Haunted Heart

updated 09/14/1994 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/14/1994 01:00AM

Shuttered storefronts and wilting flowers dot the struggling main drag of Kaplan, La. For Sammy Kershaw, though, the downcast streets of this town teem with vivid memories.

"That's where my daddy took me to the picture show to see Hellfighters," he says, pointing over the rental car's dash to the facade of the defunct Joy Theater. He passes the Holy Rosary Catholic Church, a vision in white stucco and stained glass shimmering through the swamp-fed humidity of southern Louisiana. "My daddy helped build that church."

Daddy was Minos Cashat (Kershaw prefers the anglicized spelling of his Cajun forebears' French name), a carpenter and ex-Marine who died in 1970, when Kershaw was 11 years old. For the singer-guitarist, there are few places in Kaplan that don't bring this powerful and domineering figure to mind. Once he crosses the town line, where a sign welcomes visitors to the home of Sammy Kershaw, his departed father's spirit and his own troubled history seem to cast a shadow over his Nashville achievements.

Kershaw drives past a small frame house, explaining that it once held a coin-filled jukebox. "I broke in there one time," he confides. "Got into trouble." Beyond railroad tracks on the edge of town, he cruises past Kaplan's mostly abandoned rice mills. "When we were kids, we used to play in the rice chaff," he says. Then his face clouds. "We used to be punished with rice," he says. "You ever try to kneel on rice for an hour? It doesn't seem like much, but it sure hurts."

Sammy Kershaw, 36, ought to be a happy man. Despairing after two lackluster decades toiling in obscure country bands, he took a full-time carpentering job at Wal-Mart in 1989; the next year, he finally landed a record deal and now the singer has two platinum discs, including 1992's Haunted Heart. His third, this year's Feelin' Good Train, quickly yielded a hit, "National Working Woman's Holiday."

But during this trip home, troubling memories of Minos intrude. "Daddy was a hard worker and well-built, a good fellow except when he was drinking," Kershaw says. "But three beers and he was a crazy man." While Sammy's younger siblings—Minos Jr., 35, Gerald, 33, and Annette, 31—were usually-spared, Kershaw says he and his mother bore the brunt of his father's alcohol-fueled beatings. (His mother, Emily Rachal, who remarried in 1979, says of her late husband, "I don't want to talk about him. He's not here to defend himself.")

During the course of his return home, Kershaw often laments that he never had a chance to tell his father that he loved him and that the violence didn't have to happen. But it's not until the visit is almost over—after being brought to tears just by hearing a sad song in a store about a father and son—that he finally dredges up what is tormenting him. "I've never told these things," he says. Then, haltingly, he begins.

When Minos was dying of lung cancer at 33, Kershaw relates, he called young Sammy to his bedside. "He told me, 'You're the oldest one, and you've got to take care of the family.' "

The boy promised he would. But almost at once, the burden became too much. "At the funeral home, when they brought him out, I fell apart," Kershaw says. "I ran and hid. I didn't want the other kids to see me break down. I wanted to be like a rock for them and my mother." And he burned with guilt over having long wished his father were dead. Sammy's uncle and godfather, Oscar Foster, found Sammy sobbing in an alley several blocks away and gently brought him to the cemetery.

Resented by his siblings when he tried to take the father's role (the estrangement lingers to this day), Kershaw started getting into fights at school. A family friend, J.B. Perry, sensing what lay ahead, came to the rescue. Perry, a country bandleader in the region for nearly 30 years, hired Kershaw as a 12-year-old roadie and steadied his emotionally wobbly young charge. But as Kershaw quickly graduated to performer, then moved on to other bands, he turned to drugs, alcohol and quarreling.

After two failed marriages, a raft of bands and too many blacked-out nights, Kershaw saw his third marriage begin to falter in the late '80s and finally started to straighten himself out. He gave up the honky-tonk life, took the Wal-Mart job and settled down to the obligations of family that he had run from for so long.

Today, Kershaw is the picture of fatherly pride, living in Nashville with wife Kim, 34, and their kids, Erin, 8, and Emily, 1, and Kim's son, Ryan, 13, from her first marriage.

J.B. Perry couldn't be prouder of Kershaw, whose tour of Kaplan leads inevitably to "Mr. J.B.'s" house. Perry, 63, ushers him inside with a teasing comment about his short haircut. "He was a father figure to me and he always will be," says Kershaw, who nonetheless wishes his real father could see him today. It was Perry who "saw I was heading down the wrong road. He saw something in me about music, and he helped me turn out right."

Perry agrees. "I guess I finally molded him into taking responsibility for his life," he says. "It was a pretty risky thing, to take this child with me, but you never turn your back on the children."

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