Loretta Lynn certainly didn’t 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 that’s country, dad!” The crowd stirred and the coal miner’s 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 events—and a long list of friends and supporters—has put her on the cusp of even bigger success.
“I’m nothing without all the people who have been there for me,” Leigh notes. “I’ve got keys to just about everybody’s apartment in Atlanta because I’ve slept on everybody’s couch. But I’ve 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 that’s it.”
Determined to make it on her own, the teenager took three jobs—despite 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 wasn’t the easiest, but it made me who I am today and a stronger person,” Leigh observes. “If I hadn’t left home and endured the things I did once I left home, I wouldn’t have written the songs I’ve written.”
Oh yes, about those songs. The songs on 1978 December, Leigh’s Southern Ground debut, range from the boozy barroom sing-along of “Bar”—a throwback redolent of the less well-behaved Nashville of yesteryear—to 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 he’s 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 wasn’t playing, I would go. Usually he would get me up on stage anyway. That’s just him.”
Leigh has been a part of Brown’s musical family for seven years now, having met the singer/songwriter in Atlanta musical circles. Brown’s right-hand man John Hopkins served as producer for Leigh’s independent outing Run or Surrender. Like everything else she’s done 1978 December is the sound of Leigh expressing her soul. It’s not calculated, focus-grouped or target-marketed. In fact, Leigh wouldn’t have the slightest clue how to do that. “It’s hard for me to just sit down and write and try to write a hit,” she says. “That’s just not me as a writer. I write about what’s happening and what I see.”
That’s something Leigh has been doing from childhood. Blessed with a musical family she picked up her dad’s 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 I’d 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 I’d be playing and he’d be wanting to play. So that’s when I got my own guitar. Then I started writing—I was writing songs as soon as I could make chords—lyrics and everything.”
At age 14, a song she’d written for a friend led to a chance encounter with a major-label producer—which, 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 “Ain’t Dead Yet,” 1978 December’s 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. “That’s basically that. I’m not dead yet, so let’s go out there and do it.”