To be published in October by Mercer University Press, "The Ragin' Cajun" tells the common musician's story of numbing performances, drug addiction, poor life choices and unscrupulous managers and record producers.
The book stands apart from other rock memoirs in the literary quality of its revelations about Cajun culture.
Along with the Cajuns' well-noted joy, humor and musical talent, the book discloses the culture's violence, depression and propensity for addiction.
Sadly, it also details how cultural repression and existence on the edges of American life led to deep feelings of inferiority. In recent years, Cajun music, literature and cuisine have found long-overdue recognition.
Written with the novelist Cathie Pelletier, the book brings light to a little known and vanished way of life. Kershaw spent his first years on a houseboat on Louisiana's Mermentau River, where his Cajun family eked out a primitive swamp existence before World War II.
His father, Daddy Jack, precariously supported the family as a fisherman and trapper while his mother, Mama Rita was mired in punishing work. Their life seems medieval in its lack of modern comforts.
Unlike the happy portrait in Kershaw's signature song "Louisiana Man," his father was a violent drunk who frequently beat his mother and threatened the rest of the family. In a gruesome and gripping account, Kershaw tells how his father killed himself with a shotgun.
Despite Daddy Jack's violence, Kershaw remembers him fondly as a hard-working, resourceful man who generally treated him with kindness. Father Jack also gave his son the gift of music. And, the inspiration for "Louisiana Man," one of the best songs of the rock era:
"He's got fishing lines strung across the Louisiana river,
got to catch a big fish for us to eat.
Setting traps in the swamps catching anything he can,
he gotta make a livin', he's a Louisiana man,
Gotta make a livin', he's a Louisiana man."
The book's Dickensien story gains narrative power when Mama Rita moves the family to the small town of Lake Arthur. There, Kershaw, who began playing a fiddle fashioned from a cigar box, launches his musical career playing "Jole Blon" and other Cajun favorites outside a cafe.
The strength and perseverance of Mama Rita were a constant rock for Kershaw until her death. The book relates how she gained her own slice of fame from Kershaw's career.
Kershaw and his brothers Pee-Wee and Rusty begin playing in the rough Cajun clubs in Jennings, La. Eventually, Kershaw and his brother Rusty find regional success on radio and early TV. Beset by unscrupulous managers, the Kershaws make their first recordings and land regular engagements at clubs along the Highway 90 strip around Lake Charles near the Texas border.
Now performing as a duo, Rusty and Doug record a couple of hits and land a spot on the most famous country show, the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tenn. The book gives recognition to the group as rock pioneers. Fusing traditional Cajun music with country and the blues, Rusty and Doug helped create rockabilly, the driving force of early rock.
After Rusty decides to leave the duo, Doug Kershaw continues as solo performer and songwriter in Nashville, hanging around with other future stars like Kris Kristofferson and Roger Miller. As with other musicians rising to fame, Kershaw gets hooked on drugs, in his case alcohol, amphetamines and eventually cocaine. Apparently he avoided heroin, which has wrecked so many musicians' lives.
Battling his addictions, poor business decisions and disastrous first two marriages, Kershaw perseveres and achieves success, thanks to an appearance along with Bob Dylan on Johnny Cash's national TV show. From there, Kershaw's fame grows as a frequent performer on TV, in Las Vegas, and in international concerts. He also records several hits.
But his personal life collapses. As financial worries mount, his addictions worsen. Later sections of the book grow less appealing. Brutally honest, Kershaw gives an unpleasant self-portrait of an unreliable, abusive personality. He explodes at band members and gains a bad reputation for showing up late for performances. His volatile behavior led to the hackneyed nickname echoed in the book's title.
Redemption comes with his marriage to his third wife, Pam. Despite starting a family with Pam, Kershaw continues his destructive behavior until Pam insists that he change his ways. With that dose of tough love, Kershaw at last finds tranquillity.
Assisted by his co-author Pelletier, the 83-year-old Kershaw tells his story in a frank, sometimes vulgar voice. His accounts of seeking to overcome addictions can be grueling, but he remains engaging even at the worst moments.
His earthy humor and folksy anecdotes reflect the Cajun joie de vivre that enabled them to overcome poverty and persecution. The book displays the story-telling power of "Louisiana Man."
The Mercer University Press deserves praise for publishing "Ragin' Cajun," which belongs among lauded recent memoirs by Bruce Springsteen, Keith Richards, Bob Dylan and Neil Young. Along with giving an in-depth look at the music business, Kershaw and Pelletier illuminate a forgotten segment of Cajun culture.
The book provides a valuable discography, including recordings Kershaw made with his brother Rusty, who died in 2001. Kershaw's extensive recordings, including those of traditional Cajun songs, warrant in-depth exploration.
With his Cajun novelty numbers and crowd-pleasing antics, Kershaw has been discounted as merely a niche musician. A dynamic performer, stylish songwriter, distinctive singer and accomplished fiddle player, Kershaw stands with the recently deceased Dr. John, Allen Toussaint and Fats Domino in the top tier of Louisiana musicians.
And, as this book richly illustrates, among the state's best storytellers.