Carly Pearce and Sonya Isaacs can both trace their musical roots back to bluegrass, even as their individual careers have introduced them to fans beyond that genre. A rising country star, Pearce is a native of Taylor Mill, Kentucky, who just released her third album, 29: Written in Stone. She cites Isaacs — a sterling vocalist and instrumentalist in the gospel group The Isaacs — as one of her biggest vocal influences. Meanwhile, the Isaacs salute some of their own favorite songs with The American Face, a new album blending new material and well-chosen covers. These artists’ professional paths converged this fall when Pearce and, later, The Isaacs, were welcomed into the cast of the Grand Ole Opry.
Calling in to BGS, Carly Pearce and Sonya Isaacs converse about their formative years as musicians, their education in bluegrass harmony, and their immediate response to “Easy Going,” a cool collaborative cut on 29: Written in Stone.
BGS: Let’s start by talking about “Easy Going.” Carly, what was it about the song that made you want to bring in Sonya and Ben Isaacs to sing with you?
Pearce: When I was writing this song, I could hear the harmony. I grew up loving music and harmony and all of those things. As soon as we finished writing it and knew that we wanted it to be on the project I just heard The Isaacs. I grew up loving them and loving their harmonies. Nobody sings harmony better than the Isaacs family, so I asked Sonya.
Sonya, what did you think when you first heard the song?
Isaacs: I love Carly’s voice, too, and I was like, “Well, I’m sure anything that she wants us to sing on will be amazing. And knowing how she loves harmony singing, I thought, “This is gonna be really fun.” Of course, she’s one of the most incredible female vocalists of all time, I think. So, when she played us the song, I flipped out over it. I absolutely loved the song, and I was like, “I can’t wait to get in the studio!” … It was a good a vocal exercise, a good stretch! [Laughs] And it was a challenge because she’s so good, but that’s my favorite kind of session. We had a blast and I love the song.
I like the arrangement because you’re giving the musicians a chance to step out and do what they do best. It feels like a band record in some ways.
Pearce: Yeah! They were all so inspired in the studio by the song and I remember telling Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne, my producers, “Hang on, hang on, and let them do their thing.” I love instrumental bluegrass music, so I wanted to have that element and that feel in the song.
I do want to explore the bluegrass background that you both have. Sonya, can you kind of tell me how bluegrass fits into your overall musical direction?
Isaacs: Yeah. Our dad has been playing bluegrass all of his life. He’s 74 now and he grew up loving bluegrass. The Stanley Brothers, Bill Monroe, all of the legends of bluegrass. Dad loved it first, and when Carter Stanley passed away, my dad actually filled in for him with Ralph for a while and sang Carter’s part. He really fit that style. Dad always instilled a love for bluegrass music, especially traditional bluegrass music, into us kids. He taught us how to play our instruments. He was very key in teaching us the first things we ever learned. Over the years, with our own writing and different influences and artists that we’ve discovered along the way that had a little more of a contemporary sound, our style morphed and changed a little bit away from the more traditional bluegrass sound, but it’s always been the root of everything that we’ve ever loved.
Let’s talk about your dad a bit because the Isaacs just won an IBMA Award for a recording of “Garden Tomb,” which he wrote. I’m curious how that song came back into the forefront.
Isaacs: Dad moved to Kentucky about 20 years ago after he and Mom divorced. He hasn’t really traveled with us or been in the recording part of what we do for all those years. But, of course, he made pop-up appearances when we were around. So, Joe Mullins reached out to us — we love Joe Mullins and the whole Mullins family — because he was doing this project called Industrial Strength Bluegrass and wanted the Isaacs to be a part of it. [The project was named IBMA Album of the Year in September.] Joe has always loved the song “Garden Tomb” that my dad wrote many, many years ago. It was one of our earlier hits that we had many years ago. So, we thought it would be a good idea to do that song.
Our dad is, to me, one of the most underrated legends of bluegrass music. Mainly I think because he chose to do gospel instead of mainstream bluegrass, he was overlooked a lot. So we said, “We’ve got to get Dad in here to sing on this.” And then we decided to add the Oak Ridge Boys, to give it even more of an inclusive feeling. They agreed to come in and they were so proud of it. And my dad felt so honored that it was his song that was on this project. We’re very proud of this whole album — and to be from Ohio. This whole album is artists that are from Ohio or lived in Southern Ohio. It was a full-circle thing for us.
Carly, I know you joined a bluegrass band around the age of 11, right?
Pearce: I did, yeah. I sang in a bluegrass gospel band. That’s how I got my start on stage, outside of the childhood talent shows and things like that. I fell in love with it and feel like I understood what it meant to really be able to sing. I learned a lot of things in those years I was in that band, traveling around and watching bands like the Isaacs. There is no faking that harmony in that music! I think it made me a better singer today because of it.
You’re both known now for singing with other people. Carly, you’ve had a couple of hit duets, and Sonya, you’ve been singing with your family for a long time. Did bluegrass help you build that foundation, in terms of being able to blend your voice with another voice?
Isaacs: Absolutely. Anybody that can sing the third part with the Louvin Brothers, or with Ralph and Carter Stanley, it really teaches you to sing harmony and to find the part. You can listen to a Ralph Stanley song and hear all his vocal licks, and you can compare it to a Mariah Carey vocal lick. Even though they’re completely different styles, they’re both working their vocal cords and it takes a great skill and talent to be able to do the runs and licks that they do. So, absolutely, growing up singing along with those old records and finding that third part was very instrumental in me learning to sing harmony.
Pearce: For sure. The joy, for me, of singing is sometimes getting to collaborate with other vocalists and people that I love and adore. I’m such a fan of their voices. Sonya knows this, but so much of what I feel like people know my voice could be — kind of the flip into my head voice — is because I was trying to emulate Sonya’s voice when I was growing up, going to watch her sing. That’s why singing with her is so special for me.
Isaacs: Aww. It’s crazy because… how old are you Carly?
Pearce: I’m 31.
Isaacs: So, I’m 16 years older than her. It’s so funny for me to hear her say that she grew up listening to the Isaacs, and emulating me, because I don’t feel like I’m that much older, but I am. I’m just in denial, I guess, but I am so honored that she would say that! [Laughs]
Speaking of influences, Carly, you have Patty Loveless on your record, singing with you on “Dear Miss Loretta.” What was going through your mind when you heard her voice come in on that song?
Pearce: Oh, I sat in my car and bawled my eyes out. Patty and Sonya are two of my biggest influences and to have them be so gracious to be a part of my album, it’s something you dream of.
And it’s a song about Loretta Lynn no less. You really went for it, making Kentucky proud. Growing up, were you pretty well aware of the bluegrass history in Kentucky?
Pearce: Oh, for sure. My grandpa played clawhammer banjo and I grew up listening to Flatt & Scruggs and Bill Monroe and Ralph Stanley. I definitely understood how many people come out of the state of Kentucky, like the Judds. I think that’s where I really started to fall in love with music — by listening to people who came from Kentucky.
Sonya, on The American Face record, you have six songs from the past and an equal number of new songs. Are there any of those that you’d want a bluegrass fan to check out?
Isaacs: The instrumentation on this record, and that we’ve always done, leans toward that contemporary acoustic sound with the addition of a few extra instruments like piano. But our roots are always going to be that acoustic sound, and that’s how we are live. But I think “We Can Work It Out” — the Beatles cover that we did — is very acoustic and fun. We have a song “More Than Words” that was originally recorded 30 years ago by a rock ‘n’ roll group called Extreme. We did that stripped down with just upright bass, some snaps and vocals. I guess it’s not really considered a bluegrass song but the vocals are definitely influenced by that. There are quite a few songs on here that the bluegrass fans would really, really like.
It feels like you’re both having this moment, where you received an invitation to join the Grand Ole Opry and you’re winning industry awards. People are really noticing both of you right now. What are you enjoying the most about this time in your career?
Pearce: I’m sure that Sonya would say the same thing, but moments like becoming a member of the Grand Ole Opry — that’s something that I wanted and dreamed of and hoped for my whole entire life. And now to say that I am a part of that family is so surreal for me. All of these things, the childhood dreams, are coming true. You hope that when you’re writing music and singing and doing all of these things that it’s impactful and that people are going to care. And the fact that I feel like people care is so special.
Isaacs: Ditto to that. That’s a great answer. Again, it goes back to growing up. Dad instilled a great love for bluegrass music but hand-in-hand with that is that old classic country sound. I think nowadays, the classic country would fall more into a bluegrass category than even current country, because it’s changed and evolved so much since those days. Dad always instilled in us in love for the Grand Ole Opry as well, so it was full-circle again to be inducted and to be an Opry sister with Carly. We’ve known her for years and we’ve written together and we go way back. It is a really neat time to get to share these moments.
Photo credit: Nicole Sherwood