“Musical genius” Jo-El Sonnier passes after Llano Country Opry performance

Published 12:16 am Friday, January 19, 2024

Grammy-winning singer-songwriter and accordionist Joe-El Sonnier performed for the final time Saturday at the Llano Country Opry in Llano.

He died later that evening. He was 77 and a resident of Westlake, Louisiana.

He is also a 2018 inductee into the Museum of the Gulf Coast Music Hall of Fame.

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Family friend David O’Neal described him as a musical genius who has been performing since childhood, a big-hearted giver and a worldwide icon who stayed humble and always took time to visit with fans.

This summer he performed in Switzerland.

“He loved his fans,” O’Neal said. “His wife, Bobbye, music and his fans were his life.” O’Neal is employed at Care Help, where the Sonniers have been generous with resources, according to social media posts by Care Help Executive Director Jody Farnum.

They worked tirelessly after Hurricane Laura. Sonnier provided entertainment at the annual Care Help event that allows children to Christmas shop for their parents, have gifts wrapped and enjoy a meal.

Farnum shared this story about Sonnier on social media after she learned of his death.

In the early days of the Care Help distribution site after Hurricane Laura, she was feeling the stress of having to make on-the-spot decisions.

“We were winging it within 48 hours after Laura slammed through our parish, with only five employees,” she wrote. “We were already seeing hundreds of people come through and had fed 3,000 hot meals the first day.”

Farnum, her husband and the Sonniers were living at Care Help trying to take care of others when they also needed help. The weight of “measuring up” was heavy. She walked in the kitchen where Jo-el was having breakfast.

He didn’t look up, and started speaking as if he expected her.

“You know Jody, in the music business, the sixth octave is the highest music range you can reach. Hitting it is extremely rare,” he told her. “People may want me to hit the sixth octave but I can’t. The fifth is what God gifted me with … and He gifted you. You have to embrace what He gave you.”

Farnum wrote that Sonnier looked her straight in the eyes and said, “You have to be you. Embrace it, the God-given talent He gave you, the fifth octave.”

She walked out of the kitchen and embraced what God gave her, and thanked God for speaking to her through Sonnier. She ended the post, “Thank you Jo-el for making a difference in my life and in our community.”

Local honor

It was all about Jo-El Sonnier May 24, 2018, at the Museum of the Gulf Coast.

The popular Cajun musician and Grammy award winner was in town with two children’s books and cookbook, Ayeee Cajun Power Sauce, as fans lined up to get autographs before a quick concert.

Esther Benoit, former owner of Esthers Seafood under the Rainbow Bridge, brought along granddaughter Courtney Hollier and Benoit’s first great grandbaby Peyton.

She picked up a handful of Sonnier’s books for gifts before standing in life to have him autograph them.

Kathleen Williams grabbed a bottle of hot sauce and one of Sonnier’s music CDs.

“My daughter-in-law might get it,” longtime fan Williams said of the book. “And she might not.”

Sonnier’s life is the subject of two books, “The Little Boy Under the Wagon,” which talks about his challenging childhood. Born to French-speaking cotton sharecroppers, his parents kept him under a wagon for protection while they worked the fields.

He struggled socially at school because, when he started, he spoke only French. His sister-in-law, Dr. Shirley Strange-Allen, recognized some of his behaviors as consistent with Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism.

The cookbook, “There’s Somethin’ in the Swamp…. and It’s for Dinner!,” features some of Sonnier’s favorite recipes.

Sonnier was accompanied by museum inductee and fiddler David Varnado.

— Rita Lebleu and Mary Meaux contributed to this report.