Grammy-winning country and Cajun singer, and accordion and guitar player Jo-El Sonnier was a true keeper of the flame in American roots music, and a rare soul who put the preservation of the music before anything else. From the Top 10 of the country music charts to the annals of regional roots, Jo-El Sonnier was beloved by many. An autistic performer before much of the world even knew what that meant, he persevered through personal struggles to become a star while always putting the music first.
As cliché as it may sound, it’s nonetheless true that Jo-El Sonnier died doing what he loved to do, which was performing and meeting fans. After spending Friday at the Heart of Texas Country Music Museum in Brady, Sonnier played the Llano Country Opry in Llano, Texas Saturday evening, January 13th. After an hour-long set that ended with his signature rendition of the song “Tear-Stained Letter,” he came out to play an encore of “Jambalaya” by Hank Williams.
After the show, Jo-El Sonnier took a moment to rest before he was scheduled to sign autographs. It was then that he suffered cardiac arrest according to Tracy Pitcox of Heart of Texas Records. Sonnier was flown to nearby Austin for medical treatment. With his wife Bobbye by his side, Jo-El Sonnier passed away. He was 77 years old.
Born in the town of Rayne in the Acadia Parish of Louisiana, Jo-El Sonnier’s parents were French-speaking sharecroppers, and Cajun music was everywhere. He was only 3 years old when he started playing the accordion, and by the age of 6 he was performing on the radio. By the time he was a teenager, Sonnier was releasing singles and albums for the Goldband label, but not much came from it. Mercury Records saw Sonnier’s promise as a country artist and signed him, but again his career struggled.
So in 1980, Sonnier signed to Rounder Records as a Cajun artist, and found much critical acclaim in the regional roots sphere, including landing multiple Grammy nominations. Then in the late ’80s after he went out on tour opening for Merle Haggard, he was signed to RCA and his career as a country performer took off.
Jo-El Sonnier found Top 10 success with “No More One More Time” written by Troy Seals, along with “Tear-Stained Letter” by Richard Thompson. The songs were part of his most commercially successful album, 1987’s Come On Joe that included elements of his signature Cajun sound. Sonnier would later move to Capitol Records, but failed to find the same success in country as before, and once again returned to Rounder Records to record Cajun music.
Sonnier also worked as a session musician, and was revered throughout music as one of the real deal Cajun musicians keeping the traditions of the art form alive. He earned a Grammy nomination for his 1997 album Cajun Pride, and another for 2001’s Cajun Blood.
In 2013, Jo-El Sonnier released the album The Legacy, which was his first album of traditional Cajun music in 13 years. It earned Sonnier his fifth Grammy nomination, and eventually, a Grammy win for Best Regional Roots Album.
Jo-El Sonnier also dabbled in acting, and appeared in HBO’s crime drama True Detective.
Sonnier had always been socially shy and had difficulty meeting people, which was one of the things that made it difficult for him while pursuing a music career. All he wanted to focus on was the music. When he was diagnosed with autism, it helped him understand why he was different, and how to better approach life. In 2017, Sonnier released a children’s book with his sister-in-law called The Little Boy Under the Wagon about growing up with autism in the 1950s.
Jo-El Sonnier was an American original, a country legend, a Cajun hero, and one of the last real deal performers in music.