D.L. Menard performs his classic hit "The Back Door"
If you've heard of Erath, Louisiana, the tiny Southwest Louisiana coastal hamlet of 2,187 at the 2000 census, it's likely because it was the home of the legendary Cajun singer-songwriter D.L. Menard, who died Thursday at 85.
"D.L. put his home town on the map," says Cajun musician Wilson Savoy of the Pine Leaf Boys. "He was a poetic Cajun French song writer and defined Cajun guitar playing for us all. He was so full of life and wonderfully charismatic and it shone through in his music and made the people fall in love with him—and was as important to Cajun music as Hank Williams was to country music."
Indeed, Menard was widely known as the Cajun Hank Williams, and was inspired by Williams—whom he knew—and performed Williams repertoire.
But Menard was best known for his original song "The Back Door," or in Cajun French, "La Porte En Arriere," sung in that language but released under the English title by Swallow Records after he recorded it in 1962 with the band Badeaux and Louisiana Aces.
"I like its origins," says Michael Doucet, leader of top Cajun band BeauSoleil. "[Swallow's founder] Floyd Soileau didn't like it because it was too slow, and the bandleader didn't like it, either, because it was too country and not Cajun—and D.L. wrote it in 30 minutes like Hank did!"
"The Back Door," notes music journalist/musician Ben Sandmel, "has become one of the most popular, best-selling/best-known/most-covered songs in Cajun music, comparable to [so-called 'Cajun National Anthem' ] 'Jolie Blonde.' Some people might say more popular."
Stylistically, says Sandmel, Menard blended traditional Cajun music with 1950s-'60s honky-tonk country music.
"He was heavily influenced by Hank Williams, whom he met in Louisiana in 1951, and the two had a conversation about songwriting. He always said, 'La Porte En Arriére' was influenced by Williams' 'Honky Tonk Blues.' In the '80s, he cut a country album, all or almost all of it in English, Cajun Saturday Night, for Rounder Records. He was an important ambassador of Cajun music/Cajun culture, performing in many different countries around the world on U.S. state department tours as well as big festivals."
Doris Leon "D. L." Menard was also famous for the chairs that he manufactured in his shop in Erath, which, incidentally, he always pronounced leaving out the "h."
"D.L. was a cultural icon," says Cajun musician/historian Ann Savoy, also the mother of Wilson Savoy and wife of Cajun accordion player/manufacturer Marc Savoy. "He wrote songs that became Louisiana national anthems, like 'La Porte En Arriere.' And he was loving and generous: He made us a set of chairs as a wedding gift as well as four rockers. Then he made me two armless rockers to play music in, and a baby rocker for my children. We traveled with him all over America when Marc was in his band the Louisiana Aces."
Menard, adds Savoy, was also "a rock-solid guitar player, and a comedian--a very unconceited person and very humble. He always made us laugh so much. He had a smile that filled his whole face. He was a complete character: He had a big, energetic personality. He was authentic through and through."
Sandmel likewise extolls Menard for being "such a nice guy, very animated and out-going. The personification of ebullience and exuberance, he would always brighten your day. He was hilariously funny, and kept people laughing--yet he was also very serious and meticulous about his music, and despite ill health the past few years he determinedly kept performing even into this month: At the 2016 Jazz Fest he played just a couple of days after having a toe amputated, then stayed at the stage all day to visit with his musician friends."
No surprise, then, that "everyone loved D.L.," says Doucet. "He was a service type of man and was always first in line to help."
Numerous other Cajun artists artists took to Facebook to commemorate the passing Menard, just weeks after the death of another Cajun music great, singer/accordionist Belton Richard, on June 21.
"We've lost another Cajun music giant! Great songwriter, vocalist & personality, DL Menard!" wrote accordionist/bandleader Steve Riley. "One of the best ever! Thanks DL for all the good times & great tunes! I can't say enough about what he did for Cajun music over the years aside from writing the most famous Cajun song, 'La Porte En Arriere.' True class! I'm honored to have shared the stage w him on several occasions!"
Honoring "my friend, musical legend, and ambassador of Louisiana music and culture," fiddler/bandleader Beau Thomas wrote: "DL travelled the world sharing his gifts and love with people who quickly fell in love with his captivating personality. He was a skilled musical craftsman of lyrics and notes, not just the writer of the famous Cajun two-step 'The Back Door,' which is played around the world and at every Louisiana music festival and dance."
"So many stories that just make me smile and burst out laughing at the same time, wow!" added Thomas. "He was an encouraging force in my life as a musician and always, without exception treated me with the utmost respect. I saw the faces light up when he entered a room, he lifted the atmosphere around him every time. God had a special place for him and now welcomes him home."
Cajun accordionist/bandleader Richard LeBouef succinctly stated, "Doris Leon Menard, aka D.L. Menard, was a pioneer that allowed the entire world to fall in love with Cajun Music. His personality was addicting, you could not erase the smile off of anyone's face that ever met him, even for the first time. He was a natural born charmer and wordsmith. Never did a person, or a song dislike him. His lyrics tell of happiness and heartache, he was an instrument of his craft, a leader, never a follower."