Mary Sarah builds "Bridges" – July 2014
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Mary Sarah builds "Bridges"  Print

By Sharla McIver, July 2014

What is not expected is for a virtually unknown artist, turning 19 on the day before her album release and finishing high school during the recording of the album, to be the featured artist, with Dolly Parton, Vince Gill and the late Ray Price lending not only their vocals, but also their most-beloved standards in country music.

Texas-turned-Tennessee songbird Mary Sarah Gross – Mary Sarah is her stage name – saw that dream realized on her sophomore album "Bridges." While acknowledging an appreciation for almost all musical genres, Mary Sarah names musical influences such as Carrie Underwood, Miranda Lambert and Taylor Swift. Her voice is not unlike a young Underwood or LeAnn Rimes. What sets her apart from her contemporaries, though, is the addition of icons like Loretta Lynn and Patsy Cline to that list of influences.

Mary Sarah covers The Hag's "The Fightin' Side of Me"

"They had such amazing songs and great lyrics. I can't explain the influence their music has had on my life," she says.

This is not to say that Ms. Sarah has not paid her dues as far as performing music. Besides singing in church from the age of 8, following in the footsteps of her father who plays guitar and sings, Mary Sarah has been performing in churches and on the Texas Opry circuit mainly in the Houston and Galveston areas. By age 12, she was performing covers of a range of music on the national KidzBop tour. During this time, Mary Sarah realized singing was her calling in life. Mary Sarah's first album, "Crazy Good," was released in 2010.

Her popularity, and indeed her big break in the Nashville country scene, came as the result of her active involvement with social media, including Instagram, YouTube and Twitter, where she has amassed nearly 100,000 followers. From a very early age, Mary Sarah has recorded and posted covers of songs as well as original songs, including "Thinkin' About Last Night" more recently on YouTube. It was there that members of The Oak Ridge Boys discovered her talent.

"I saw a video of Mary Sarah on YouTube," recalls Oak Ridge Boys member Duane Allen. "I was blown away with the purity in her voice. Her tone is as pure as a ringing bell."

Joe Bonsall, also an Oak Ridge Boy member, contacted her on Twitter, inviting her to their show at the 1894 Grand Opera House in Galveston. When Mary Sarah arrived backstage, Bonsall asked her if she could sing anything a capella. That January night she performed the old Connie Francis standard "Where the Boys Are" a capella to a sold-out crowd, resulting in a standing ovation.

Two years ago Mary Sarah made the difficult decision to move to Nashville from Texas.

"Bridges" has been a labor of love over the last two years, and perhaps the biggest turning point for Mary Sarah was being introduced to Freddy Powers, long-time producer, songwriter and dear friend of Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard among other country music icons. Powers became a mentor to her, and she affectionately refers to him as her "adopted Grandpa."

Other than adding harmony where once there was none, Mary Sarah sticks very close to the original arrangements. The easily recognizable piano solo by Ronnie Milsap is almost identical on their duet, as is the more orchestrated intro to her duet with Lynn Anderson on "Rose Garden."

"Other than picking up the pace a little on my duet with Tanya Tucker because we wanted to do a great Texas song and rock it out a little, and a few changes here and there, you will find we chose to remain very true to the original on these songs. We chose songs that are legendary, and we did them very close to the original."

Indeed, her resolve to bring the standards to a new and younger audience the way they were recorded, and not make them more contemporary or "pop" sounding, is evident throughout the album.

Getting the stars to agree to lend their voices, and their songs, to a mostly-unknown artist was not as difficult as it might seem. Once they heard her voice, they seemed sold. Perhaps it is Mary Sarah's love for Patsy Cline, who originally recorded the song, also the first classic country song Mary Sarah learned while on the Texas Opry circuit, or the ease with which Nelson's voice and hers blend. But with "Crazy," it is often difficult to remember it is a 17- or 18-year-old girl singing with the legendary singer/songwriter.

Her duet with Haggard, with whom she will tour this summer and fall, is a rousing rendition of his "Fightin' Side of Me" and although Mary Sarah may appear too sweet to have a "fighting side," she is quick to dispel that notion. "I do have a fighting side of me. I could relate to the song in that way." She adds that the song is her tribute to our troops, which made it even more important to include. "Who better than Merle Haggard to sing with and dedicate a song to our military," she adds.

One of the most sentimental, and one of the stand-out performances is the duet with the late Ray Price, who lost his battle to pancreatic cancer this past December. They chose his 1959 hit "Heartaches By the Number," and it was the last duet recorded before his death. Mary Sarah's sweet, strong vibrato compliments the late Price's deep, smooth strength and the Texas swing sound with a strong fiddle and guitar bridge and is very close to Price's original recording. Mary Sarah stated that Price's bus driver shared with her after he passed away that he would play our duet on his bus, and that it was one of his favorite duets. "This song is so special to me," says Mary Sarah.

While the album is a dream come true for Mary Sarah, there is also a strong bittersweet element to a few of the recordings that may not be readily apparent. Powers has long been battling with the debilitating Parkinson's Disease. As a result, the track she cut with him, "All I Wanna Do is Sing My Songs," co-written by Powers and Haggard, is the only track not recorded live by everyone involved.

"Because of his Parkinson's, we had to take pieces from previous recordings of Freddy singing to make that song a duet. But it is my song for him. And it's so true. All I want him to be able to do is sing his songs," says Mary Sarah.

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