Forerunner: Sonnier’s influence spans generations

By By John Guidroz / American Press

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.”

Background

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.”

Early career

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.”

Success

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.”

In demand

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.”

Legacy

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.”