D.L. Menard has been dubbed "the Cajun Hank Williams," and one listen to the Louisiana singer, guitarist and songwriter's records makes it clear why: His plaintive, yearning vocal style evokes the Father of Country Music so closely at times that it's haunting.
But Menard, who headlines the second annual Folk Music Festival at Irvine Regional Park on Sunday, downplayed the moniker with an almost audible blush during a telephone interview from Bloomington, Ind., where he played earlier this week.
"It's a great feeling, but I'm nowhere near close to him," he said through the thick, angular Cajun accent common to residents of Louisiana's bayou country. "Naturally, I thank the people if they see me that way, but I know better. I might sing his songs, but no one is gonna become as popular as he was.
"Every time he came out with a song, all the Cajun bands had to play it because he was so popular," said Menard, 55, who still runs a chair and furniture factory in his hometown of Erath, La., when he isn't performing with his Louisiana Aces band: Ray Lavergne on accordion and Ken Smith on fiddle.
Williams, he recalls, "had that special thing. All he'd do is sing, but he sang a song from the heart. One time I saw him, I stayed right close to him, about 10 feet away. All night long, from 9 o'clock to 15 to 1, I seen him perform. I still have his autographed picture. All he did was sing, but oh, could he sing."
The Irvine Park folk festival, sponsored by the Orange County Harbors, Beaches and Parks Department, was put together for the second year by Pat Brayer, a musician and folk music fan who for the last five years has coordinated a wide-ranging monthly folk series in Fontana, where he lives.
"The reason I got into this is that there are all these great performers around but nowhere for them to play," said Brayer, 33. "It's so hard for people who play original, non-commercial music. It's new to a lot of people, so it takes some time to catch on."
Sunday's show will also feature the Weary Hearts bluegrass band, which will kick off the day's music at noon, followed by the Pat McCloud Trio acoustic jazz ensemble at 1 p.m., blues singer Blind Joe Hill at 2 p.m. and Weary Hearts again at 3 p.m. Menard will have the final set beginning at 4 p.m.
Menard was born and reared in ethnically rich bayou country that was settled in the mid-1700s by the displaced French Acadians from Nova Scotia from whom Cajun culture descended. But he was singing country music for years before he ever sang Cajun music in the traditional French, even though his father, like many Cajuns, spoke French exclusively.
"I just always sang the English songs," he said (the first song he learned on guitar was Williams' "Mansion on the Hill"). The band Menard was in "had two other singers that would sing the French songs, so I didn't need to."
He later began writing songs and developed into a prolific composer. One of his songs, "La Porte d'en arriere (The Back Door)" has become a Cajun standard.
He is also an accomplished guitarist but sticks to simple backing to maintain the traditional Cajun sound.
"Once I saw (Menard) playing before a performance at a Washington folk music festival," said Carolyn Russell, a Garden Grove aficionado of Cajun and folk music who plays guitar in the Southern California-based Louisiana Cajun Trio. "He was playing jazz chords and working up the neck. But in the context of the trio, his playing was deliberately simple and traditional. He doesn't decorate (the songs) a whole lot."
Reflecting another Cajun tradition, Menard is very much rooted to family and home, having spent all his life in Erath, a small town (pop. 2,133) about 100 miles west of New Orleans.
"I never did dream of moving anywhere else. Where you were born and raised, that's where you stay if you can. My business is there, all my family is there. Unless I have an opportunity to move on account of a job or different work, that's the only way I'd move."
As one of the most prominent figures in Cajun music, Menard has participated in two State Department-sponsored concert tours outside the country, first to Latin America and then to Asia.
"We played in Japan, Thailand, Burma, Sri Lanka," he said. "Talk about fabulous. They loved that music. And it was the same in Central and South America."
On the tour of Asia, Menard met country fiddler Buck White and country music star Ricky Skaggs, who subsequently played on Menard's 1984 album "Cajun Saturday Night," his first recording with English-language songs. (Skaggs, coincidentally, will be at the Crazy Horse Steak House in Santa Ana on Monday and Tuesday nights.) Nearly half of the songs on that LP are Williams' compositions--most of the others were written by Menard. The sessions featured two former members of Williams' Drifting Cowboys band: fiddle player Jerry Rivers and steel guitarist Don Helms.
Despite the strong Williams connection, as Skaggs wrote in his liner notes for the "Cajun Saturday Night" album: "D.L. doesn't imitate Hank Williams or anybody else, but he has that bottom-of-the-heart sincerity that Hank had, so people tend to remember Hank when D.L. sings."