Loretta Lynn certainly didnt know she was seeing a future opening act when she spotted a five-year-old girl in the crowd at an Alabama concert. As the story goes, during a quiet moment the enraptured child exclaimed, "now thats country, dad!" The crowd stirred and the coal miners daughter herself spotted little Sonia Leigh, then bowed and waved, laughing, before moving on to the next song.
But nearly 30 years later, that little girl opened for Lynn, winning over audiences with her gritty vocal delivery and bold, disarmingly honest songwriting. Between her childhood concerts and her rising career today as a Southern troubadour were many hard days, battle scars and dues paid. Sonia Leigh has earned every bit of soulful, lived-in authenticity her songs and performances portray. At the same time, an amazing chain of eventsand a long list of friends and supportershas put her on the cusp of even bigger success.
"Im nothing without all the people who have been there for me," Leigh notes. "Ive got keys to just about everybodys apartment in Atlanta because Ive slept on everybodys couch. But Ive kept at it, because I really do truly feel that this was the calling on my life. I always knew this was what I wanted to do."
That sense of destiny has always been important for Leigh. She left home at age 17 to pursue her dream. "When I left home I had fifty bucks, a garbage bag full of clothes and my guitar," she recalls. "And thats it."
Determined to make it on her own, the teenager took three jobsdespite not owning a car. And determined to make it musically, she joined a band, which fortunately practiced right across the street from where she worked. Nothing has been handed to Sonia Leigh. Shortly after that memorable Loretta Lynn concert, her parents divorced, and she spent her childhood being passed back and forth between her father and mother. Later Leigh moved frequently with her dad as he took various jobs across the south and Midwest. Leaving home was just another uphill battle in a young life full of them.
"My life wasnt the easiest, but it made me who I am today and a stronger person," Leigh observes. "If I hadnt left home and endured the things I did once I left home, I wouldnt have written the songs Ive written."
Oh yes, about those songs. The songs on 1978 December, Leighs Southern Ground debut, range from the boozy barroom sing-along of "Bar"a throwback redolent of the less well-behaved Nashville of yesteryearto the soulful Muscle Shoals shuffle of "I Just Might," the acoustic groove of "Virginia" (featuring Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls) and the keenly observed country-rockin "My Name Is Money." Categorization is futile. Is it country, blues, soul or rock? The answer is yes. Is it southern? Add an exclamation point to the prior answer.
In this Leigh has a lot in common with one of her mentors, Zac Brown, who recently signed her to his Southern Ground Artists label. While hes now a country chart-topper, at one point many thought Brown was going in too many directions to be successful. But Leigh believed. And she was taking notes every step of the way.
"I was watching what Zac was doing and I loved his music," she says. "So if he was playing and he wanted me to play, I was there. And even if I wasnt playing, I would go. Usually he would get me up on stage anyway. Thats just him."
Leigh has been a part of Browns musical family for seven years now, having met the singer/songwriter in Atlanta musical circles. Browns right-hand man John Hopkins served as producer for Leighs independent outing Run or Surrender. Like everything else shes done 1978 December is the sound of Leigh expressing her soul. Its not calculated, focus-grouped or target-marketed. In fact, Leigh wouldnt have the slightest clue how to do that. "Its hard for me to just sit down and write and try to write a hit," she says. "Thats just not me as a writer. I write about whats happening and what I see."
Thats something Leigh has been doing from childhood. Blessed with a musical family she picked up her dads guitar almost as soon as she could hold it without help.
"When I was 10 I really started being serious and asking him to show me chords, so Id come home every day and practice after school and use his guitar," she recalls. "Finally he saw I was getting good and he was actually tired of me using his guitar? because Id be playing and hed be wanting to play. So thats when I got my own guitar. Then I started writingI was writing songs as soon as I could make chordslyrics and everything."
At age 14, a song shed written for a friend led to a chance encounter with a major-label producerwhich, at age 17, turned into a management deal. And though that was now half a lifetime ago for the indefatigable performer, Leigh has taken encouragement from each connection and from each hard-fought rung up the ladder.
For her, it all comes together on "Aint Dead Yet," 1978 Decembers lead track, which delves into the influence her musical peer, blues artist Sean Costello, had and continues to have on her, even after his unexpected passing. The entire Atlanta musical community mourned the loss of such a promising young artist, but few more than Leigh, who still visits his grave regularly to hold one-sided conversations. "When he died I pretty much made a vow that I was gonna keep this going for both of us," she says. "Thats basically that. Im not dead yet, so lets go out there and do it."