The Song Remains: Jo-El Sonnier (1946-2024)

Cajun music legend who linked the fais do-dos of the ‘40s and ‘50s and contemporary Cajun music.

Jo-El Sonnier suffered a fatal heart attack after performing in Llano, Texas, on 13th January 2024. In some ways, this was a fitting end to a performing career that had started in his childhood and had seen him achieve success in both the Cajun and country music genres. He had five Grammy nominations, finally winning one in 2015 for the Best Regional Roots Music Album. As a child performer, he experienced the move of Cajun music from house dances to bigger ballrooms, called fais do-dos, in the ‘40s and ‘50s, and therefore he was able to bring this knowledge to younger audiences and artists during his career and therefore playing an integral part in maintaining and developing the Cajun music tradition.

Born Joel Sonnier in Rayne, Louisiana, to French-speaking sharecropper parents on October 2nd, 1946, he started playing accordion when he was three, made his first radio appearance when he was six, and his first recording when he was eleven. He wrote the Cajun classic ‘Tes Yeaux Bleus’ when he was twelve, and he released various independent recordings as a teenager before landing a recording contract with Nashville-based Mercury Records in 1970. This first foray into country music wasn’t particularly successful, but he gained critical recognition in the late ‘70s for the Cajun records he recorded for Rounder Records. The ’80s saw Jo-El Sonnier’s return to country music with a contract with RCA Records, and this time he had quite a lot of commercial success with songs like ‘No More One More Time’ and a cover of Richard Thompson’s ‘Tear Stained Letter’. Jo-El Sonnier returned to Rounder Records and Cajun music in the late ‘90s becoming a guiding light and frequent collaborator with other Cajun musicians like Michael Doucet of BeauSoleil. His 2013 album, ‘The Legacy’ was a traditional Cajun album recorded in Cajun French, and it won the Grammy for Best Regional Roots Music Album. Hurricane Laura destroyed Jo-El Sonnier’s Westlake, Louisiana, home in 2020, and this experience provided the inspiration for his ‘Survivants’ album recorded at Dockside Studios with the cream of cajun musicians and featuring songs written by Sonnier.

Jo-El Sonnier released thirty-five albums over a career lasting more than sixty years. His songs have been covered by the likes of Emmylou Harris, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash amongst many others. His contribution to Cajun music was recognised when he was inducted into the Cajun French Music Association Hall of Fame in 2008 and The Louisiana Music Hall of Fame in 2009. He played every part of the United States and visited thirty-two countries ensuring his Cajun legacy was brought to the world. The Festivals Acadiens et Creoles website quotes Jo-El Sonnier as saying “I perform every show as if it was my last, and it doesn’t matter to me if there are only 25 people or 25,000 people in the audience, I still perform the same way”, which is a fitting epitaph an icon of Cajun and Louisiana music.

About Martin Johnson 387 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.
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