D.L. Menard, a man many have called the “Cajun Hank Williams” because of the country-tinged sound of his voice, will bring his Cajun style to the American Folk Festival.
Dubbed one of the most important songwriters and performers in Cajun music, Doris Leon Menard was born in Erath, La., the only child of Ophy Menard and Helena Primeaux Menard, a Cajun farming family. Menard began playing guitar at 16 and playing dances in Louisiana clubs at 17. One of his strongest influences came from meeting Hank Williams at the Teche Club in 1951, shortly before Williams’ death. Since then, Menard has performed in more than 30 countries as a goodwill ambassador for Cajun culture.
Menard is known for his tinny voice and his strumming style, which uses bass runs on chord changes and incorporates upstrokes along with downstrokes. Menard modeled his strumming style after David Bromberg, whom he met in 1973.
Menard’s song “La Porte En Arrière” (“The Back Door”) is perhaps his best-known song, selling 500,000 copies in 1962 alone. Menard composed the song, which he says is modeled after Williams’ “Honky Tonk Blues,” in under an hour while working at a service station. Despite its humble beginnings, the song is one that Cajun folklorist Barry Jean Ancelet has called the most played and recorded Cajun song. Dozens of Cajun, zydeco, and other Francophone recording artists have covered it, including Kate and Anna McGarrigle.
In 1993, Menard’s album “Le Trio Cadien” was nominated for a Grammy in the Best Traditional Folk Album category. The following year, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded Menard a National Heritage Fellowship Award. In 2009, Menard was inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame, along with Jo-El Sonnier, Doug Kershaw, and Jimmy C. Newman. And in 2010, his album “Happy Go Lucky” was nominated for a Grammy in the Best Zydeco or Cajun Music Album category.
Menard’s influence has affected many, including country star Ricky Skaggs. In 1984, Skaggs wrote of a 42,000-mile around-the-world tour, “I’ll never forget the first time I heard D.L. Menard. It was a foggy night at Point Bonita in the Margin Headlands across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. A package tour was assembling for a 42,000 mile around-the-world tour. The people on the tour were John Jackson, a great bluesman from Virginia; D.L. Menard’s Louisiana Aces Cajun Band; and my favorite family band, The Whites. Someone had decided that all of us should do a song or two together at the end of the show and we were there to practice, eyeing each other, wondering what to try first. Kathy James had organized the tour and she had a good suggestion. ‘D.L., how about a Hank Williams song?’ D.L. sang ‘House of Gold’ and when Buck, Sharon and Cheryl White joined in on the first chorus I got some chill bumps and went hunting my fiddle.”
Menard and his late wife, Louella, have seven children, 17 grandchildren, and one great-grandchild. He still lives in Erath, and when he isn’t making music, he crafts handmade ash-wood chairs at his one-man factory.