Photo: Rick Olivier
Doris Leon "D. L." Menard (born April 14, 1932) is one of the most important songwriters and performers in Cajun music. He has been called the "Cajun Hank Williams" because of the country-tinged sound of his voice and music.
Oct. 19, 1993 is the day D.L. Menard finally got to be a full-time musician. Actually, "had to be" is more accurate. Menard lost his day job as proprietor of a one-man chair factory in Erath, La., when one of his self-built woodcutting machines short-circuited, sending sparks into sawdust and burning the place down.
Menard's fallback position was not exactly desperate: He had begun playing Cajun music in 1949, had his first regional hit in southern Louisiana in 1962 and began touring outside his home state in 1973. During the '80s and '90s, Menard rode a surge of interest in traditional Cajun folk music and culture to a prominent spot on the list of rural-Louisiana exports that a global following has learned to savor.
But Cajun music isn't such a big attraction that a stepped-up performing schedule since the fire could make up for the chunk of income he lost. He has maintained a separate career as a craftsman, noted for his handmade ash-wood chairs he makes at his one-man factory in Erath. "[Making music] was about half my living," Menard said. Besides, he liked turning ash wood from the Louisiana swamps and forests into rockers and kitchen chairs. He says he found it as satisfying as being a singer-songwriter and guitar player. "You have fun [playing music], but I love working with wood. My chairs [are] very special. It's well-sanded, it's my own creation. I'm the one that's doing it, and I take pride in my work." Besides, Menard said, the day job complemented his musical life, because he often came up with new melodies for songs by humming to himself while he worked on a chair.
Menard's earliest inspiration was furnished by his father, who played harmonica, and an uncle who played in a Cajun band. Attending a rehearsal by the group, Menard became enchanted by his uncle's guitar playing. Convincing his uncle to teach him a few rudimentary chords, Menard took to the instrument quickly. Six months after buying his first guitar from a Sears and Roebuck catalog, he started playing dances in Louisiana clubs at 17. Shortly after joining Elias Badeaux's band, the Louisiana Aces, in 1952, Menard took over the band's leadership.
Menard's special gift as a singer is a directness, simplicity and intensity of feeling that sometimes has gotten him billed as "the Cajun Hank Williams." If fact, Menard chatted with Williams for about 10 minutes during a break at a dance hall performance Williams gave in Cajun country in 1951. Menard's recollections of that influential talk stretch out considerably longer than the actual conversation must have. What he took from it, he says, was Williams' advice about respecting the audience, and about how important it is for a singer to be able to bring a song's story to life. Menard said he told Williams that he didn't expect to go far with his own music because it was in Cajun-French --- a minority language and culture that Louisiana authorities were then trying to discourage. "All music is good if it's your music" was Williams' response, Menard said. "It's not too often that I go
out and play that something I see or something that happens doesn't make me think of what he told me that night," Menard said.
Menard is known for his "tinny" voice and popular guitar strumming style. Anne Savoy generalizes Cajun guitar strumming to two styles: Old Time Style (Cléoma Falcon) and D. L. Menard Style. It uses bass runs on chord changes and incorporates up strokes along with down strokes. He modeled his guitar strumming style after David Bromberg whom he met in 1973. Menard has inspired other Cajun bands to sing the Cajun standards in his style and in the "Cajun French" language, notably The San Diego Cajun Playboys.
Menard is best known for his song "La Porte En Arrière" ("The Back Door"), which Cajun folklorist Barry Jean Ancelet has called the most played and most recorded Cajun song, selling over 500,000 copies in 1962 alone. It has been covered by dozens of Cajun and zydeco bands and by other Francophone artists such as Kate and Anna McGarrigle. Menard has said he modeled it on Hank Williams' "Honky Tonk Blues." He composed it in under an hour, while working at a service station in Erath.
He has performed in more than 30 countries and served as a good-will ambassador for Cajun culture. He has also recorded with non-Cajun artists, including Bryan Ferry.
In 1993, his album Le Trio Cadien was nominated for a Grammy Award in the Best Traditional Folk Album category. In 1994, he was awarded the National Heritage Fellowship Award by the National Endowment for the Arts. In 2009, he was inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame along with Jo-El Sonnier, Doug Kershaw, and Jimmy C. Newman. In 2010, his album "Happy Go Lucky" was nominated for a Grammy Award in the Best Zydeco Or Cajun Music Album category.
DL Menard Albums:
En Bas du Chene Vert (Under a Green Oak Tree) with Dewey Balfa and Marc Savoy (1976)*
The Back Door and Other Cajun Classics (1980)*
Cajun Saturday Night (1985)*
D.L. Menard and the Louisiana Aces (1988)
No Matter Where You At, There You Are (1988)*
Swallow Recordings (1991)
Le Trio Cadien (1992)
Cajun Memories (1995)*
Happy Go Lucky (2010)*
*D.L. Menard Albums available on iTunes.
"Carving Out a Career" by Mike Boehm, Los Angeles Times
Allmusic.com Artist Biography by Craig Harris