With the popularity of New Orleans musicians like Fats Domino, Doctor John and the Neville Brothers, it's easy to forget that the Crescent City occupies less than 1 percent of a state that has its own vibrant musical traditions. Rural Louisiana musicians — be they Cajun, Creole or somewhere in between — have never received mainstream recognition.
With one exception: Doug Kershaw, the son of an alligator hunter and seventh of nine siblings, learned to play fiddle at the age of 5, three years before he learned to speak English.
At 21, he joined the cast of the Grand Ole Opry, after which his formidable talents as a singer, songwriter and instrumentalist led to network television appearances, recording sessions with Bob Dylan, and million-selling records like "Diggy Diggy Lo" and "Louisiana Man."
Now, at 77, the "Ragin' Cajun" lives in Colorado with his wife of 38 years and tours internationally, playing some 50 dates a year — including a 2011 show at Denver's Oriental Theater, where the ceiling over the stage collapsed just as the band was returning for its second encore.
"I thought it was a bomb went off," says Kershaw of the brush with mortality. "I'm usually good at bringing the house down, but not literally."
We recently caught up with the Louisiana man, who'll be headlining a Black Forest benefit Saturday, to talk about the road from swampland to stardom.
Indy: While Creole music is thought of as being very happy, the Cajun music of artists like Amédé Ardoin comes across as very sad. When you were starting out, did you make a conscious decision to make it more upbeat?
Doug Kershaw: Absolutely. Even if the basic idea of a story is kind of teardrop-ish, people still have to like it first. Sometimes the lyrics were sad, but the music would come out happy.
Indy: The early songs I've heard by you and your brother reminded me a lot of the Everly Brothers.
DK: Well, that's who copied us! Rusty & Doug was before them, yeah. But we was with the same people — Boudleaux Bryant found them boys in Kentucky— and yeah, they copied a lot of the way we sang.
Indy: Did you play on many bills with Zydeco bands?
DK: Oh yeah, man, like Rockin' Sydney, all of them. Matter of fact, Clifton Chenier used to play across the highway in Lake Charles, Louisiana. We'd play the Silver Star on the other side, and when we'd get through playing as Rusty & Doug, we'd go over and listen to him.
Indy: You ended up taking bayou music further into the mainstream than anyone else, before or after. I mean, Clifton Chenier never made it on national television.
DK: Let me tell you how that came about. I was just coming out of the Army, and I was sitting on the stairs writing songs. And all of a sudden I thought: If I could have anything I wanted right now, what would it be? The first thing that popped into my head was not to be ashamed of being a Cajun. See, nobody ever explained that to me when we were growing up.
Indy: Why would there be shame?
DK: Well, first of all, they took our language away. They wouldn't let us speak French, and that's all I spoke till I started school.
Indy: Did you have a tough youth?
DK: Yeah, my father killed himself when I was 7. And that's why I started playing music, to help my family.
Indy: I'm always amazed by the resilience of so many people who live through tragedies, whether it's the fires, or 9/11, or Katrina.
DK: Oh yeah. You know, what do you do? DIE? If you fall, you pick yourself up. And it's hard, it's difficult.
Indy: One more question: Bob Dylan is about to release a box set of material from Self Portrait, which I know you played on. That, of all his albums, was the one that most confused people, with fans and critics asking, "What is he doing here?" What was he doing there?
DK: He was trying — and I don't know this, OK? — but my opinion is, he was just trying to prove to people that, hey, I can sing anything. I think he was trying to just be himself, and create what he wanted to create. Just like I did. When I went solo, I could've been country or rock 'n roll, I could've chose that. But I still wanted to show my culture. I've worked all my life to be myself.