Last Modified: Saturday, December 01, 2012 11:06 PM
Those who know and have played music with Jo-El Sonnier say his passion for traditional Cajun music remains strong, and that his influence spans generations.
“It’s just a way of life, and I think Jo-El embodies that,” said Michael Doucet, fiddle player for the Cajun band BeauSoleil. “He was totally a hero to me when I was growing up.”
Sonnier, a Rayne native, has recorded 30 albums, four of which were Grammy-nominated. His skills on the French accordion were featured on albums by Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Dolly Parton, Alan Jackson, Mark Knopfler and Charlie Daniels. Sonnier is a member of the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame and the Gulf Coast Music Hall of Fame.
“He definitely paved the way for anybody (who) carries an accordion,” said Kevin Hare, who played bass guitar in Sonnier’s band for nearly 20 years. He said Sonnier’s musical influence stretches beyond the traditional Cajun sound and into other genres like country and bluegrass.
“His shows were so versatile,” Hare said. “It’s not just a Cajun or a rock gig. You have to cover so many spectrums.”
Sonnier has lived in Moss Bluff since 2003. He said he moved to Southwest Louisiana from Nashville, Tenn., so he could be closer to his family and other Cajun musicians.
“I feel like this is the place I’ve always wanted to be,” Sonnier said. “Louisiana life is the only life for me.”
Sonnier was born on Oct. 2, 1946. His parents — who first exposed him to traditional Cajun music — worked as sharecroppers and spoke French, he said.
Sonnier said his parents would take him as a toddler to local dance clubs that played French Cajun music. He said the style was “as big as rock ’n’ roll” to the people who lived in that area.
Around the same time, Sonnier said he held his first accordion. He said his father gave him the instrument to keep him quiet when they had company over.
“I was always picking up things; my parents were trying to keep me from breaking things,” he joked.
Sonnier said he used his brother’s French accordion to learn how to play the instrument. At 6 years old, he started playing songs at a radio station in Crowley before his father would take him to school.
Sonnier said he was 11 when his parents bought an accordion built by Sidney Brown, a Lake Charles-based accordion maker. He said he developed his playing style while using his mother’s broken record player.
“I would spin the record with my finger and play along with it until the tempo (slowed) down,” he said.
Sonnier was barely a teenager when he began recording his first songs. “I knew I had to make it a good thing because (my parents) believed in me,” he said.
Doucet said the young Sonnier “was adamant about continuing Acadian, Cajun and French roots,” even when rock ’n’ roll was becoming popular.
“He seemed to be from another place,” Doucet said. “He came up in the 1950s and 1960s when a small pride was surfacing in (Cajun) music. It was not just the old people’s music.”
Sonnier spent his teenage years recording four albums on independent labels and establishing himself within Louisiana as a well-known Cajun musician. In the early 1970s, Sonnier moved to California and found work as a session player, where he connected with well-known musicians.
In 1974, he moved to Nashville and signed a recording contract with Mercury Records. Sonnier turned his focus to country music, but he found little commercial success over the four years he was there. He moved back to California and performed as a solo artist.
Around this time, Sonnier said he began collaborating with well-known artists. The song “Cajun Born” — written by Sonnier and Kermit Goell — was featured on Johnny Cash’s 1978 album “Gone Girl.” Sonnier played accordion on the song.
Doucet said he first worked with Sonnier on the song “Cajun Born” and continued playing with him over several decades.
“We all sat in a circle and played,” he said. “It was such a natural and great way to play.”
Sonnier’s popularity began to rise after his 1980 album, “Cajun Life,” was nominated for a Grammy. He signed with RCA Records several years later.
His 1987 album, “Come On Joe,” was his most successful and received massive critical acclaim. The songs “No More One More Time” and “Tear-Stained Letter” were top 10 hits in the U.S.
Sonnier also had a role in the 1985 movie “Mask,” starring Cher, Sam Elliott and Eric Stoltz.
During this time, Sonnier said he was performing countless shows and toured with country artists like Clint Black and Ronnie Milsap. He said he worked with artists outside the Cajun genre to prove the music “could go through other barriers.”
In 1990, Sonnier released his next album on the RCA label — “Have a Little Faith.” One single nearly cracked the top 20 on the U.S. charts, but the album was not as successful as “Come On Joe.”
Though his success waned in the 1990s, Sonnier’s workload didn’t let up. He moved to Nashville and became a regular session player.
Hare, a Vinton native, said he met Sonnier in the mid-1990s after growing up listening to his music.
“I remember Garth Brooks made his debut on ‘The Tonight Show’ and was wearing a Jo-El Sonnier T-shirt,” he said. “That was a big deal for me as a kid.”
Hare said Sonnier began teaching him the different techniques for playing traditional Cajun music.
“He was known in Nashville for grooming players,” he said. “He would work with me for 12-14 hours a day. He is the most patient man I’ve ever known, no matter how much you messed up.”
Hare later joined Sonnier’s band as his bass player. The group toured throughout the U.S. and played shows in 16 countries. While on tour, Hare said Sonnier “instilled a lot of pride in what we were doing.”
“He would always tell us before we played that we were representing our state and carrying the flag,” he said. “It was more than getting paid and playing shows.
Hare said he learned “just how interested the world really is” in Cajun music.
“I thought it was just a regional thing,” he said. “But to go to Europe and sing a song in Cajun French was amazing.”
Mike Soileau, host of Cajun Radio on the Lake Charles radio stations 1470 AM and 1290 AM, said Sonnier is a “pioneer of Cajun music.”
“If it weren’t for Jo-El, there would be no Wayne Toups or Keith Frank,” he said. “He’s one of the forefathers of Cajun music, and he cares about the heritage of the music.”
Hare said some of Sonnier’s songs later became hits for other artists like Patty Loveless and George Strait, who recorded Sonnier’s “Blue Is Not a Word.”
Doucet said Sonnier’s longevity and successful career is difficult to surpass for aspiring Cajun musicians.
“He set a bar that’s pretty high up for people to match,” he said. “He’s had success singing in English and French.”
Doucet said the French-speaking culture is continuing to decline in America, and that Sonnier’s music will hopefully be embraced by younger musicians.
Meanwhile, Sonnier continues to work on new projects. He said he is working on a traditional Cajun French album and a new “Americajun” project. He is recording the French album with Hare at Black Bayou Studio in Vinton.
Whether it’s on the stage or in the studio, Sonnier said he remains dedicated to preserving the tradition of Cajun music.
“I always say Cajun music comes from the heart,” he said. “As long as there’s breath in me, I will do what I can to keep the preservation alive.”