Take one monumental figure from the history of Cajun music. Combine in equal portions with the reigning master of contemporary Cajun music. Blend in a couple of 90-year-old accordions and a couple of 250-year-old fiddles. Let sit in an elaborate shack out on the Cajun prairie for five days. Flavor with four original tunes, eight traditional tunes, apportioning roughly an equal number of vocals for each musician. Process through current state-of-the-art recording gear, custom-blended for crystal-clear, warm, intimate, Cajun music-making. Select only the freshest, most robust, soul-stirring tracks. (For comparison sake, refer to historic accordion/fiddle duets by Amédé Ardoin and Dennis McGee, 1929-1934.) Title the project, simply, Doug Kershaw and Steve Riley Face to Face. Package cleanly and release on local record label/talent incubator Valcour Records. Purchase CD or download tracks. Sit back and prepare to be transported.
For those of you who may have come in late (and even those of you who may have been around a while): Just who, exactly, is Doug Kershaw? Short answer: The Louisiana Man. Slightly longer answer: The Original Ragin’ Cajun.
Fully detailed description: Douglas James Kershaw is a Cajun fiddler, singer, and songwriter who cemented his place in American popular music at the height of the ’60s counter-culture movement with two self-penned hits, “Louisiana Man” and “Diggy Diggy Lo.” Those hits combined with an onstage persona that consisted of one-third fiercely proud Louisiana Cajun, one-third Nashville country-music showmanship, and one-third reflections of Sixties’ style—shoulder-length hair, velvet Edwardian suit jackets, and wildly impassioned, energetic performances—created a recipe for indelibly establishing Kershaw’s image as “The Cajun Hippie.” In reality, Doug Kershaw was much more than that; with brother Rusty, he’d been a popular country artist from the mid-’50s through the mid-’60s, selling more than 18 million records before conquering late-’60s popular music. And while the success of the country duo “Rusty and Doug” accurately reflected a widespread Cajun embrace of post-WWII country music, Kershaw’s solo career as The Cajun Hippie bears no sign of cultural precedence or context—save for the malleability of the Cajun music tradition generally—making the distinctive Cajun musician both an anomaly and a trail-blazer for musical developments in Cajun music that would not fully surface for decades.
Or, as Steve Riley puts it, “Doug Kershaw has taken his Cajun roots farther than just about anyone I know.”
Steve Riley? Well, you know him mainly with the Mamou Playboys. But then there’s cameos with Lil’ Band of Gold, two solid side-projects, High Performance and Racines, and his participation in 2012’s The Band Courtboullion with Wayne Toups and Wilson Savoy, which, by the way, took home that year’s Grammy for Best Regional Music. So, is that what Riley had in mind initiating Face to Face, The Band Courtboullion, Volume 2? Not at all. And Face to Face wasn’t Riley’s idea to begin with.
It began with an old Sterling Cajun accordion Riley came by. When he posted the good news on his Facebook page, Kershaw responded that he owned an old Monarch accordion along with a couple of 250-year-old fiddles. Thus began an ongoing exchange between two icons of vastly different—but both eclectic—generations. And it was actually Kershaw who got the ball rolling on the subject of recording together.
“I love the way Steve plays,” Kershaw explained recently. “He can play today, and he can play yesterday. So I just said to him, ‘Why don’t you and I get together, face to face, and just play some music?’ We’re both good enough, and we both know enough, and we have enough experience not to get in each other’s way, to help each other, you know? So all I wanted to do was, come down, put our heads together …”
That small notion became a ten-day sojourn—with Kershaw and Riley working out common ground while Kershaw stayed with relatives living in the state—encompassing a total of three days of rehearsal and five days of recording.
As far as working out common musical ground, Riley had this to say: “In a certain way, we’re from opposite ends of the Cajun music spectrum. There were a lot of things we had to work out. Doug, you know, left Louisiana and had great success with English-speaking audiences, whereas I’ve stayed traditional, you know, very much based in southern Louisiana. But right from the start, Doug reminded me of Dennis McGee—so that became the first description of what the project should be, using those old musical instruments and taking the Amédé Ardoin-Dennis McGee duets as a model. And to the extent that it worked, well, I can hold it down pretty solid, I guess you’d say, and Doug, well, he’s just a wild man. And it works.”
It certainly does. The beauty of the rustic, antique sound of the instruments used is hard to overstate; equally so, the sonic clarity and intimacy of the sound reproduction. The interplay between the participants is perfectly matched in every single instance save one: at the beginning of “Saute Crapaud,” a children’s song with a naughty lyric thrown in (for those of you who speak Cajun French), SRiley starts off hesitantly, seeking a comfortable rhythm, when out of the blue, Kershaw starts shouting and encouraging, “There you go!,” “There you go!,’ “Ayieeee.” The completed take has plenty of muscle, and the sliver of a crack into the creative process is priceless.
Needless to say, the final product as a whole is not just Cajun music unplugged, but Cajun music totally off the grid.
Doug Kershaw & Steve Riley Face to Face shines not only as a contemporary artifact but as an historical document as well. Of course, there are inspirational sources, the Amédé Ardoin-Dennis McGee duets, released in an award-winning two-CD package by Tompkins Square Records in 2011 as Amédé Ardoin: Mama, I’ll Be Long Gone, The Complete Recordings, 1929-1934. But there a couple of eerie historical connections as well: the first Sterling accordion Riley acquired, used liberally on this recording, was said to have been owned at one time by Amédé Ardoin; not long after, though, Riley discovered that his wife’s cousin also owned an old Sterling, the same one used on the first recording of the 1928 Cajun classic “Jolie Blonde.” Naturally, when recording time came around, Riley managed to arrange to use that accordion on this duo’s recording of “Jolie Blonde.”
Combined with the accumulated experience and talent of Doug Kershaw and Steve Riley, that’s a whole lot of history compressed into 12 fierce and raw digital tracks.
As for the two main perpetrators, they’ll be taking their act on the road the end of this month, playing for a week with Doug Kershaw’s band in Nevada. Doug Kershaw’s band? Yup. He’s never quit performing and recording since the late ’60s. He got married in the AstroDome in 1975, settled in Colorado, raised a family of five sons, had a Top 40 country music hit in 1981, and a Top 50 country hit in 1988. He released a French-language album featuring a duet with Michael Doucet of BeauSoleil in 1999 and was inducted into The Louisiana Music Hall of Fame in 2009. His third cousin is country music star Sammy Kershaw.
And even at the ripe old age of 78, he’s never stopped being The Louisiana Man, raised out in the swamps more than seven decades ago and once he left, he was gone. “There not much that’s understated about Doug Kershaw,” Riley quickly admits. “When you see him perform you remember him. He wore me out thoroughly. It took me a week to recover after he left. He just has this over-the-top energy in both his playing and his demeanor.”
When this idea is floated past Kershaw, he replies without haste: “Yeah, I play hard. Everything I do I put my whole heart into. You know, I didn’t leave the swamps by French-kissing alligators. Okay?”
Just so you know. Riley is no Johnny-come-lately, either. Late last summer, at the age 45, he celebrated his 25th anniversary with the Mamou Playboys in a pair of concerts at the Acadiana Center for the Arts that featured special guests like Sonny Landreth, Roddie Romero, C.C. Adcock, and others. The proceedings were recorded for future release, but first Riley wants to finish working on his current project, a new studio album with the Mamou Playboys, targeted for a Jazz Fest-friendly release date. Then, following their Nevada gig, he hopes to bring his collaboration Kershaw all the way back home to Louisiana for some live dates. For Cajun music fans, that’s pure good news.