Benefiting as much from his confident, extroverted stage presence as from a voice that echoes the style of country music legend George Jones, Sammy Kershaw became one of the top country performers of the early 1990s. While carrying the flag of tears-in-your-beer honky-tonk to a new generation of listeners, Kershaw has also managed to gain the allegiance of country music’s old guard. He only performs songs he can relate to on a personal level, and his warm, sensitive, soulful renditions of love-gone-wrong ballads combined with his exuberant, up-tempo approach to life have made him one of the most consistently popular country music stars of the decade.
Born February 24, 1958, and raised in Kaplan, Louisiana, the heart of bayou country, Sammy Kershaw is the third cousin of notable fiddle-wielding Cajun Doug Kershaw. When he was just seven years old, Kershaw fell under the spell of George Jones after hearing his mother play “Things Have Gone to Pieces” on the family’s stereo turntable. Four years later, after his father died of lung cancer, Kershaw was taken under the wing of family friend J. B. Perry, a well-known country bandleader.
Perry focused the troubled youngster’s energy on music; by the time he was twelve, Kershaw was working with Perry’s band after school and singing in local clubs on the weekends. In addition to broadening his vocal skills by opening shows for famous country performers like Jones, Charlie Rich, Cal Smith, and Ray Charles, Kershaw learned about showmanship. “J. B., he was one of the best showmen I ever saw … as far as gettin’ with the people,” Kershaw told Country Music’s Michael Bane. “That’s what it’s all about and that’s what I learned from J. B. Those people in the audience, they’re people just like you are, and you’re people just like them. That’s the whole thing, just having fun with them. Once they see you’re having fun, they’re going to have fun. And, boy, do I have fun.”
Despite Perry’s influence, Kershaw constantly flirted with life in the fast lane throughout his teen years; he had parted company with J. B. and the band by the time he was twenty. Not willing to give up music for a more responsible lifestyle, Kershaw ferried through a period of hard living, several marriages that didn’t make it, substance abuse, bankruptcies, and stints in numerous bands. He also deejayed, worked in a rice mill, as a carpenter, a welder, a stand-up comic, and even managed a dry cleaning store for a while.
Finally, in 1988, Kershaw pulled himself out of the downward spiral and took a full-time job as a building remodeling contractor for the Wal-Mart Corporation. He worked overtime for two years while trying to gain some stability in his life and in his family. Then, in 1989, out of
Bom February 24, 1958, in Abbeville (one source says Kaplan), LA; son of Minos (a carpenter) and Emily Rachal Cashat; married third wife, Kim, 1988: children: Erin, Emily, Ryan (stepson).
Began playing with J. B. Perry and his band in Kaplan, LA, c. 1970; worked as a sometime musician, 1978–88; Wal-Mart Corporation, building renovation contractor throughout the southern United States, 1988–90; signed with Mercury Records, 1990; released debut EP Don’t Go Near the Water, 1991; made acting debut in Fall Time, 1994. Sponsor of a National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) team.
Awards: Horizon Award nomination, Country Music Association (CMA), 1993.
Addresses: Record company —Mercury Records, 66 Music Square West, Nashville, TN 37203. Management —James Dowell Management, 50 Music Square West, Nashville, TN 37203.
the blue, Kershaw got the phone-call. “This guy had seen me ten years ago in a nightclub in Lafayette called ‘Cowboy’s,’” he told Bane. “[He] wanted me to send a tape and picture up to Nashville to show to some people. So I did that.” After an audition for several Mercury Records A&R representatives, Kershaw landed a record deal; he signed with Mercury in 1990, put down his hammer, and hasn’t looked back.
It is no surprise that Mercury wanted to put the then-unknown singer under contract; Kershaw’s vocal style is so like that of his musical hero, George Jones, that it’s almost uncanny: he possesses “a set of elastic, vowel-bending, liquid-drawl vocal cords that can make even a gray lyric sound like a sunburst,” noted Country America’s Neil Pond. And nowhere was this retro-Jones styling heard to better effect than on Kershaw’s debut album, Don’t Go Near the Water, released in 1991. In addition to containing several Number One hits, including the tongue-in-cheek “Cadillac Style” and the sassy title cut, the album includes a cover of the Jones hit “What Am I Worth”—just to drive the vocal likeness home. Each of the EP’s tracks, taken together, add up to the kind of classic fifties and sixties country sound that Jones cultivated in his heyday, but despite that similarity, Kershaw’s own talent transcends the vocal parallel. As Bob Allen noted in Country Music, “Kershaw makes it clear… that he fully understands the difference between mimicking one’s influences and using them as a basis for innovation.”
In a Nashville full of young singers who rattle off the names of “country greats” influences as if they were required courses, Kershaw’s insistence that he came by his pipes honestly created suspicion among some. “There’s nothing I can do about that,” the singer exclaimed in his 1994 Mercury press release. “The only thing I can do is try to select material that might be different, that will help the vocal go into its own style.” With 1993’s Haunted Heart, Kershaw did just that; he took a step away from the classic Jones stylings of his debut and moved toward a more original hard-country approach to his songs. With a fresh, contemporary eye on honky-tonk, Kershaw infuses the entire album with the same low-key humor and fun that marked his debut effort—and to good effect: his first two albums for Mercury went platinum, and Haunted Heart produced the Top Ten singles “She Don’t Know She’s Beautiful,” as well as the poignant “I Can’t Reach Her Anymore.”
The next year’s Feelin’ Good Train took Kershaw another giant step off the hardcore country track, once again proving his unique talent and showcasing his own rhythm and blues influences. However, Kershaw and Jones did team up for a duet on the album. The rollicking “Never Bit a Bullet Like This” is almost Jones-on-Jones. For Kershaw, a duet with “The Possum” is like stopping back home after you’re grown and gone. Still, no matter how many times Kershaw may renew his bond with his musical mentor, it is clear that he is going his own way. As he noted in a Mercury Records press release, “I can’t sing a song unless I’ve lived it. And at one time or another, I guess I’ve lived ‘em all. The best way to put it is, ‘You can’t program ol’ Sammy.’ Whatever I sing— whatever I say—at least you know it’s gonna be me, it’s gonna be honest.”
Don’t Go Near the Water (includes “Cadillac Style” and “Don’t Go Near the Water”) Mercury, 1991.
Haunted Heart (includes “She Don’t Know She’s Beautiful” and “I Can’t Reach Her Anymore”), Mercury, 1993.
Feelin’ Good Train, Mercury, 1994.
Christmas Time’s a Comin’, Mercury, 1994.
Comprehensive Country Music Encyclopedia, Random House, 1994.
Country America, June 1993.
Country Music, January/February 1993; March/April 1993; September/October 1994; July/August 1995.
Nashville Banner, May 14, 1993.
People (People Country special issue), fall 1994.
Stereo Review, September 1994.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from Mercury Records publicity materials, 1993 and 1994.
—Pamela L. Shelton
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