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Sonya Isaacs: the long wait ends

By Joel Bernstein, November 2000

Sonya Isaacs finally had her first solo album released in October, nearly two years after she thought she had finished recording it. The album is getting rave reviews, and most everyone agrees Isaacs is a major talent.

Dolly Parton, brought in by Vince Gill to sing on Isaacs' album, was so impressed that she reciprocated, inviting Isaacs to sing on her next album.

Isaacs, 25, may yet become the star that many people think she should be. For now, she's a poster child for all the major ailments currently afflicting both the record and radio industries.

In a smaller universe, Isaacs already is a star. Bluegrass/gospel music is al-most unknown in the frozen lands of the north, but in the south, it's a big deal. In those areas, she's well known from her long tenure with her family's group The Isaacs.

Isaacs has a family background that doesn't fit the stereotype. "My dad is the baby of 17 children. He grew up playing bluegrass. He was with Ralph Stanley for a while. My mother had a record deal with Columbia as Lily & Maria (she was Lily). My mom was Jewish. She grew up in the Bronx, and her parents were Holocaust survivors. (My parents) were both performing at Gerdes Folk City in Greenwich Village when they met and fell in love. Then, my dad's closest brother in age was killed in a car wreck. That's when my parents accepted Christ and turned to Christian music."

Originally, they worked at music just on weekends. "Dad worked in a gravel pit. He was badly injured - nerve damage - and had to quit. They started sing-ing full time. When we were 13-14-15, we had success at gospel radio."

By that time, mom and dad had been long joined by their three children. Sonya, was the middle child. "When we were little kids, we sang harmony. People called the three of us 'The Little Gospel Chipmunks' because our voices were so high," Isaacs recalls. The kids even made an album themselves as The Isaacs Trio.

"We'd do a song on the family projects. They knew we had talent, and they'd bring us up to sing. They entered us in talent contests, even sometimes when we just wanted to swim and have fun. It was priceless experience for me."

Around 1993, Mark Ketchum, now her manager, happened to hear Isaacs on the radio, singing with her family. "He called me and asked if I was interested in going solo. At first, I said no. I didn't think I could break the strong ties with my family. I sing lead on 80 percent of their songs. I do some emceeing. Over a period of five years, we talked to six labels. Lyric Street understood me and had the most enthusiasm."

So far, Isaacs has been able to maintain both careers, continuing to perform with her family when not out as a solo act.

In 1998, Isaacs recorded her album with country star Vince Gill, a fan of her singing, doing the production. Not only was it Isaacs first solo album, it was Gill's first solo production. When the initial single was released last fall, it didn't set the world ablaze. The second single, "I've Forgotten How You Feel," hit radio in January and reached number 46 on Billboard. It charted for 18 weeks, meaning that in some regions, it was a major hit.

Not too long ago, a label would have been pleased at this progress by a new artist. Patty Loveless didn't crack the Top 40 until her sixth single. Reba McEntire couldn't even reach the Top 75 with her first three tries. In those days, "artist development" meant something other than "tumbling stock price."

In today's world, Lyric Street felt that Isaacs needed a big hit quickly, and it wouldn't come from the tracks already recorded. The album's scheduled spring release was scrapped.

"There were some, including me, who were completely satisfied ' with the album," says Isaacs.

But after the first two singles fell short, "everyone got scared and started second-guessing (it). Vince was offered the opportunity to cut the new tracks, but he felt it was good the way it was, and he didn't want to mess with it. We tried to find four or five songs that would be the icing on the cake."

Some Gill tracks were replaced with five new cuts. "It's hard on the artist when there's so much pressure to break on the first album." Isaacs admits.

Then things got even worse. "We sent out 'Barefoot In The Grass' just after John Michael Montgomery came with 'The Little Girl.' It was really bad timing. Radio was kicking it back to us saying they couldn't play two songs like that. So, we hit a wall with it."

Isaacs hopes things will work better with the new single "How Can I Forget."

In the meantime, however, her album was released with even less momentum than it would have had in the spring.

Although she thought the album was fine in its original form, Isaacs now sees some benefits to the situation. "I do feel that in the new songs, we captured an identity for me that no one else has."

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