The trend toward diversity in the Nashville recordings of the late 1980s proved a boon to accordionist and singer Jo-El Sonnier. Sonnier, who has been playing the accordion since he was four years old, has tempered his native Cajun music with rock, country, and pop influences without sacrificing the singular French Louisiana style that has become his tradmark. With his fast-paced live shows and a handful of Top Ten country hits, Sonnier is among the best known of the younger generation of American Cajun artists. “Sonnier, one of the most soulful singers you ever will hear, also is one of the more ambitious fusion musicians you ever will encounter,” attested Jack Hurst in the Chicago Tribune. “A legend in Louisiana and among the pop scene’s top musicians for years, he is attempting to cross the fiery, sad music of his native bayous with more mainstream sounds and bring it to the national consciousness.”
The term Cajun derives from the word Acadian, which denotes the 17th century French settlers of Canada. Fleeing political strife, many of these French-speaking pioneers found their way down the Mississippi River into Louisiana, where their culture blended with that of blacks and Creoles. The music that is called Cajun today, which is closely related to the black form Zydeco, combines fiddle, accordion, guitar, and other modern instruments. Much of it is still sung in French, and the music has traditionally lent itself to dance, particularly the waltz; it remains the unique sound of one of America’s richest cultural heritages.
The accordion is at the very heart of Cajun music. Sonnier fell in love with the instrument as a young child and learned to play it before he was six. The son of sharecroppers, he was born near Rayne, Louisiana, in 1946. Sonnier told the Chicago Tribune that he was so poor he had to attend school barefoot, with a rope for a belt, and that he was reared under the wagon around which his parents gathered for breaks in the cotton fields. “I was raised in a French environment,” he said. “When we picked cotton, we spoke French. When we ate, we said our prayers in French. And we didn’t know what money was.”
Music took Sonnier beyond the confines of his poverty-stricken beginnings. “It was like a joyous sound to me,” he told the Philadelphia Inquirer of his introduction to the instrument, at around age three. “My brother was learning to play and he went into the service. After he left I went under the bed and found it. There was a little mouse living there and it had a hole in it. I patched it up and started to play.”
By the age of six, Sonnier had earned his own 15-minute radio show, in nearby Crowley. The artist remembered
Born in 1946 in Rayne, LA; son of sharecroppers; wife’s name, Jami.
Began playing accordion, c. 1950, and performing on radio, c. 1952; performed in nightclubs, c. 1959; recorded for Louisiana record labels, including Goldband; performer in Los Angeles clubs and as opener for other artists in California, 1972-78; songwriter and studio musician, Nashville, 1978-81; released Cajun Life on Rounder Records, 1984; signed with RCA Records, 1987; signed with Capitol-Nashville c. 1991. Contributor to film soundtracks, including They All Laughed, Mask, and Wildfire.
Awards: Grammy Award nomination, 1985, for Cajun Life.
Addresses: Management —Gehl Force Management, 1106 18th Avenue South, Nashville, TN 37212.
in Who’s Who in New Country Music, “I had to get up at four, milk the cows, feed the pigs and pick one row of cotton and then Dad would drive me to the [radio] station.” At 13, Sonnier made his first recordings, already a sought-after sensation in the bayou nightclubs where Cajun music reigned. “As fast as you could make a club, I was opening it,” he told the Chicago Tribune. “That was how popular I was. As a minor, a little kid, I had police officers around the stage everywhere I played.”
Sonnier cut numerous singles and albums for regional record companies and then, when he was in his mid-20s, he moved to California. By virtue of his impressive skills with the accordion, he was never without work, but he did not initially score a major breakthrough. In the mid-1970s, he moved back east, to Nashville, where he spent six years writing songs and serving as a studio musician for other, established artists. The time was apparently not yet ripe for his unique, Cajun-spiced style, so in 1980 he returned to Louisiana—so disillusioned that he almost gave up performing altogether.
But Sonnier had made many friends in Nashville. One of them, country music star Merle Haggard, invited him to open some road shows. Encouraged by this over-ture, Sonnier and his wife, Jami, moved back to California in 1982. This time around he was able to land better gigs, eventually becoming a headliner in Los Angeles with the help of guitarists Albert Lee and David Lindley and former Band member Garth Hudson. In 1984, Rounder Records released Sonnier’s Cajun Life, an album of traditional material that earned the singer a Grammy Award nomination. Sonnier also recorded with such pop luminaries as Elvis Costello and contributed to the soundtracks of the films Mask and Wildfire.
RCA Records chief Joe Galante discovered Sonnier at a Louisiana concert and signed the artist to a recording contract in 1987. And though he was required to employ studio musicians while recording his RCA debut disc, Sonnier was given carte blanche to maintain the Cajun flavor of his work. By then, however, he was delving into rock, country, and pop, influences reflected on his first record for the new label. Come On Joe, released in 1988, contained several songs that would become Top Twenty country hits for the artist, including the crossover tune “Tear-Stained Letter.” In Who’s Who in New Country Music, Andrew Vaughan deemed Come On Joe “the perfect Cajun country album. Not too ethnic for mainstream fans but rootsy enough to interest rock and traditional ears.”
In the early 1990s, Sonnier began recording for Capitol-Nashville. Despite the label hopping, he was as determined as ever to play and sing music that was true to his roots; he told the Chicago Tribune, “I’m not going to drop the accordion and just become somebody’s product.” Indeed, Sonnier’s musicianship is universally acknowledged, and his ability to make a 200-year-old instrument at home with country and rock is a remarkable achievement. As country music re-discovered its roots, Sonnier’s up-tempo Cajun sound found younger listeners of many cultural backgrounds. The artist—his French accent still audible—once explained the appeal of his method in the Philadelphia Inquirer, venturing, “I think people are more aware of honest music whether it starts from a banjo, guitar or an accordion. The world appreciates roots music.”
(Contributor) Elvis Costello, King of America, Columbia, 1986.
Cajun Life, Rounder, 1984, reissued, 1988.
Come On Joe, RCA, 1988.
Have a Little Faith, RCA, 1990.
Tears of Joy, Capitol, 1991.
The Complete Mercury Sessions, Mercury, 1992.
Hello Happiness Again, Liberty, 1992.
Hurricane Audrey, Goldband.
Cajun Valentine, Gotdband.
The Scene in Cajun Music, Goldband.
Sandberg, Larry, and Dick Weissman, The Folk Music Source-book, Knopf, 1976.
Vaughan, Andrew, Who’s Who in New Country Music, St. Martin’s, 1989.
Down Beat, June 1986.
Chicago Tribune, June 2, 1988.
Country America, May 1991; June 1991.
Country Music, July/August 1988; May/June 1990; July/August 1990.
Los Angeles Times, February 17, 1988; March 30, 1990.
People, March 14, 1988; January 29, 1990.
Philadelphia Inquirer, April 18, 1988.
Rolling Stone, July 14, 1988.
Stereo Review, June 1990.
Variety, January 4, 1989.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from Gehl Force Management, 1992.
—Anne Janette Johnson
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