It’s Saturday night in Kaplan, Louisiana, and there are 17,000 fired-up Cajuns poured into Kaplan High’s football field and stadium for a day-long celebration of the local boy who made good but came home to help his own. It’s “Sam Jam I,” the highlight of Sammy Kershaw’s week of hometown fund-raising activities held to aid local children’s charities.
What began five years ago as a loosely pulled-together benefit concert has turned in to a professionally-run musical extravaganza that rivals any major concert venue in the country. The only difference is that Sam Jam I is entirely produced by Kershaw and the locals, who passionately pull together and put on a spectacular event that is executed with military precision.
While most artists may lend their name to an event, show up just in time to perform and then whisk away to the next gig, Kershaw is in on every aspect of planning and the actual setup of the concert facilities. From before dawn until way past midnight, Kershaw was there days in advance, working alongside many of the people he grew up with and their children who are now at Kaplan High School.
All throughout Saturday, I watched in amazement of Kershaw at work. Sitting next to me backstage was a merchandiser for Tracy Lawrence who shared in my awe.” He’s one hard working son-of-a gun!” Kershaw never stopped. He did everything from assisting in the setup and tear down of the massive stage to picking up litter and even serving band members local Cajun delicacies way after the riveting concert ended.
Kershaw personally greeted Lorrie Morgan and Tracy Lawrence when their gleaming tour buses arrived and helped the bus drivers park the buses. He made sure Morgan, Lawrence, their band and crew members were well fed with the incredible backstage Cajun feast that included fresh boiled crawfish, shrimp in a tasty roux sauce and the most scrumptious crawfish etouffé that rivals anything from the finest chefs in New Orleans.
Kershaw is modest about his contributions to Sam Jam I but is overwhelmed by Kaplan’s support. “I am really proud of the people down here in South Louisiana for really just taking off with this thing and making it grow into what it is. We just had an idea a few years ago and of course, the people of my hometown of Kaplan ran with the ball. They turned it into an annual deal and helped make it grow.” Kershaw continued proudly, “The money that we send out to the children’s organizations has grown, too. We now work with crippled children, kids with bad eyes, bad ears and bad hearts. We buy milk and diapers for babies, winter coats and Christmas toys. We build baseball fields, remodel old baseball fields and help St. Jude’s Hospital. We just do all kinds of stuff.”
Is this the same fiery Cajun who blazed onto the country music scene with his breakthrough song and video, “Cadillac Style,” and taught a few club owners and promoters along the way that you’d better think twice before trying to pull a fast one on him?
Yes, it’s the same man, and there’s a softer side to Sammy that the people closest to him know very well. Sammy Kershaw came up hard, worked hard for everything he has in this world and never had an easy road. When you mess with Sammy, you’re messing with the many people’s lives that his career supports. Sammy has been very protective of every aspect of his career, similar to the way he has been involved in every aspect of Sam Jam I.
Jimmy Potts, Kershaw’s truck driver and farm attendant for over seven years, knows Kershaw as well as anyone. “I’m out on the road with Sammy and live on his farm with my wife. I see Sammy every day. He has a heart of gold. He’s got band members like Steve Larson, J.D. White, Mark Thompson, Gary McGuire and personal manager James Duncan who are going on eight years with him. You don’t have people sticking with you that long in this business unless you’re treating them right. I love Sammy and them kids and family. I’d take a bullet for them.”
Potts says it’s not just family and loyal employees that Kershaw has a soft spot for. “When we were doing the video for “Southbound,” the older lady in the video said, ‘I sure wish I could see that video when it’s finished. My TV’s been busted.’ Sammy whispered to me, ‘Go over to the Wal-Mart and get her a nice TV to watch it on.’ That lady was floored!” Potts beams, “Sammy’s just like that.”
Kathi Mallec, Kershaw’s affable publicist, drove me all over Kaplan to help get a feel of where Kershaw comes from. Mallec has her own touching stories about her boss. “He has stood by me in good times and bad and been there when I really needed a friend. One time around Christmas, a kind-hearted employee over at Mercury Records was trying to help out a single mother at her apartment complex who was getting evicted. Sammy heard about it and made sure the woman had a roof over her head and a wonderful Christmas for her children.”
As we drove around the sleepy town of 5,000, it was Mother’s Day, and there were many touching scenes of festive family gatherings in the backyards of modest homes. Everywhere we went in Kaplan from Larry’s Grocery to Mickey’s Drive-In, we were treated like family.
When we drove up to the home where Kershaw grew up, there was delightful Cajun music blaring from the small frame house across the street. An elderly man was grilling delicious-smelling chicken. Rambunctious children were playing cheerfully, but when their voices grew louder than the music, a stern voice scolded them.
I quickly turned to Kershaw’s boyhood home and thought of young Sammy growing up in the rambling clapboard ranch with an alcoholic and abusive father, who died of cancer when Sammy was 11. Kershaw knows about pain, and that’s why he’s working so hard to help kids. He can’t stand for a child to hurt.
The boy from Kaplan had a dream to rise above the hard years of his childhood. “I had a big dream years ago when I was a boy,” Sammy stated reverently. “I started doing nightclubs when I was 12 years old. I was doing nightclubs five nights a week and going to school during the day. I had a bunch of big dreams, and I have fooled around and caught some of them. A lot of people used to tell me I would never be anything because I was a big dreamer. Well, maybe I was a dreamer, but the thing about it was is that I was a big dreamer.”
Sammy continued emphatically, “I wasn’t just a dreamer. If you are going to dream, you might as well dream big because you never know when you aren’t going to fool around and catch some of those dreams. Which dream would you rather catch? If you are going to dream, let’s dream for the big ones.”
The big dreams did come true for Sammy, but it was a long and bumpy road. Sammy remembers every twist and turn. “I had been playing music in nightclubs and hitting the hard road for 21 years. I got out of the music business for a little while, about a year and a half, to straighten out my life and get my life back together. But I always told everybody that I wasn’t quitting for good.”
In 1988 Kershaw quit alcohol and drugs for good. He began putting his family first, above his music career, and took a job remodeling Wal-Marts. The positive turnaround Kershaw made of his life was rewarded in 1990 when a songwriter acquaintance, who had moved to Nashville, brought one of Kershaw’s tapes to the attention of Mercury Records. Kershaw was flown in to Nashville for a showcase in front of label executives and landed a record deal the next day!
The years that have followed have brought Kershaw a lengthy and successful career of consistent sales in a fickle country music market and legions of loyal fans who appreciate Kershaw’s loyalty to real country music. Kershaw’s latest album, Maybe Not Tonight, debuted on the country sales charts at No. 7, the highest debuting position for any album in Kershaw’s career. It is a time in Kershaw’s career when he wants to give back for all the good things that have come his way.
Before Kershaw burst onto the stage for the spirited finale of Sam Jam I, the 17,000 screaming fans had earlier wildly cheered the rousing performances of Wayne Toups, 7-year-old Cajun accordion ace Hunter Hayes, Tracy Lawrence and Lorrie Morgan. When Kershaw took the stage, the crowd went wild. Sammy was home.
The Sammy Kershaw Foundation of Louisiana has raised over a half million dollars for local and national children’s service organizations. Kathy Broussard is the local coordinator for the Kershaw Foundation and Sam Jam I and sees big things for the future. “I think everything took off at the concert a few years ago when Sammy made a presentation for a local child, Ben, who had leukemia. Kaplan service organizations had been honoring Sammy throughout the afternoon. Sammy was very grateful, but said he needed to make a presentation for someone else.”
Broussard continued emotionally, “Sammy had heard about Ben and that he had always wanted to learn to play the guitar. Sammy not only got him one fine guitar but all kinds of CDs to learn from and a giant CD/tape player. That child was awestruck when he saw all what Sammy was giving him. When the crowd saw the joy in that child’s eyes and the love Ben had for Sammy, they suddenly fell silent. I’ve never seen anything like that. People were so happy to share in that magical moment for that kid, some people in the audience started crying. That was when people in Kaplan said, ‘Sammy’s for real. He’s not doing this for show, he really means this!’That was when the people of Kaplan got behind Sammy and this event 150 percent.”
Sam Jam has been successful beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, except for the the big dreamer from Kaplan, Sammy Kershaw, who envisions an amphitheater and music festival someday that could bring in 90,000 music lovers to Kaplan and thousands of dollars for local charities.
As Kershaw, the Sam Jam crew of volunteers and “Mr. Louddy’s” legions of Kaplan High Key Club members tore down the giant stage and got ready for the next event, Sunday’s celebrity softball game, Kershaw took a rare break and sat down backstage in a golf cart donated to assist the concert effort. A group of children, whose parents were volunteers, sauntered over to Kershaw and began chatting with him like he was a favorite uncle. A girl around 10 years old was the only one of the group who was a little bit shy about being around the “big star.” Stony Simon, a precocious boy of 12, grinned confidently and assured her, “Aw, he’s one of us.”