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Carving Out a Career

Pop music: D.L. Menard plays his fine brand of Cajun this weekend in Long Beach. But his heart lies in woodworking.

May 28, 1997|MIKE BOEHM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Oct. 19, 1993, is the day D.L. Menard finally got to be a full-time musician. Actually, had to be is more accurate.

Menard lost his day job as proprietor of a one-man chair factory in Erath, La., when one of his self-built woodcutting machines short-circuited, sending sparks into sawdust and burning the place down.

Menard's fallback position was not exactly desperate: He had begun playing Cajun music in 1949, had his first regional hit in southern Louisiana in 1962 and began touring outside his home state in 1973. During the '80s and '90s, Menard rode a surge of interest in traditional Cajun folk music and culture to a prominent spot on the list of rural-Louisiana exports that a global following has learned to savor.

Menard, who plays this weekend with his accordion-and-fiddle backing duo, the Louisiana Aces, at the Southern California Cajun & Zydeco Festival in Long Beach, is a regular on folk festival bills both in the U.S. and overseas. And since the 1980s he has released a series of albums on folk labels such as Arhoolie, Rounder and Swallow Records.

But Cajun music isn't such a big attraction that a stepped-up performing schedule since the fire could make up for the chunk of income he lost, Menard said over the phone last week from his home next door to the factory.

"It was about half my living," Menard said. Besides, he liked turning ash wood from the Louisiana swamps and forests into rockers and kitchen chairs. He says he found it as satisfying as being a singer-songwriter and guitar player.

"You have fun [playing music], but I love working with wood. My chairs [are] very special. It's well-sanded, it's my own creation. I'm the one that's doing it, and I take pride in my work."

Besides, Menard said, the day job complemented his musical life, because he often came up with new melodies for songs by humming to himself while he worked on a chair.

It's not surprising then, that one of Menard's big projects these days is getting the chair factory back on line. He has repaired what machinery could be salvaged and built the rest from scratch. Along the way, he thinks he may have worked himself into a mild heart attack about a year and a half ago--the doctor told Menard that it might have been brought on by all the heavy lifting he was doing trying to get the machines repaired.

With the aid of an electric hoist to do the lifting and a low-salt, low-cholesterol version of the Cajun diet ("We have too much good food; I don't eat rich food like we were all the time before [the heart attack] happened," Menard noted), he is looking forward to getting back his day job as soon as Sept. 1.

"Very difficult years" is how Menard, 65, summed up the period since his factory burned down. His wife, LouElla,also has had problems, Menard said, with diabetes and a heart condition worse than his own.

A big part of the appeal in Cajun music is its ability to express woe and vitality at the same time, and over the phone, Menard's ready, chesty laughter and his animated, richly accented speaking voice did nothing to dispel the notion that a true Cajun's art and life are closely entwined, the joy ever-present along with the sorrow.

Menard's special gift as a singer is a directness, simplicity and intensity of feeling that sometimes has gotten him billed as "the Cajun Hank Williams."

If fact, Menard chatted with Williams for about 10 minutes during a break at a dance hall performance Williams gave in Cajun country in 1951. Menard's recollections of that influential talk stretch out considerably longer than the actual conversation must have. What he took from it, he says, was Williams' advice about respecting the audience, and about how important it is for a singer to be able to bring a song's story to life.

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Menard said he told Williams that he didn't expect to go far with his own music because it was in Cajun-French--a minority language and culture that Louisiana authorities were then trying to discourage. "All music is good if it's your music" was Williams' response, Menard said.

"It's not too often that I go out and play that something I see or something that happens doesn't make me think of what he told me that night," Menard said.

Menard's music has gone far indeed since 1962, when he became a local hero with "The Back Door," a wry song about the consequences of carousing. He wrote it during a shift as a gas station attendant, basing the tune on Williams' "Honky Tonk Blues." Since 1973, when he began touring, he has taken his music to more than 40 countries; Menard says that the Dutch, for reasons he can't fathom, are the most enthusiastic fans of Cajun music he has found outside Louisiana. Maybe he will be able to interest them in some chairs, which before the fire were priced at about $25 for a kitchen seat, and $45 to $65 for a rocker.

"We have a whole bunch of orders, a whole bunch of work, and that's why we're trying so hard to finish the shop by Sept. 1. We have more work than we can handle, and we're not even in business," Menard said.

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