Country Music

Ragin' Cajun Jo-El Sonnier Plays Nutty Jerry's Saturday

Nutty Jerry's in Winnie has been doing a great job bringing in legacy acts like Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Guess Who, Mickey Gilley, Ronnie Dunn, and Blood, Sweat and Tears. But the club really got our blood pumping when they booked the Cajun wildman, Jo-El Sonnier, who plays the club Saturday night.

Sonnier, who had been playing and recording since he was 13 years old, burst upon the national scene in the early 1980s with "No More One More Time" and the rocking cover of Richard Thompson's "Tear Stained Letter." Both singles reached the Top Ten on the country music chart.

Born to French-speaking sharecroppers in Rayne, Louisiana, today Sonnier, who last released an album in 2008, lives in Lake Charles. We spoke to him at his home Thursday afternoon and found him as perky and full of fire as ever.

"I'm so happy to play Jerry's place because he's been bringing in some great stuff at his club," says Sonnier. "Jerry actually saw me many years ago at the Rodair Club, before I ever had a hit record just doing my cajun thing."

Sonnier credited his parents with instilling a sense of purpose in him and encouraging him to pursue music.

"They were so poor," he recalls, "but they had powerful spirits and they instilled in me that I needed to do my music not just for myself but for my people and my culture."

Sonnier noted that during his peak success he wasn't always able to stay entirely true to art and culture once he signed on the dotted line with the major record labels.

"You work with various producers and they are taking their instructions from the labels, so they might be looking to build a sound that you wouldn't necessarily do if you were in control of the thing yourself. That's part of why I went back and forth between country music and my cajun thing."

Today Sonnier notes he doesn't "do it for me, I do it for my culture and the people who love that music."

The conversation switched to the king of zydeco, accordionist Clifton Chenier. "I got to see Clifton way back at a little white club near Kaplan. I knew immediately that he had that magic. I met him and he called me 'Cajun Boy.' Many years later I got a chance to see him, not long before he died. And he said 'hey, Cajun Boy, do you want to play with us?' So I got to sit in a couple of songs. It was just touching that he remembered me."

Sonnier noted that he recently played a long residency at one of the pleasure boats out of New Orleans, but that he is actively seeking gigs.

"I'm booking myself, so it's not that easy. And I've lost track of the clubs and the scene in Houston, but I want to get back to playing over in Texas more. Texas was always good to me."

9:00 p.m., Saturday, January 28, Nutty Jerry's, 18291 Englin Rd, Winnie, TX, 877-643-7508

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
William Michael Smith