Jo-El Sonnier: A life Of Memorable Music, Cajun Pride

With 55 years in music, Jo-El Sonnier is overflowing with memories. He can tell stories of his friendship with Johnny Cash, a European tour with Reba McEntire and playing on stage at the Ryman Auditorium, home of the Grand Ole Opry.

But Sonnier, 68, also has fond memories of his Cajun roots in south Louisiana. Born to poor, French-speaking sharecroppers in Rayne, he played his accordion in the fields to horses and cows and was encouraged when they didn’t leave.

Photo: Colin Young-Wolff/Invision for Louisiana State Office of Tourism
Ninth annual Only in Louisiana GRAMMY brunch.

He rode his bicycle house to house, trying to convince neighbors to get phonographs so they could buy his records. A joke he shared with the late zydeco accordionist Rockin’ Sidney, a buddy at the Goldband recording studio, led to a turning point in his life.

“He always said, ‘Jo-El, if you make it big before I do, I want to be your chauffeur. You hear me?’“ Sonnier said.

Then Rockin’ Sidney made it big with “Don’t Mess with My Toot Toot.”

“That motivated me and I said ‘I’m going to go for it one more time,’“ Sonnier recalled.

He got a contract with RCA and two Top 10 country hits, “Tear Stained Letter” and “No More One More Time.”

“I started putting accordions in other people’s music,” he said. “Things really changed for me.”

Sonnier’s CD The Legacy won a Grammy on Feb. 8 for Best Regional Roots. It was his fifth nomination and first win. The category’s other nominees were Cajun bands Bonsoir Catin and the Magnolia Sisters, Hawaiian musician Kamaka Kukona and Native American artist Joe Tohonnie Jr.

The Legacy is a reflection of Sonnier’s long career in music. He recorded his first single, “Tee Yeaux Bleu” (Little Blue Eyes) at age 11. Sonnier became a local club favorite and by 1974, he signed with Mercury Records.

Four unsuccessful years in Nashville moved Sonnier to California. By the mid-’80s, he was gaining attention again with the Grammy-nominated album, Cajun Life.

The success convinced him to create a musical gumbo of Cajun, country, rock and pop, which led to the biggest success of his career. In 1988, “Tear Stained Letter” and “No More One More Time” became top 10 country hits and made Sonnier a Nashville and media celebrity.

In the years that followed, Hank Williams Jr., Alan Jackson, Robert Cray, Neil Diamond and Dolly Parton were among the stars featuring Sonnier’s accordion on their records. His songs have been recorded by Johnny Cash, George Strait, Emmylou Harris, John Anderson and Jerry Lee Lewis. He’s also had acting credits in “Mask,” ‘‘A Thing Called Love”, “Zandalee,” ‘‘They All Laughed” and, last year, the TV series “True Detective.”

In 2006, he enjoyed his fourth Grammy nominated for a traditional French recording, “Cajun Mardi Gras.”

Sonnier said despite his country music success, he never abandoned his Cajun roots.

“I never left Louisiana,” said Sonnier. “I always took my heart and the music with me. Everywhere I went, I made sure they knew where I came from. We have to embrace what we have and take care of it.

“A lot of my heroes are gone. I just wanted something I could be proud of and make sure they’re not forgotten. They’re the ones who paved the way for what we’re doing. The young generation needs to know that.”

Sonnier aims to encourage young musicians through his vast library of original recordings. His next dream is to showcase his music and those following in his footsteps.

“If I had the funding, I’d like to produce some shows, but artists in a combination of things. We always go through a booking agency. But when you have control, you can elect the kind of shows you want to put to the public. There’s a big difference.

“I’ve been to 49 states and 32 countries, so I’ve seen a lot. There’s so many different avenues that could be taken to show off the cultures. I think that’s the next big thing – roots music. I’m proud that I’m right here in the depth of it in south Louisiana. Thank you, Jesus.”