For people who do not know the depth of Sonya Isaacs talent and experience as a singer and songwriter, the question might be, can she make a successful transition from bluegrass / gospel to country music? After one listen to her new, self-titled album for Lyric Street Records, the answer to that question is a resounding yes.
Actually the word transition is not appropriate. Isaacs simply opened the door to a musical place she already knew well and had longed to be in order to take her music to a wider audience. Her doorman was a man that had made a similar journey from bluegrass to country years earlier, and producer of seven of the songs on her debut album, Vince Gill. Five additional tracks were produced by Shelby Kennedy (Lyric Streets A&R Director) and Mike Clute. The result of the collaboration is a remarkably strong, consistent, and unique-sounding collection of songs that immediately establish Sonyas own country personality. I just hope that people can listen to this and say she is true to her heart and true to her musical roots and shes different. She fits in but shes different, Isaacs declares. Some people are scared that because Im from a bluegrass background that its going to be too bluegrassy. Its not bluegrassy at all. Its not cookie cutter. It doesnt sound like I cut the record just so I could be played on radio. Yet I did keep in mind the format of today and record things that people would like and that I liked, she confirms.
The first event that helped Isaacs open the door to a country recording career occurred in 1994. Thats when artist manager and publisher, Mark Ketchem, heard her voice come on the radio while he was driving through Nashville. She was singing a gospel hit called, I Have a Father Who Can, and the power and purity of her acappella vocal delivery grabbed Ketchems attention. It was the best thing I had ever heard and I just had to find out who she was. I had to talk to her, says Ketchem.
A few days later he found her and found out that she was the lead singer for a popular family bluegrass / gospel act out if LaFollette, TN, called the Isaacs. The groups principles were Sonya; he father, Joe; mother, Lily; older brother, Ben and younger sister, Becky. It was in this family circle where Sonya Isaacs had made music since she was three years old, where the learned harmony singing and mandolin and where he talent was so great, she became one of the lead singers and stars of the show. It was her emotionally charged vocals on the gospel hit, From the Depths of My Heart that helped turn the Isaacs into a top gospel act.
Ketchem called Sonya and convinced her to come to Nashville by asking her to sing some country demos for his publishing company. I was thrilled, says Sonya, Id never sung country. I always liked it and listened to it, but never had sung it professionally. Once Ketchem got her into the studio, her vocals sounded like she had been singing country all her life. As he pitched the songs she had demoed for him to A&R departments, all they wanted to know is, Whos the singer? Sonya was thrilled, I never planned a solo career. I always dreamed that I would one day, but I never knew how.
Through 1996 and 1997, Isaacs began talks with several record companies while she continued to tour 260 days a year with the Isaacs. The family made several appearances on the Grand Ole Opry and it was there that another of Sonyas dreams was realized she met Vince Gill. I can remember saying two years before, Im going to sing with Vince Gill one of these days. I met him first and then he met the family, Sonya recalls, Vince likes bluegrass and we bonded. Vince would call her out on the Opry stage to sing with him on Go Rest High on that Mountain and Real Ladies Man. She didnt know it at the time, but Sonya Isaacs had just met one of the producers of her first country album.
During this period, Isaacs negotiated patiently with record companies in search of the situation that felt just right to her. That did not dampen her desire to go forward with a solo album. She began recording an independent country crossover album and invited Gill to sing with her on a tune called The Battlefield (now included on her debut Lyric Street album). That independent album was never released because Sonya began talking seriously with Lyric Street Records and eventually signed a contract with them in 1998.
Meanwhile, Gill asked Sonya to return the favor and sing on his new album. He honored her by asking her to sing on Let Her In and Lived to Tell it All, a song, which they had collaborated on writing that, made it to his album as well. Sonya felt so comfortable with Gill that she brought up the idea of having him produce her debut album, Vince called me at home to thank me for singing on his record, and I asked him what he thought about the idea of producing me. To her delight, Gill agreed to do it.
Taking time off from the Isaacs family act was not an easy decision. But the family gave their blessing, and Lyric Street happily agreed to allow Sonya to appear with the Isaacs on stage and on records whenever possible.
During the summer of 1998, Gill invited Sonya to become part of his concert tour and country fans got their first look at this confident, experienced artist. She added acoustic guitar and mandolin to the show, and her background harmonies were perfect as she joined in on Gill classics like When I Call Your Name or I Will Always Love You. Her performance was riveting when she stepped up front for a solo spot.
Joining Gill on the road turned out to be an inspired decision because it was on the road together that Gill and Isaacs were able to begin pre-production on the album. Gill had time to learn about her as an artist, while she built even more trust in him. They were able to listen to songs together, some of which Gill tried out on her during sound checks. In retrospect it was the only way they could have completed an album of such high quality during the fall of 1998. We went into the studio in October and finished the album in the middle of November. It was completely mixed by the end of November, Isaacs relates. It was very quick and Vince was great. We had fun on the road and fun working on the album. There were just a few times that we bumped heads but thats expected when you get two people with totally strong opinions, she recalls. After a delay in the album release, producers Shelby Kennedy and Mike Clute were brought in to cut new material to be mixed in with the initial Gill-produced tracks, resulting in an exciting balance that shows how Sonya has evolved as a vocalist and mandolin player. The existing album is fresh and works commercially but still maintains the initial essence and magic that Vince captured in Sonya which is the heart and soul of the project.
In addition to Gill contributing his exquisite background vocals on various songs, Isaacs album includes some impressive guest vocalists; Dolly Parton, Steve Wariner, Jason Sellers, Joe Diffie, Ben Isaacs and Becky Bowman. According to Sonya, it impressed her that Dolly didnt just come over to sing with her because her friend Vince asked her to. Dolly requested a tape of the song (Healing Hands) so she could hear it; she had to see if she liked it enough to sing on it, Isaacs explains. Dolly went in and had already memorized the song and knew her part. [Dolly was in the house] and she was a blast. She started at ten oclock and was finished by eleven, the whole thing. Parton didnt say so to Sonya at the time, but she was obviously impressed by her talent. While Dolly was in the studio, her two assistants came in and they told me that on the way over Dolly had said to them, If Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt had a daughter, she would sound just like Sonya! Coming from Dolly Parton and being compared to those two artists, that was a huge compliment. Steve Wariner delivered his opinion directly to Isaacs when he said, Your voice is like butter. Wariner sings along with Jason Sellers on the ethereal track, On My Way To You. Almost two years later, Dolly contacted Sonya and her sister Becky to sing harmonies on her acoustic album. Its one thing to have her sing on my album, says Sonya, but it was the biggest honor in the world to be asked to sing on hers.
Sonya Isaacs voice like butter isnt the whole story about the album. Her song writing ability, already honed by years of writing hits for her family act, is the rest of the story with Isaacs co-writing five of the songs on this powerful 12-song collection. In addition to On My Way to Your, she wrote Just Go, Ive Forgotten How You Feel, Healing Hands and Two Badly Broken Hearts. In short, the album Sonya Isaacs is a complete creative experience from a complete artist and fulfilled human being.
For Sonya Isaacs, her ultimate reason for wanting a solo career in secular music comes down to her outlook on life. I realize life is short, she says. Thats why I sometimes wear a little hourglass on a chain around my neck. It reminds me that life is short and you can only have an impact on so many people each day. This is an opportunity for me to reach so many people with my music. I feel that opportunity has just knocked on my door and Ive opened it. Sonya has now walked through that door bearing gifts 12 uniquely wonderful songs on a superb debut country album from a bluegrass / gospel star that sounds like she was born to sing country music.