(Issue Date: November 9, 2000)
"The Long Road"
Gifted young bluegrass gospel vet perseveres in her bid for country success
By Jon Weisberger
"I wouldn't change my past, 'cause it's where I became who I am," Sonya Isaacs sings in "On
My Way to You," a song from her recent Lyric Street debut. Though she's singing about love,
the line has a deeper resonance as well, for Isaacs is not your typical country music
newcomer. At 26, she has the bubbly enthusiasm of youth, but also a calm self-possession
born of religious faith, a supportive family, and a long career in bluegrass gospel as a
member of the award-winning family group The Isaacs. As she tries to reach the ears of
country fans and radio programmers, both qualities are likely to be tested to their limits.
Already, her country career has been marked by the kind of dashed expectations that would
frustrate even the most stout-hearted performer. But then, Isaacs is a veteran, having
grown up performing with her family. And her "new" album, part of which was recorded two
years ago, is really the culmination of six years' work--she's had no choice but to be patient
"My manager now, Mark Ketchem, heard `I Have a Father Who Can,' an a cappella song I
sing lead on, back in 1994," the singer recalls, speaking between sets with The Isaacs at
Dollywood in mid-October. (Though her album just hit the stores, she's still performing with
her family.) "He called me and said, `I love your singing, and I'm a manager. Are you
interested in doing a country deal?' I said, `Well, I don't think so.' I would have loved it, but
I was afraid that my ties were so strong with the family that they would never understand,
and the gospel fans would never understand."
Nevertheless, Ketchem persuaded Isaacs to record some demos for his publishing company,
then to allow him to play them for some people, "just to see." Over the next few years,
negotiations waxed and waned even as Sonya's interest in the idea grew, and it wasn't until
October 1998 that she signed with the Disney-owned Lyric Street, then a new country label.
By that time, she'd met Vince Gill at one of the Isaacs' Grand Ole Opry appearances, and the
two had sung together in the studio and on the road, where she toured as Gill's harmony
singer for six months or so.
Gill seemed a natural choice for producing her project, Isaacs explains. "I asked Vince,
`Have you ever thought about producing?' And he said, `Well, no, I'm not sure I'm ready to
wear that hat.' He was more afraid than anything that he wouldn't do a good job. Can you
imagine?!" she says with disbelief. "But I asked him a couple of times, and finally he said,
`Yeah, if we can work the schedule out, I'll think about doing it.' So we went to work on the
album almost right away and finished it in November of 1998."
That's when the problems began. "The first album," as Isaacs ruefully calls it, was a
masterpiece of contemporary country, ranging from "Am I Dreaming," a pop-inflected
number filled with the giddy anticipation of a first date, to the hard-country ballad "All I
Want to Be Is Yours," written by Sonya, her husband (and Isaacs bandmate) Tim Surrett,
and Keith Sewell. Not surprisingly, it had the flavor of Gill's own kind of country
music--smooth and soulful, layering pop and rock influences over a solid country and
bluegrass sensibility--but with a female singer of stunning musical and emotional flexibility.
Isaacs has a rare command of her voice, allowing her to find precisely the right combinations
of tone and volume to bring out the sense of each word. Her soaring leads and the carefully
matched accompaniment resulted in an album as good as any released in 1999.
Trouble is, it wasn't released then. "We got off on the wrong foot somehow, and we've been
off-balance ever since," Isaacs says. "In the spring of '99, I did a three-month radio tour,
90 stations--it was very exhausting--because we thought the album was coming out later that
year, and of course it didn't."
Instead, the first single didn't come out until late in the year, and it was the ballad "On My
Way to You." "I don't know why," Isaacs says. "It was a risk in the first place to release a
ballad as the first single. And they knew that, and the video didn't come out until three
weeks after the single--and by that time they had pulled it, they pulled the single."
Early this year, with the album still on the shelf, "I've Forgotten How You Feel" was
released as the second single; though the song is a radio-friendly country-rocker, it too did
poorly. "I think some of the people at Lyric Street were questioning whether we had the
album from the beginning," Isaacs observes, "and I think those feelings started to surface
after the second single came out, and then people started voicing their opinions: `Maybe it's
not sonic enough; maybe we don't have what it's going to take to break us at radio,' and
everyone's emotions started coming out."
The upshot was that the album's May release date was cancelled. The label removed almost
half of the original tracks, including both "Am I Dreaming" and "All I Want to Be Is Yours,"
and brought in new songs and producers. Ironically, the new material was largely in the vein
of the discarded songs, and Isaacs signed off on the changes. "I think that by adding these
new songs," she says, "we've added a whole new side of me that wasn't brought out before."
Yet even with these changes, the project continued to be dogged by ill fortune. One of the
new tracks, "Barefoot in the Grass," a tender, restrained story of a younger sister's fatal
illness, became the next single, released in the late summer. "It was unfortunately killed
from the beginning," Isaacs says, "because it came out a week after John Michael
Montgomery's `The Little Girl' and the Chad Brock song, `The Visit' "--two other mournful
tales involving premature death. "So radio just threw it back at us and said, `We can't play it
right now, not with these other songs already playing.' "
Despite its dismal progress so far, Lyric Street went ahead and released the album several
weeks ago and has shipped another single, "How Can I Forget," to radio stations. "It speaks
highly of them," Isaacs says of the unusual decision to go four singles deep on a debut album
that hasn't yet produced a hit. "Every time [Lyric Street president] Randy Goodman opens a
show introducing me, he is always the most complimentary: `She's going to be in the Hall of
Fame, and we want to be the label that puts her there. This girl is going to be around for a
while'--those kinds of things. I will give them that, they've really tried hard to fix what was
What will happen next remains to be seen. For some singers her age, the temptation to
adjust the music and the image would be considerable, but Sonya Isaacs views the future
with equanimity, strengthened by the enthusiasm of those she admires, the support of her
family, and her faith. "Sometimes the frustration has been so overwhelming that you just
think, `What is it that they want? I've tried to give them all that I am and more.' But they
know--Lyric Street knows, my manager knows, my booking agent knows--that there are lines
I won't cross," she says. "When the stress starts to get to me, I know where I can go for
my peace. Up to this point, I haven't felt that it was anything more than I could bear."