Story by Guest writer Sharla McIver
Many young artists—and many established artists-- dream of chance to collaborate with their heroes in music. For most, this happens after years of touring, putting out albums and extensive radio play. Through her diligence in posting music videos and consistent involvement with Social Media, the barely-19 bright-eyed Texas-turned Tennessee songbird named Mary Sarah has seen that dream realized on her sophomore album titled “Bridges” (Mary Sarah’s first album, titled “Crazy Good” was released in 2010. ‘Bridges’ features the young Ms. Sarah duets with country legends such as the late Ray Price, 2014 Country Music Hall of Fame Inductee Ronnie Milsap, Willie Ndelson, Merle Haggard and Dolly Parton, among others.
This is not to say that Ms. Sarah has not paid her dues as far as performing music. Following in the footsteps of her father, who plays guitar and sings, Mary Sarah has been performing in churches and on the Texas Opry circuit mainly in the Houston and Galveston areas, singing on stage more than half her life. By age 12 she was performing covers of a range of music on the nationally acclaimed KidzBop tour. It was during this time Ms. Sarah realized singing was to be her calling in life. Well-known in Texas music circles, she had the opportunity to sing the National Anthem at several sporting events including for Houston Astros and Houston Texans games.
Her popularity, and indeed her big break in Nashville Country music came as the result of her active involvement with Social Media, including Instagram, YouTube and Twitter, where she has amassed nearly 100,000 followers. From a very early age, Mary Sarah has recorded and posted covers of songs as well as original songs more recently on YouTube. It was there that members of the legendary country band The Oak Ridge Boys discovered her talent.
“I saw a video of Mary Sarah on YouTube,” recalls Oak Ridge Boys member Duane Allen. “I was blown away with the purity in her voice. Her tone is as pure as a ringing bell.”
Joe Bonsall, also an Oak Ridge Boy member, refers to her values and her “girl next door quality” as something needed in country music. Bonsall contacted her on Twitter, inviting her to their show at the 1894 Grand Opera House in Galveston. No one can seem to remember the exact quote, but the idea was clear: come prepared to sing.
When Mary Sarah arrived backstage, Bonsall asked her if she could sing anything a capella. Ms. Sarah mistakenly thought he wanted her to perform for the band, crew and others backstage. “You mean now?” she asked him, to which he replied “NO! In the show, after Elvira.” That January night she performed the old Connie Francis standard “Where the Boys Are” a capella to a sold-out crowd, resulting in a standing ovation.
Two years ago Mary Sarah made the difficult decision to move to Nashville from her home in Texas. It seems she has found a warm welcome in her new home, where she has become a Vanderbilt University fan and has had the honor of singing the National Anthem as well as God Bless America a capella at the school’s sporting events. She had her debut at the legendary Bluebird Café in June, and was listed along with Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert as “best-dressed” on the 2014 CMT Red Carpet.
“Bridges” has been a labor of love over the last two years, and perhaps the biggest turning point for Ms. Sarah was being introduced to Freddy Powers, long-time producer, songwriter and dear friend of Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard among other country music icons. Powers became a mentor to her, and she affectionately refers to him as her “adopted Grandpa”.
Other than adding harmony where once there was none, Ms. Sarah sticks very close to the original arrangements of the songs. The easily recognizable piano solo by Ronnie Milsap is almost identical on their duet, as is the more orchestrated intro to her duet with Lynn Anderson on “Rose Garden”. Mary Sarah said this was purposely done. “Other than picking up the pace a little on my duet with Tanya Tucker, because we wanted to do a great Texas song and rock it out a little, and a few changes here and there, you will find we chose to remain very true to the original on these songs. We chose songs that are legendary, and we did them very close to the original.” Indeed, her resolve to bring the standards to a new and younger audience the way they were recorded, and not make them more contemporary or “pop” sounding, is evident throughout the album.
Getting the legends to agree to lend their voices, and their songs, to a mostly-unknown artist was not as difficult as it might seem. Once they heard her voice, they seemed sold on the idea. Willie Nelson commented “Mary Sarah is a beautiful young lady with a beautiful voice.” Perhaps it is Mary Sarah’s love for Patsy Cline, who originally recorded the song, or the ease with which Nelson’s voice and hers blend, but with “Crazy” it is often difficult to remember it is a 17 or 18 year old girl singing with the legendary singer/songwriter.
Even while recording, Mary Sarah sometimes had a difficult time believing it was more than a dream. “I couldn’t believe these legends in country music were agreeing to sing on the album on a handshake!” she reflects. Mostly she hopes that a new generation will learn to love the country standards the way she has. “I see ‘Bridges’ as something that brings that music on over to this generation.”
Indeed it has become reality. “Bridges” was released on July 8, 2014, and ended the day at #62 on the iTunes album sales charts and found its way to #28 in sales on Amazon in the first 24 hours. It would also seem her goal of “building a bridge of music” between generations is also having a positive effect, if early signs are a prediction.
One Mary Sarah fan on Twitter, calling herself Emely, named her favorite musicians as Katy Perry and Adele prior to finding Mary Sarah on YouTube. “I just love her music,” Emely stated. “She is so beautiful and has a beautiful voice.” She stayed up to download ‘Bridges’ on iTunes at midnight. While she had previously heard of Dolly Parton, she had not heard of any of the other singers on the album, but “really loved the songs” once she listened.
Another fan said she had not heard of any of the singers on the album, and named her favorite musicians, besides Mary Sarah, as Selena Gomez and Kesha. While she had not yet received her copy of ‘Bridges’, she had listened to “The Fightin’ Side of Me” duet with Mary Sarah and Merle Haggard on YouTube and could “not wait for the rest of the album.” “I didn’t think I really liked country music,” she added. “But the first song I heard by Mary Sarah on YouTube I loved her voice and wanted to know more about her music.” She cited Mary Sarah’s cover of “I Hope You Dance” by LeeAnn Womack as her favorite of the videos she had seen to this point.
Her duet with Haggard is a rousing rendition of his “Fightin’ Side of Me” and although Mary Sarah may appear too sweet to have a “fighting side” she is quick to dispel that notion. “I do have a fighting side of me. I could relate to the song in that way.” She adds that the song is her tribute to our troops, which made it even more important to include on the album. “Who better than Merle Haggard to sing with and dedicate a song to our military!” she adds. Her southern roots shine strongest on this cut, as her Texas accent and feisty side make this one of the strongest cuts on the album.
One of the most sentimental, and one of the stand-out performances on the album is the duet with the late Ray Price, the beloved country legend who lost his battle to pancreatic cancer this past December. They chose his 1959 hit “Heartaches By the Number”, and it was the last duet recorded before his death. Ms. Sarah’s sweet, strong vibrato compliments the late Price’s deep, smooth strength and the Texas swing sound with a strong fiddle and guitar bridge, very close to Price’s original recording, help to make this not only sentimental but a stand-out as well. Ms. Sarah stated that Mr. Price’s bus driver shared with her after he passed away that he would play our duet on his bus, and that it was one of his favorite duets. “This song is so special to me!” said Mary Sarah.
While the album is a dream come true for 19 year old Mary Sarah, there is also a strong bittersweet element to a few of the recordings that may not be readily apparent to the listener. Her mentor and self-proclaimed “Adopted Grandpa” Powers has long been battling with the debilitating Parkinson’s Disease. As a result, the track she cut with him, “All I Wanna Do is Sing My Songs” co-written by Powers and Haggard, is the only track not recorded live by everyone involved. “Because of his Parkinson’s, we had to take pieces from previous recordings of Freddy singing to make that song a duet. But it is my song for him. And it’s so true. All I want him to be able to do is sing his songs,” says Ms. Sarah.
Her vocals might not seem as strong on a few of the cuts, such as her duet with Milsap or her rendition of “Go Rest High On That Mountain” with Vince Gill, where she seems a bit more tentative than she is on “Fightin’ Side of Me” and “Texas (When I Die)” – her nod to her home-state and rousing duet with legendary Texas country star Tanya Tucker. At first listen, it might seem that it would just be difficult for anyone to stand up against a vocal powerhouse like Vince Gill.
Some of that can very well be attributed to her age. Ms. Sarah has a big voice and she still has room to grow into it. But according to Mary Sarah, her mentor Powers had introduced her to Gill’s song, and she wanted to sing it for him on the album, which will be his final project as a producer. “When we recorded this song, Freddy sat right outside the window and I sang it to him.”
Like many young artists, she names musical influences such as Carrie Underwood, Miranda Lambert and Taylor Swift, but what might set her apart is that she adds Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn and Tanya Tucker to the roster of women whose music has influenced her life, and whose music she heard and played while touring the Texas Opry Circuit since she was 8 years old. Of the latter, she says “They had such amazing songs and great lyrics. I can’t explain the influence their music has had on my life.”
What can we expect next from Mary Sarah? “I’m working right now on developing my own sound. I’m writing, working with other writers.” Ms. Sarah stated her plan for her next cd is to use her own original songs. Several of her early originals can be found on YouTube. She will also join Merle Haggard as his opening act for a late summer/fall tour.
‘Bridges Track Listing’
- Jolene (featuring Dolly Parton)
- Crazy (featuring Willie Nelson)
- Fightin’ Side of Me (featuring Merle Haggard}
- Heartaches by the Number (featuring Ray Price)
- Go Rest High On That Mountain (featuring Vince Gill)
- Dream On (featuring The Oak Ridge Boys)
- Texas When I Die (featuring Tanya Tucker)
- Rose Garden (featuring Lynn Anderson)
- What a Difference You’ve Made in My Life (featuring Ronnie Milsap)
- Where the Boys Are (featuring Neil Sedaka)
- My Great Escape (featuring John Rich and Big Kenny)
- All I Wanna Do Is Sing My Song (featuring Freddy Powers)
- I’m Sorry