Sonya Isaacs Biography
Last updated: 09/25/2011 12:00:00 PM
"If Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt had a daughter,
she would sound just like Sonya." -- Dolly Parton
"Your voice is like butter."-- Steve Wariner
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 misleading. Isaacs simply opened the door to a musical place she already knew well in order to take her music to a wider audience. Her "doorman" was a man who had made a similar musical journey from bluegrass to country years earlier: her producer, Vince Gill. The result of the collaboration is a remarkably strong, consistent, and unique-sounding collection of songs that immediately establish Isaacs' 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 she's different. She fits in but she's different," Isaacs declares. "Some people are scared that because I'm from a bluegrass background that it's going to be too bluegrassy. It's not bluegrassy at all. It's not 'cookie cutter.' It doesn't 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 adds.
The first event that helped Isaacs open the door to a country recording career occurred in 1994. That's when artist manager and publisher Mark Ketchem heard her voice 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 a capella vocal delivery grabbed Ketchem's 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 learned that she was the lead singer for a popular family bluegrass/gospel act out of LaFollette, TN, called the Isaacs. The group's principals were Sonya; her father, Joe; mother, Lily; older brother, Ben; and younger sister, Becky. This family circle is the setting where Sonya Isaacs made music starting at the age of three, where she learned harmony singing and mandolin, and where her talent proved so great that 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, "I'd 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 of her life. As he pitched the songs she had demoed for him to A & R departments, all they wanted to know was, "Who's 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 with the Isaacs. The family made several appearances at the Grand Ole Opry and it was there that another of Isaacs' dreams was realized -- she met Vince Gill. "I can remember saying two years before, 'I'm going to sing with Vince Gill one of these days.' I met him first and then he met the family," Isaacs 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 didn't know it at the time, but Sonya Isaacs had just met the producer of her first country album.
During this period, Isaacs negotiated patiently with record companies in search of a 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 Isaacs began talking seriously with Lyric Street records and eventually signed a contract with them in 1998.
Meanwhile, Gill asked Isaacs to return the favor and sing on his new album. He honored her by asking her to sing on "The Key," the title song, which he'd written in tribute to his late father. They collaborated on writing a song called "Lived to Tell It All" that ended up on his album as well. Isaacs 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 guest with the Isaacs on stage and on records whenever possible.
During the summer of 1998, Gill invited Isaacs 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 move, because it was while touring 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 came to trust him even more. 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 out the album. There were just a few times that we bumped heads, but that's expected when you get two people with totally strong opinions," she recalls.
In addition to Gill's exquisite background vocals on various songs, Isaacs' album includes some impressive guest vocalists: Dolly Parton, Steve Wariner, Jason Sellers, Chely Wright, Joe Diffie, Rodney Crowell, Ben Isaacs, and Becky Bowman. Isaacs was impressed that Dolly didn't 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 Isaacs' voice before committing to the session. "She had to hear it, she had to see if she liked it and if she could sing it," Isaacs explains. "Dolly came in dressed to kill. She had on a little denim miniskirt and in full hair and makeup. [Dolly was in the house] and she was a blast. She went in and had already memorized the song and knew her part. She started at 10 o'clock and was finished by 11, the whole thing." Parton didn't tell Isaacs directly, 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 debut single, "On My Way to You."
Sonya Isaacs' "voice like butter" isn't the whole story about the album. Her song-writing ability, already honed by years of writing hits for her family act, is also impressive -- Isaacs co-wrote half the songs on this powerful 12-song collection. In addition to the first single, "On My Way to You," she wrote "All I Want to Be Is Yours," "Just Go," "I've Forgotten How You Feel," "Healing Hands," and "Nothing Between Us." In short, the album "Sonya Isaacs" is a complete creative experience from a complete artist and fulfilled human being.
Sonya Isaacs' ultimate reason for wanting a solo career in secular music comes down to her outlook on life. "I realize life is short," she says. "That's 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 I've 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 who sounds like she was born to sing country music.