Jo-El Sonnier‘s The Legacy celebrates traditional Cajun culture with buoyant backdrops and French lyrics. The songwriter and master accordionist’s latest collection recently earned a Grammy nomination for best regional roots music album.
“My wife claims it’s my fourth nomination,” the 68-year-old says. “I’ll take it, but it’s no surprise. Man, I work very, very hard. I take my work seriously. I’ve been making records since the ’60s. I’ve recorded 32 albums and performed in 49 states and 27 countries.”
CMT Edge spoke with Sonnier about growing up in Louisiana, his entry into the music industry and his energetic new album.
CMT Edge: How did you break into music?
Sonnier: Johnny Cash gave me my first break when he recorded “Cajun Born,” a song I co-wrote with Kermit Goell [on Cash’s 1978 Gone Girl]. It’s an autobiography of my life: “I was born on the bayou, 30 miles out of Lafayette.” Cash loved Cajun music. He loved the accordion.
You’ve played with some other country greats. Any most memorable gigs?
I’ve played with Merle Haggard, and I did a thing with Dolly Parton and Elvis Costello and played on Alan Jackson‘s “Tall, Tall Trees” and Neil Diamond and the wonderful Robert Cray. Those are some people who I look up to and have given me an opportunity.
Of course, I was known for recording the song called “Tear-Stained Letter” by Richard Thompson in 1988. Then I did “No More One More Time” on RCA Records, which was a Top 10 hit just like “Tear-Stained Letter.”
Describe how the latest album took shape.
I couldn’t do much more with the country field where it’s going now, so I went back to my roots and started concentrating on that. I feel that there needs to be some kind of rebirth of Cajun music. It’s an art that I started [exploring] as a youngster, and I started writing these songs from the heart 14 years ago.
Explain why you’re compelled to get back into Cajun music.
My mission is to bring preservation for my culture and heritage. We have to find a balance where we can all work together. That was my whole feeling making the album — finding a balance between traditional and contemporary. This is Cajun French music traditional style. I recorded my first record when I was 11 and it came out as a record when I was 13. I started into country music in the ’70s, but I was making records in French before that.
When did you learn French?
French was my first language. I didn’t start speaking English until the third grade, buddy. I spoke strictly French the way my mother and father taught me. I didn’t go to school to learn the language. I was born in it. That’s the way Cajun culture was. We had to learn how to go in the fields and dig potatoes and pick cotton and corn and feed the pigs and milk the cows and make sure the chickens are fed. Then I’d get my schoolbooks and get on the bus.
How did you learn accordion?
I learned on my brother’s accordion while he was in the service. My accordion was made by Mr. Sidney Brown here in Lake Charles, Louisiana, who was the only accordion maker. He let me sit in one night at the Cajun club in Crowley, Louisiana. It was an old accordion, and he told my father, “It falls apart every time he plays.” He told my father I needed a new accordion because I had the gift. I was a child prodigy.
Did your father encourage you to go into music?
My father worked the cotton fields real hard and got the money for an accordion from picking cotton. Those days, it was 2 cents a pound. These things I carry onstage. I take pride that my mother and father brought me in this world, and I want to leave something good that has honesty and respect for the culture. If I can leave something from that for the next generation and the next, I feel good each day I’m here on earth.
That’s why you call the new album The Legacy?
Oh, yeah. No doubt about it. This is not just for myself. The legacy of unsung heroes and keeping music alive and bringing it to the generations is important. There is still hope. I hope that something magically manifests out of this thing. This music really was my first love. I want the public to feel the inspiration.