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
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