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happy go lucky

D.L. Menard, the ‘Cajun Hank Williams,’ lives on through his music

David Simpson

The famous Cajun country and western singer D.L. Menard left instructions for his July funeral, which was live-streamed all over the world. He wanted the services held at Family Life Church in Lafayette, where Menard’s son Todd serves as pastor. He, of course, also wanted live music at his coming home celebration—with the stipulation that no one would play his biggest hit, the French two-step, “La Porte en Arrière (The Back Door).”

“If I am going to heaven I don’t want to be sneaking in the back door,” Todd Menard quoted his father’s wishes to the many gathered at the funeral. “I want to go right straight through the pearly gates!”

The 85-year-old man known as “the Cajun Hank Williams” reportedly did not hear Cajun music until he was a teen already obsessed with mastering American country and western music on his guitar. Not until the 1950s, when Cajun music was revived as Louisiana’s most popular dance music, did Menard begin singing his songs in French. With all of Louisiana’s various styles of music eventually added subtly to his palette, Menard went on to write what many consider to be perfect waltzes and two-steps, combining Cajun and country music in a way no one else has, or likely will.

“That booming voice and those beautiful turns of phrase in his songs,” says fiddle player Dave Greely of Mamou Playboys who, having always admired Menard’s influence, collaborated with the man both at live shows and on Menard’s Grammy-nominated 2010 album, “Happy Go Lucky.”  “His songs are so carefully crafted. He would give the impression that he was a loose cannon, but his musical work is so precise. I’m thinking of the way he played guitar on that trio album he did with Marc Savoy and Dewey Balfa. Those bass notes perfectly paced and placed. Built like a fine piece of furniture he might have made — crafted to last forever. You can think of crazy personalities and party animals but those guys were precise and exacting … They would make it look easy and careless but it was not.”

The story goes that Menard quit his service station job in the ‘50s to become an independent chair maker, giving him more free time to play music. In 1962, Menard’s Louisiana Aces band had their back door hit, and then disbanded in 1967. A frequent performer at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, Menard was inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame in 2009, and in 2010 “Happy Go Lucky” was nominated for a Grammy. He gave his last public performance in July at an event in Erath celebrating the 55th anniversary of “The Back Door.”

Anyone who talks about Menard cannot help mentioning the outsized personality, and peculiar sense of humor that made his live shows even that much better.

“Later on in his life he had a running joke that he was very arrogant and conceited, though everyone knew it was a joke,” says Greely. “I remember he was playing at this birthday party one time at a camp, and up above him in the cypress trees was a big bald eagle nest, and at one point as he was playing he shouted into the mic, ‘Even the eagles love me!’”

“Kingdom of Zydeco” author and music journalist Michael Tisserand felt lucky to share a friendship with Menard, whom he interviewed several times.

“His one-liners were especially great,” says Tisserand. “When I interviewed him in front of a crowd at this year’s [New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival], he played me like a fish on a line. Just messed with me the whole time. It was great. I felt so lucky to be there.”

Greely says Menard’s ribbing was never mean spirited and always served their friendship.

“He would give you a sincere compliment, after all the joshing and jokes and the shouting he’d tell you something that really meant a lot in encouraging terms,” says Greely. “One time I sang a song, one of his waltzes, and he later told me I was the first person who ever got all his words right … Then after the Grammys he gave me a poster from the event and wrote on there that I couldn’t have done better.”

That was the last time Greely would see Menard face to face.

Despite his looming presence in Cajun music, Menard’s influence is hard to pin down. His guitar playing style — which incorporated strong upstrokes beside the traditional downstroke — certainly still reverberates through many genres of music from the Acadiana region.

“His guitar was strong and steady,” says Tisserand. “It wasn’t like he was playing jazz solos that you could point to and say ‘that’s a D.L. lick.’ His playing was just steady and deep, and I definitely hear that same style of Cajun rhythm guitar in the music of artists like, say, Christine Balfa.”

Though his guitar style carries on, there doesn’t really exist another artist that mixes Cajun and hard core country like Menard.
“Really, there is no one living now who is writing that many solid Cajun songs,” says Greely. “I am not a songwriter like that even though I’ve written a lot of songs. He had success after success, in terms of quality.”

Luckily, unlike so many other obscure Cajun geniuses, Menard was revered while he walked the Earth and is in little danger of being forgotten now that he’s gone home.

“I think he did get the credit he deserved and I am very happy about that!” says Greely. “He didn’t get as much money as he should have made, but he was honored by his country as one of the foremost exporters of this culture’s music.”

 

 

 

 

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