Jo-EL Sonnier Is Inspiring Everyone To Reach For The Stars
Updated: Feb 4
Bob Dylan, Tanya Tucker, Hank Williams Jr. and many other legendary artists have talked about the influence that the Grammy winning Jo-EL Sonnier had on their music. His combination of authenticity and talent have endeared him to his peers and fans for over six decades.
Jo-EL's love for music has been with him since the beginning. He was given an accordion at three years old. At first, it was something his parents thought would just keep him occupied. However, they and the locals would soon realize that Jo-EL could play the instrument. This lead to his radio debut the age of six and first recording session when he was 11.
As an adult, Jo-EL moved to Nashville and in 1974 he signed a contract with Mercury Records, recording country music. But his love for Cajun music was always with him and by the middle 80’s Jo-EL recorded "Cajun Life”, scoring a Grammy nomination. The recognition achieved with the success of "Cajun Life" allowed him the freedom to fuse his deep Cajun roots with country, rock, and other pop influences.
In 1987 Jo-EL signed with RCA Records and the recorded "Come on Joe.” From that album came Top 10 hits like “Tear-Stained Letter” and “No More One More Time.” Throughout his career, Jo-EL has performed on stages in all 50 states and in 32 countries around the world. Along the way, he has made time for lending his accordion talents to more than 100 records for artists like Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash, Alan Jackson and Merle Haggard. As a songwriter, he has had his songs recorded by George Strait, Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris, John Anderson and Jerry Lee Lewis.
Jo-EL is a busy man, but even with all his success he still has remained humble and kind. He has also remained a devoted husband for almost 30 years to his wife Bobbye. They have a relationship that's as inspiring as Sonnier's music We caught up with Jo-EL and talked about his life and career. We also discussed autism. He has a form known as Asperger's Syndrome.
Jo-EL, you’re open with the public about having autism. Has that always been the case? The truth is, I didn’t know that I was autistic until a few years ago. I always knew I was different from most people, but I never knew why. When I was young, I was labeled as uneducable and put in the back of the classroom. I was already different because I only spoke Cajun French until the 3rd grade. I didn’t fit in with the other kids and the only time I felt normal was when I played music. People who knew me, always knew I was different, but they just thought I was quirky. It’s hard not understanding why you are different. When I finally found out that I have Aspergers, it was like a weight was lifted off me. Now I know that there’s nothing wrong with me, I’m just different from most people. It’s nothing to hide and I don’t mind if the whole world knows that I’m Autistic.
You’ve been described by many as a musical genius. Do you think having autism plays a role in that? Absolutely it does! When you are on the Autism spectrum and blessed to be on the high functioning end of the scale, you have extra abilities to focus on a certain field that you have interest in. Because I was different and didn’t fit in when I was young, my world revolved around my accordion and music. As I grew up, that didn’t change. The only time I ever felt like I fit in, was when I was playing music. I’m able to block out just about anything that doesn’t involve music, because my mind is so tuned into my music. I’m not sure that makes me a musical genius, but it means a lot to me that people think I’m good at something as important to me as my music is.
What message about reaching your goals do you share with others with autism? I want people to understand that being autistic doesn’t mean you can’t follow your dreams and achieve your goals. Yes, it will be harder and might take longer but, it can be done. I want people to understand that sometimes what others perceive as a disability, is really what gives you the ability to succeed in life. At least it did for me.
You and your wife Bobbye seem to have a very strong partnership. What role or roles does she play in your personal and professional life? My wife plays a huge role in both my personal and professional life. Living and working with an artist or musician isn’t the easiest job in the world. We are just a different breed of men. And living and working with an autistic artist is harder than I even understand. Bobbye is my true believer, my strength and my reason for everything I do. She travels every mile I make, she fights all my battles and keeps me sane when my world gets crazy. She is the words to my music. Describe your state of mind when you are performing. When I’m performing I’m in my world where I’m safe and in control. I’m surrounded by my band and other musicians who love and understand me so it’s ok to be who I am. And I understand that the people in the audience are there to listen to my music because they like what I do. I have nothing to prove when I’m on stage so I feel safe. It’s also the time when I feel like I’m able to connect with people through my music. Off stage it’s not that easy for me to communicate with people but onstage my songs can have great conversations with each one of them.
When I’m onstage, my music does my talking and it helps me connect with the audience in a way that I never could in a conversation with them. Music is like medicine and I’d like to think that it heals people’s hearts when they hear my songs. I’ve seen the people laugh, cry and smile. Any emotion tells me my music got to them on some level and that tells me I did my job.
Please share with us some words of wisdom that you live by. I’m not sure I have any wise words, but I can say that the only thing that can stop you reaching for the stars, is sitting on your hands. Oh, and that sometimes being different, makes all the difference in a life.