World, time to meet Sonia Leigh |

World, time to meet Sonia Leigh

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Contributed photoSonia Leigh, guest singer during Zac Brown Band's performance Sunday at the Jazz Aspen Snowmass Labor Day Festival, got her start playing at Brown's restaurant in Georgia. Her album "1975 December" will be released Sept. 27.

SNOWMASS VILLAGE – Sonia Leigh could easily talk about the prominent company she has been keeping. The recording was co-produced by country star Zac Brown and will be released on Brown’s label, Southern Ground. The album features most of the members of the red-hot Zac Brown Band, with Brown himself featured on the song “Roaming”; also featured as guest vocals on “Virginia” is Indigo Girl Amy Ray. Leigh has toured as an opening act for Loretta Lynn and Marc Broussard.

Still, Leigh feels it’s more appropriate for the moment to focus some attention on herself. The album, her debut, due for release Sept. 27, is titled “1978 December,” after the year and month in which she came into the world, and she sees it as her introduction to the world.

“When I was trying to figure out what to title the record, I saw it as an autobiography of what I’ve been through,” Leigh said from her home in Atlanta. “You get a good grasp of who I am as a person – a well-rounded view, everything I’ve been through. It felt right to call it ‘1978 December.'”

The portrait of Leigh that comes across on the album is of a spunky, tough woman ready to get out into the world. On the opening track, “Ain’t Dead Yet,” she sings that she was “stranded back in Georgia, itching to get up and go.” The somber, affecting title track is more of the same eagerness and restlessness: “I came out screaming at the world, determined to be heard.” The honky-tonking “Bar” finds Leigh embracing her partying side: “Pass that bottle, I’m jumping off this wagon/ Never seemed to get me very far/ … So if you’re looking darling, I’ll be at the bar.”

As a kid, Leigh sought to emulate her guitar-playing father. “He said he’d teach me some chords, and if I got serious, he’d buy me a guitar,” Leigh said. Leigh got serious about the songs by Kenny Rogers and Alabama that were in a songbook she owned, and she got her guitar.

“It was a way of expressing things,” said Leigh, who moved around the South and Midwest in her childhood, but has settled in Atlanta for the last 16 years. “I was always a deep kid, creative, and when my parents divorced, writing was an outlet for what I was going through.”

Zac Brown has been a key in helping Leigh turn that outlet into a career. Leigh played Brown’s restaurant in Georgia well before the song “Chicken Fried” put Brown in the spotlight; it was a comfortable way to ease into performing.

“You’d see Zac cooking back there, and Wyatt, his songwriting partner, would be bartending,” she said. “It was nice, out on the deck; on the Fourth of July people would pull their boats up, watch cheap fireworks. Good old country fun.”

Both Brown and Leigh have moved beyond the back deck. Sunday, when the Zac Brown Band performs at the Labor Day Festival, Leigh will be featured as a guest singer. This fall, Leigh will tour as Brown’s opening act. Even though the two have moved up the career ladder, Leigh says she – like Brown – is in touch with the person depicted on “1978 December.”

“We value a lot of the same things,” she said of Brown. “We’re about the music. We’re focused on keeping true to ourselves, true to the music, true to the fans. Being real, being straightforward with who we are as artists. I’m not trying to sell someone a song so I can make a buck. I write a song about what I’m seeing, what I’m experiencing, talking about my trail in the dirt road. People connect with that, because everyone’s going through the same thing.”

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