new breed of country musician. "It's all the same old country, just shined up a bit," he said. "It's a variation of the same thing, just more commercial. People like it. I think it's OK. I like a lot of what Clint Black has done."

And would he ever consider smoothing out the rough edges of his own sound, to try and get back on the charts?

"Nooooo--I'm Doug Kershaw!"

Doug Kershaw plays Monday at 7 and 10 p.m. at the Crazy Horse Steak House, 1580 Brookhollow, Santa Ana. $27.50. (714) 549-1512.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World