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Jo-El Sonnier, Who Sparked a Revival of Cajun Music, Dies at 77

“We were sharecroppers, got up real early and would play for about 15 or 20 minutes, then walk across the street and I’d have a doughnut and he would have his coffee,” Mr. Sonnier recalled in the 88 Miles West interview. “We shared something very special, and then he’d drive me to school.”

A young Mr. Sonnier placed third in an accordion contest in 1959. With him, from left, were Nathan Abshire, who won; Whitney Pousson, who came in second; and the musician and M.C. known as Happy Fats.Credit…via Sonnier Family

Mr. Sonnier spent much of the next two decades making a name for himself on the Southern Louisiana club circuit (at some point that name changed from Joel to Jo-El) before signing with the Nashville division of Mercury Records in 1975. The recordings he made for Mercury barely broke into Billboard’s country singles chart, but they attracted the attention of Merle Haggard, who hired him to play in his touring band.

In 1980, Mr. Sonnier returned to his Cajun roots, as he would from time to time throughout his career, releasing a critically acclaimed album for Rounder Records and later achieving mainstream success in country circles with “Come On Joe.”

He also appeared in movies directed by Peter Bogdanovich, including “Mask” (1985), in which he played a biker named Sunshine, and “The Thing Called Love” (1993), a movie about country music, in which he played himself.

He is survived by his wife of more than 30 years, Bobbye (Weaver) Sonnier, and a son, Clayton.

Since childhood, Mr. Sonnier was attuned to the potential for cross-pollination among Cajun and other forms of American roots music.

“I loved the quality of the sound,” he said in the 2009 interview, referring to the Louisiana music he had grown up with. “It took me to a special place when I was a boy. Plus, I loved the Cajun flavor of the music. I saw that it brought joy and happiness to other people when I played, so I wanted to take it to a higher place by bringing in some Cajun, country, blues, rock and jazz.”


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