Douglas James « Doug » Kershaw was born on January 24 of 1936 on a houseboat near Tiel Ridge, Louisiana – a tiny island off the Gulf Coast of Mexico. Russell Lee « Rusty » Kershaw was born on 2 February 1938. Their childhood was difficult, and their father committed suicide when Doug was seven, soon after the family moved to Crowley. Their older brother Nelson « Pee Wee » Kershaw formed a band called the Continental Playboys, which the younger boys would later join. Rusty played rhythm guitar, while Doug began to excel on fiddle (he eventually claimed to have mastered 29 instruments). The band became popular and was appearing on KLPC-TV in 1953, alongside Jimmy Newman and Wiley Barkdull.
Rusty, Doug and Barkdull all started recording for the legendary Crowley, Louisiana producer J. D. Miller during 1954, and had seen their first records issued on his Feature label. Doug had previously cut vocal with Bewley Gang early in 1954. But it was during ’54 that male vocal duos were regaining popularity in country music, thanks to Jimmy (Lee Fautheree) and Johnny (Mathis) « If You Don’t, Someody Else Will » hit, first on Feature, then n° 3 on Chess (see in this site the story of JIMMY & JOHNNY).
More than anything else, it is likely that the success of Jimmy & Johnny led Rusty & Doug to develop their own vocal harmony group. Their style being a very forceful and distinctive one, Miller finally agreed to record « It’s Better To Be A Has Been (Than Be A Never Was) » and « No, No, It’s Not So » (Feature 2003), a fine rough record with drums. They also backed Barkdull on his « I’ll Give My Heart To You » (Feature 2006).
J. D. Miller had never aspired to establish his label as a major, but, after the success of his self-penned « It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels » hit by Kitty Wells (1952), he became the manager to several groups, and used his label as a promotional tool for his compositions, « Cry, Cry, Darling » (Jimmy Newman) got him another hit. On the other hand, having interests in Nashville, he became friends with Fred Rose, who had just founded Hickory Records. He was responsible for the signing of two of his artists on the new label, Tommy Hill, and the most, Al Terry, who hit big at n° 30 with « Good Deal, Lucille ». J. D. Miller was very much involved in the A&R end of Hickory in the early days, rehearsing his musicians in Crowley and providing much of their material. So the first sessions combined Louisiana musicians and Nashville professionnals.
The Kershaws‘ own follow-up to Feature was « So Lovely, Baby », which included the very individual bass vocal of pianist Barkdull : Fred Rose heard it and decided to re-record in May 1955 the duet for release on Hickory 1027. They were backed by steel guitarist Louis Fornerat. The side was coupled with the excellent slow number « Why Cry For You », which displays a very fine steel and fiddle break with superb soaring vocal hamony. On their next August 1955 session, Louisiana fiddler Rufus Thibodeaux adds something to « Look Around (Take A Look At Me ) » (1036), a catchy number which again accrued healthy sales. Miller’s « Can I Be Dreaming » on the flip may represent the very finest ballad the Kershaws ever recorded, with Wiley Barkdull’s voice adding a very unusual bass presence. Another superior-quality downtempo, « Your Crazy, Crazy Heart » fills the session (1048).
For the next session, Barkdull’s vocal was evident in three songs – notably on « Mister Love », where he takes on the role of the titular Mr. Love himself. « Hey, You There » and the equally commercial « We’ll Do It Anyway », which wasn’t issued until two years later, are also well-crafted numbers that feature Barkdull heavily. From this session, let’s not forget the fine « I’ll Understand », with some tasty piano tinkling supplied by Barkdull.
Next session brought changes that included the vocals of the young Carol Lee Cooper (daughter of Hickory artists Wilma Lee & Stoney Cooper) on several sides, and a complete absence of Louisiana musicians, except for Doug Kershaw : « You’ll See » starts with a sizzling fiddle intro. « It’s Too Late » and « Going Down The Road » seem to seek more of a group harmony approach and the latter, although only loosely a traveling song, does catch the atmosphere of some of the great train songs. Al Terry was also at the session, and he takes the lead (vocally supported by the brothers) in « Money », released under his name. « A Satisfied Mind » had been a very popular song in 1955 and its philosophy was echoed in a serie of songs that followed, including this one written by Zeb Turner.
By July 1957, Doug Kershaw had laid down his fiddle, and the repertoire was sollicited from Felice & Boudleaux Bryant and Melvin Endsley. The Kershaws themselves wrote the pop song « Dream Queen », and the pleasant « Take My Love ». The Jordanaires‘ vocal choruses heard are unobstrusive and Floyd Cramer’s rolling piano, Hank Garland’s fine guitar breaks add much to lift the more uptempo « I Never Had The Blues » and « Love Me To Pieces » to well above the average. But the brothers’ sales were dropping off, and they needed a hit. This was not the Bryants’ « Hey Sheriff » yet (a song that compared a guy stealing a girl to a hog thief!), but « Hey Mae », with a 6-string (« tic-tac ») electric bass, Garland’s guitar work and the rockabilly type of percussive effects. The brothers gave Hank Williams‘ « Why Don’t You Love Me » a novel treatment, complete with vocal gimmicks. « Sweet Thing » is forgettable.
By December, any duo was forced to sound like the Everly Brothers. « Never Love Again » is actually a very tasteful piece in Everly style, and highlighted by a 12-string guitar or dulcimer effect during the instrumental passages. « I Like You (Like This ») and « Dancing Shoes » are also effective in this session, their most pop-oriented one. Wiley Barkdull reappears on the latter piece, and on « The Love I Want ». The arrangement of « Kaw Liga » is unusual : the brothers drop their harmonies to sing in pop unison fashion. Six sides were recorded then, because Doug had been called up for military service, and both brothers decided to serve at the same time.
In October 1960, back from Army, the emergence of the epic American and story songs (as by Johnny Horton and Claude King) enabled Doug to submit « Louisiana Man », altho’ with a cajun slant. He picked up his beloved fiddle again. The song proved irresistible and rose to # 10 in the charts. The brothers reunited with J. D. Miller, back to their roots, to record Terry Clement’s « Diggy Liggy Lo » and Cajun anthem « Jole Blon ». Then in December 1961 came the final Hickory session, with « Cajun Joe (The Bully Of The Town)» ; Don Gibson’s (earlier cut by Warren Smith for Sun) « Sweet, Sweet Girl To Me» is given a somewhat mysterious yet funky treatment that also succeeds well. « Cheated Too » (written by Wilma Cooper) brings the brothers to the song’s bluegrass roots.
When the brothers moved to RCA-Victor in 1962, the label didn’t seem to know what to do with them. Their former accompanist, Chet Atkins, produced at least two pieces of mainstream Nashville country at the session that saw cut « Cajun Stripper ». This was sung in French, complete with accordion : the most authentic piece of cajun the brothers ever cut. Atkins’ protégé Bob Feguson produced in 1963 a version of « St. Louis Blues » that seem to anticipate hard rock. Then later the brothers parted. Doug, with his showmanship and furious fiddling, would come to personify cajun to the emerging rock audience of the mid-60s into the 70s. Then, along with cajun ambassador before the Opry audiences Jimmy C. Newman, Doug was lauded as a genius, rubbing shoulders with Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash. Meanwhile Rusty, more laid-back, would head to his old stomping grounds before his years of excessive drinking, hence his health problems, his stays in jail and rehab. He made a strong comeback in the 90s, and was admired by Art Neville, Neil Young and Crazy Horse, before his death on October 23, 2001.
Adapted from the notes by Cary Ginell to Ace CD « Louisiana Men » (2001)
Many pictures do come from the Ace CD, or internet. All the songs podcasted do come from Tony Biggs’ collection. Many thanks, Tony! This article would have been impossible without your help and encouragements.