Fantastic '80s Country Albums from the Lost and Found (Part 1): Come on Joe

by Jeff Fiedler

Albums from the Lost & Found is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com in which contributor Jeff Fiedler reviews and helps us rediscover great pop albums that seem to have been lost to time.

Sure, you can argue whether RCA invested too much of its energies from the ‘70s and beyond in milking as much money as they could from repackaging the same material from the Elvis Presley catalog in as many different ways as they could think up [the number of Elvis compilations that have been released over the years grossly outnumber the actual quantity of proper studio albums The King issued during his lifetime] when they could have been focusing more time on signing and developing new talent. But that wouldn’t exactly be completely fair; while it is true that two of the label’s biggest success stories of the ‘80s were holdovers from their ‘60s and ‘70s rosters (Daryl Hall and John Oates and Starship, the latter the most commercially successful version yet of what was formerly Jefferson Airplane), they did sign a fair number of successful pop acts in the Eighties in the form of Rick Springfield, Mr. Mister, Eurythmics, Bruce Hornsby and the Range, and Rick Astley. And the label’s Nashville division continued to be a rousing success; building on their success in the ‘60s and ‘70s signing such future country giants as Waylon Jennings, Dolly Parton, and Ronnie Milsap, RCA got off to an amazing start to the new decade by signing a promising quartet by the name of Alabama who would eventually become the biggest country band of all-time, and the label would continue to make huge inroads on the country market, signing both Kenny Rogers and Juice Newton away from the EMI family and Eddie Rabbitt away from the Warner Brothers circle, releasing Vince Gill’s first three albums, and signing three more soon-to-be-massive newcomers in The Judds [“Why Not Me,” “Mama He’s Crazy,” “Grandpa (Tell Me ‘Bout the Good Old Days)”], Clint Black (“A Better Man,” “Killin’ Time”) and Restless Heart [“I’ll Still Be Loving You,” “When She Cries,” “Why Does It Have to Be (Wrong or Right),” “The Bluest Eyes in Texas.”]

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With all the superstars RCA’s Nashville division signed in the ‘80s, it was inevitable that some great acts would get overlooked, and we turn our attention now to three of their most underappreciated signings, beginning with Jo-El Sonnier. Sonnier was no ordinary country singer; the Louisiana-born vocalist wasn’t a pure country star, and his style owed as much to Cajun music as it did to typical Nashville fare. He also not only didn’t wield an acoustic guitar, as is common of so many of Nashville’s male vocalists – he wielded an accordion. While this might not sound like the most commercial of ideas on paper, it gave Sonnier a completely unique identity, one which he briefly rose to country stardom in the late ‘80s with the release of his full-length debut, 1987’s Come on Joe.

The accordion wasn’t the only thing separating Sonnier from his Nashville peers; he also had little hesitation in covering songs from the pop world, and over half of the songs on Come on Joe technically stem from outside of Nashville. “Rainin’ in My Heart” was originally done by Slim Harpo, while “Louisiana 1927” hails from Randy Newman’s Good Old Boys, “So Long Baby Goodbye” from the Blasters’ self-titled debut, and “Paid the Price” from new-wave star Moon Martin’s Mystery Ticket. The appealing title cut was penned by Tony Romeo, best known for writing the Partridge Family’s chart-topping “I Think I Love You” and Lou Christie’s “I’m Gonna Make You Mine.”

However, the greatest of all the covers here – and the biggest hit single from the album as well – is easily the fiery performance of folk-rock legend Richard Thompson’s zydeco-flavored “Tear-Stained Letter,” which originally appeared on the former Fairport Convention rocker’s solo disc Hand of Kindness. Sonnier doesn’t deviate from Thompson’s arrangement, preserving the accordion-guitar duels, but Sonnier’s version boasts a fuller brass sound and a more intense drive that makes it a little less swing and a little more rock; even music fans who ordinarily don't like country music should consequently find a lot about this single to love. Aided by a fun video (posted above) starring Judge Reinhold, the song became a Top Ten Country hit for Sonnier.  Thompson must have enjoyed Sonnier’s cover, because the two men would eventually appear together on the TV series Night Music and play a rapid-fire rendition of the tune duet-style.

The disc also sported a second country Top Ten hit in the first-class ballad “No More One More Time,” penned by Troy Seals, the cousin of Jim Seals (Seals & Crofts) and Dan Seals (England Dan and John Ford Coley) and the uncle of Brady Seals (Little Texas).

Sonnier would have a moderately successful follow-up in Have a Little Faith, which sported a very well-done cover of John Hiatt’s “Have a Little Faith in Me,” but following that disc, he would leave RCA for Capitol and his run of country hits would come to a sudden end. Sonnier is still making music, however, and fans of True Detective can spot him in a cameo as a musician in the third episode of the acclaimed TV series.