When I first moved back to Nashville after living in Los Angeles for nearly two decades, my good friend A. J. Masters was kind enough to start introducing me around to many of his friends on Music Row. That was great, as a lot of the people who were here back in the 70s were either retired, moved, or had gotten plum out of the music business. A. J. and I were writing one day at Mark Springer's publishing office in the RCA building. Near the end of our writing session, a fellow came in to give A. J. a tape. It was noneother than Jo-El Sonnier. I knew who Jo-El was, having seen him on television. When I was playing the west coast circuit, "Tear Stained Letter" and "If Your Heart Should Ever Roll This Way Again" were two of the most popular songs you could play in the dance halls. For anyone that played the clubs during the 80s and 90s, they were a required part of the repetoire.
The Real Deal
Jo-El has played with many of today's biggest stars, such as Alan Jackson, Neil Diamond, Johnny Cash, Elvis Costello, the Indigo Girls, Mark Knopfler, Emmylou Harris, and Hank Williams Jr. In an age when technology can overcome deficiancies such as uneven vocal pitch, bad timing and a plethora of musical faux pas, Jo-El is the real deal. He needs no gimmicks to make him sound good. His musical roots, as well as his own life experiences comes through on each and every song he sings.
From push button to cajun.
In the years prior to meeting Jo-El, I had come to appreciate the musical parameters of the accordion. Growing up in central Arkansas, I never expected to play in a band that featured accordion music, but when I began playing with the Texas Tornados, I was able to witness Flaco Jimenez mastery of the push button Mexican accordion and Augie Meyers' piano accordion. Both the Cojunto/Mexican accordion and the Cajun accordion have their roots in Germany. When German imigrants came over to the new world, they brought their accordions with them. Although there are differences to where the beat commits to the pocket of a tune, there are definite similarites. Both genres can portray a wide range of musical emotions.
Jo-El plays a Cajun accordion. I got to spend time with Jo-El at the studio of craftsman/accordion maker Junior Martin. We spent the better part of a fascinating day watching Junior tweak, repair, and make accordions. Jo-El is passionate about his "sound". His musical presence is pure power. Jo-El has the best sheer sound I've ever heard on an accordion, for my tastes anyway. It's full rich sound drives the band rather than just contributing elements of color here and there. It's the star instrument. It creates a wall of sound that can only be compared to that of a power guitar playing through a Marshall stack. It rocks. Jo-El's music is infectious. It's hard not to have a good time at his shows.
Jo-El is not only one of the finest Cajun singers of all time, but he's also one of the greatest pure country singers I've ever heard. His influences range from Amédé Ardoin, the father of Cajun music, to Hank Williams SR. His singing is never forced or contrived. It's completely natural. It's completely Jo-El.
A brilliant songwriter.
My favorite Jo-El song is not really what you would call Cajun. It's traditional country all the way. The name of the song is "One Of Those Old Things We All Go Through". When he sings the line, "My financial problems are still with me", you can believe him. It's so heart felt and deep down soulful that you just know he lived it. When I began playing with Jo-El, some of the guys didn't want to play the die hard country stuff. I don't know if it was because they were younger, but I really sold them on it. Now they "get the joke". Jo-El is country and cajun too.
Somebody call Ken Burns
I told Jo-El that I thought Ken Burns should do a video documentary on his life. I gaurontee it would be great. I had the pleasure of traveling with Jo-El and his wife Bobbye on many road trips. It was always a lot of fun, and we met a lot of great Cajun friends along the way. Good food, good friends, great music. That's what you're in for when you go to see Jo-El. Man, that cat is a national treasure. He loves his state and music so much, he should be Governor of Louisiana.
The Grand Ole' Opry!
I played the Opry with Jo-El the day before he moved from Nashville back to Louisiana. It was a great show and the crowd loved him. It was bitter-sweet though, as I knew Nashville would be losing one of it's finest artists. About a month later I went down to play with Jo at the Coushatta Grand Casino in Kinder, Louisiana. It was magical. Jo-El was right at home. I think Louisiana's gain was Nashville's loss. Oh well, I guess they can always fly him to the Opry. Jo-El is the link between Cajun and Country music. He should be an Opry regular.
Still more stuff...
- Being taken seriously.
- How my father became a star.
- So, you wanna' be a country star?
- Who do you like better, Garth or Gershwin?
- You'll eat what you're served...
- The Media: Out with the old, in with the new.
- It's great exposure.
Thoughts on some of the people I've played with or known.
- Charlie Rich
- Freddy Fender
- Smokey Robinson
- Jo-El Sonnier
- Randy Meisner
- Billy Swan
- Flaco Jimenez
- Augie Meyers
- Doug Sahm
- Jerry Lee Lewis
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