Fans know the late D.L. Menard, who died early Thursday at age 85 after a long illness, for The Back Door, a 55-year-old, million-selling Cajun two-step song that still fills dance floors on its opening notes.
But for fiddler Terry Huval, who spent 25 years with Menard on stage and in studios, airports and hotel rooms, Menard was an inspiration and friend filled with one-liners that could bring down the house.
Huval recalls a return trip from Virginia, shortly after 9/11. Huval had successfully passed through airport security and looked back to see TSA agents pulling Menard aside.
“Three of the guards are around D.L. and his guitar case,” said Huval, leader of the Jambalaya Cajun Band. “One of them opens it up and picks up a pocket knife.
“D.L. looks at them and says, 'Well, I be dang. I've been looking for that thing for three days.
Huval is among the musicians and fans remembering Menard, who died early Thursday morning following a long illness. He was 85. Funeral services are pending.
Born as Doris Leon Menard in 1932 in Erath, Menard became a beloved figure in folk music across the globe for his original songs, storytelling and comical personality. Nicknamed “The Cajun Hank Williams,” Menard was heavily influenced by the country music legend and often spoke about meeting him in 1951 at the Teche Club in New Iberia.
Inspired by Williams' “Honky Tonk Blues,” Menard wrote The Back Door, a French two-step about sneaking back home after a night of drinking and carousing. The song, composed in an hour while Menard worked at a gas station, became an immediate hit in 1962. It has since become Cajun music's most popular song.
Today, every Cajun band must play The Back Door at least once during every performance. The tune is often the first song that Cajun and zydeco accordion players learn.
Floyd Soileau, who produced the song in his Ville Platte studio, says the original recording and countless covers have sold well over 1 million copies.
“When the song first comes on, I don't care if you're a 2-year-old or an 85-year-old, you're going to recognize that melody right away,” said Soileau. “That song has surpassed the so-called national anthem of Cajun music, Jolie Blonde.
“A lot of people don't know what Jolie Blonde sounds like. But they know what The Back Door sounds like from the first few bars.
“I have a hard time counting all the licenses for all the people who have re-recorded this song over the years. The song was also done overseas through Ace Records in England. It was released on several CDs over there.”
The Back Door eventually brought Menard to more than 40 countries. In 2014, the song landed at No. 72 on Rolling Stone's list of 100 Greatest Country Songs of All Time. Writer Richard Gehr called it “Cajun music's most frequently covered song not titled Jolie Blonde.”
Menard's other hits include Under the Oak Tree, Rebecca Ann, She Didn't Know I Was Married, Bachelor's Life and La Valse de Jolly Rogers.
Huval said despite his international notoriety and two Grammy nominations, Menard remained a people person, which endeared him to fans even more.
“D.L. had a lot of sincerity,” said Huval. “He really cared about people.
“He always talked about how Hank Williams talked to him, 'like I was a real person,' as only D.L. could say. He said that carried into how he handled himself through his musical career.
“When people would go to talk to him, he'd stop and talk to them. He listened to them and engaged with them. He always remembered how that made him feel.”
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