THE FIRST song Cajun songwriting great D.L. Menard ever learned to play was Hank Williams' "Mansion on the Hill." Menard went on to earn the title of The Cajun Hank Williams and, on his new album, "Cajun Saturday Night," Menard sings six Williams songs along with one by Ernest Tubb and five of his own.

The result is not only a showcase for Menard's singing and songwriting talents, but also a tribute to the great emotional character and dignity country music once conveyed.

Menard is not a Williams imitator; his mush- mouthed Cajun delivery holds a rugged charm of its own. Like Williams, however, his supple vocals carry tremendous emotional depth and sincerity, and he's especially at home on despairing ballads such as Williams' "Why Should We Try Anymore?" Menard doesn't totally forsake his folk heritage. Two lively two-steps, "Cajun Saturday Night" and "The Bachelor's Life" (sung in French), prove Menard's natural environment is the Cajun dance hall.

The drama of Menard's balladeering is perfectly highlighted by the classic instrumental stylings provided by steel guitarist Don Helms and fiddler Jerry Rivers -- both members of Williams' Drifting Cowboys -- as well as Ricky Skaggs, Jerry Douglas and others. Like the Drifting Cowboys, the band takes an economical approach, with understated lines from the fiddle, steel guitar and dobro reinforcing the lyrics' sentiment. It is this dramatic restraint, along with Menard's mournful singing, that makes "Cajun Saturday Night" such a moving evocation, in form and spirit, of the hillbilly musical era of Hank Williams.

D.L. MENARD -- "Cajun Saturday Night" (Rounder O198); appearing Saturday night at the Birchmere.