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D.L. Menard, ‘the Cajun Hank Williams,’ Is Dead at 85 – The New York Times

D.L. Menard, ‘the Cajun Hank Williams,’ Is Dead at 85 – The New York Times

D.L. Menard, ‘the Cajun Hank Williams,’ Is Dead at 85

D.L. Menard at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in 2009. His song “The Back Door” became a Cajun standard. Cheryl Gerber for The New York Times
D. L. Menard, the Cajun singer and songwriter who wrote “The Back Door,” a ubiquitous bayou standard, died on Thursday at his granddaughter’s home in Scott, La. He was 85.
His death was confirmed by Terry Huval, the fiddler and leader of the band Jambalaya, which performed with Mr. Menard during the past two decades. Mr. Menard had multiple ailments, including cancer and heart problems.
Mr. Menard was widely known as “the Cajun Hank Williams” for the country twang in his voice and the concise poetry of his songs.
“The Back Door,” sung in French as “La Porte d’en Arriere,” is a Cajun transformation of Williams’s “Honky Tonk Blues,” with Mr. Menard’s lyrics about a man who sneaks back home through the back door after a long night drinking at honky-tonks. Three verses later he gets into a brawl and lands in jail, also through the back door. Recorded in 1962, the song is still performed constantly around the Gulf Coast.
Floyd Soileau, whose Swallow Records released Mr. Menard’s original recording, has estimated that “The Back Door” and many cover versions have sold a million copies. At a tribute to Mr. Menard on July 2 in Erath, La., for the 55th anniversary of the song, the folklorist Barry Ancelet said “La Porte d’en Arriere” should be the “Cajun national anthem,” adding that “almost every young aspiring French musician learns how to play it.”
Mr. Menard garnered listeners worldwide. Two of his albums were nominated for Grammy Awards, and he was a member of the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame. In 1994 the National Endowment for the Arts named him to a National Heritage Fellowship, the highest award in traditional arts.
“He was a consistently excellent songwriter and a consistently excellent musician,” Mr. Ancelet said in a telephone interview. “He was a prolific oral poet who had a remarkable knack for turning an observation, something he observed in our society, into a little nugget of poetry.”
Doris Leon Menard was born on April 14, 1932, in the sugar cane and cotton farm countryside of Erath. He grew up listening to country music on a battery-powered radio. He was 16 when his family moved into the town of Erath and he saw live Cajun music.
“That was the most exciting thing I had ever seen,” he told the journalist Tom Graves. “I couldn’t believe my eyes and ears that they were playing Cajun music and singing in French.”
At the time, Cajun French was forbidden in Louisiana schools, although the Menard family spoke it at home.
Mr. Menard ordered an $11 guitar from the Montgomery Ward catalog, learned to play rhythm chords and soon joined Elias Badeaux and the Louisiana Aces; later he became the band’s leader. He met Hank Williams at a club in New Iberia, La., in 1951; Williams gave him songwriting advice and urged him to prize Cajun culture. (Mr. Menard recorded Williams’s songs with country musicians in Nashville on his 1984 album, “Cajun Saturday Night,” his only one featuring songs in English.)
In 1952, Mr. Menard married Lou Ella Abshire, who died in 2001.
Mr. Menard is survived by a daughter, Rebecca Moreland; and six sons, Doris Menard (called Boze); Kurt; Larry; Dick; Todd and Darrel; 17 grandchildren and 27 great-grandchildren.
Mr. Menard wrote “The Back Door” during one workday at a Phillips 66 gas station. “I had to fix flats and pump gas and serve the people,” he recalled, “so I was only able to get to the song between jobs.”
He paid $175 for a recording session and a pressing of 300 discs of “The Back Door,” which sold quickly enough to repay the investment within days. Dancers were soon demanding that the Louisiana Aces play the song multiple times at each gig. Other songs by Mr. Menard, among them “Un Homme Marie” (“A Married Man”) and “En Bas du Chêne Vert” (“Under a Green Oak Tree”), also became Cajun standards.
He found fans beyond the Cajun circuit after appearing at the 1973 National Folk Festival at Wolf Trap Farm Park in Vienna, Va., which led to bookings nationwide. The State Department also sent him on international tours promoting American culture. Eventually Mr. Menard performed in 38 countries.
He often collaborated with other top Cajun musicians, recording with the fiddler Dewey Balfa and the accordionist Marc Savoy in the 1970s on the Arhoolie label.
In the 1980s and 1990s he made albums for Rounder Records. His most recent album, “Happy Go Lucky,” was released in 2010 on Swallow and was nominated for a Grammy Award. Mr. Menard continued to perform, even from a wheelchair, until his last public show on July 2 in Erath.
Alongside his musical career, Mr. Menard built handmade rockers, chairs and stools in his D. L. Menard Chair Factory. He often appeared at folk festivals as both a performer and a craftsman. Mr. Menard worked the ash wood; Lou Ella wove the seats.
Correction: July 31, 2017
Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this obituary misstated the gender of one of Mr. Menard’s children. Doris Menard is a son, not a daughter.


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