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Back To The Future

Over his long, successful career, singer/accordionist extraordinaire Jo-El Sonnier -- tagged "the King of Cajun" -- has savored pushing the musical envelope. Now he's doing it again with Jo-El Sonnier & Friends: The L.A. Sessions, his new album … which is actually 18 years old!

Jo-El's new CD is a compilation of recordings he did in 1984 to land his record deal with Nashville's RCA label. Once Jo-El was signed, some of those "demo" recordings made it onto his first RCA album, Come On Joe, but others stayed in the vault.

"The songs I demo-ed to land my RCA deal were magical," declares Jo-El. "They showcased great musicians from The Everly Brothers, Elvis Presley's band, The Burrito Brothers, The Band and others. It was a moment in history I had to share with music lovers everywhere."

The elite group of players at those sessions recorded in Los Angeles included James Burton, Steve Cropper, Garth Hudson, Albert Lee and Johnny Gimble. The songs also featured powerhouse vocals by Jennifer Warnes and Bonnie Bramlett.

"So I've actually had the album, which became Jo-El Sonnier & Friends: The L.A. Sessions, in the can for almost two decades!" says Jo-El.

"Since I don't want us to ever forget where our musical roots are," he adds. "I decided this was a bit of history that needed to be heard. It's obvious to me people want to stay in touch with those roots. That's why bluegrass, powered by the O Brother, Where Art Thou? phenomenon, is really big now. Bluegrass music is real music, just like my Cajun music is real."

Jo-El's beloved Cajun music was laced through the country hits he had in the '70s and '80s, including two Top 10s, "No More One More Time" and "Tear-Stained Letter."

Jo-El's 1984 Cajun Life CD was nominated for a Grammy, as was his 1997 Cajun Pride album. And his 1999 Cajun Blood CD, his first release on his own label, Musique de' Jo-El, also scored a Grammy nomination.

Jo-El's talents didn't go unrecognized by other artists, either.

"Johnny Cash was the first artist to step forward and say he wanted me to play accordion on his records," remembers Jo-El. "That was in the mid-'70s and I always thank him for letting this Cajun-born boy introduce my accordion to country music."

Over the years, Jo-El's accordion mastery has also shown up on the records of Alan Jackson, Dolly Parton, Hank Williams Jr., Emmylou Harris, Indigo Girls, Elvis Costello, Neil Diamond and others.

"I took the accordion beyond Cajun music," he says proudly. "My whole mission was to make the people feel what the music was about, no matter whether I was playing country, rhythm and blues or rock 'n' roll."

And along the way, this Louisiana man has written songs for George Strait, Johnny Cash, John Anderson, Mel McDaniel and Jerry Lee Lewis.

"I've been playing my music for 40 years," reveals Jo-El, who continues to perform some 100 concerts a year.

"And I've loved every note."

--Larry Holden