Sonia Leigh finds sweet spot between hard-knocks and pop

After traveling a country mile, singer-songwriter debuts on Southern Ground

Sonia Leigh speaks with quiet confidence, in a measured drawl that implies a lifetime of Southern living. It's an artist's coolness, one that's been nurtured since she saw Loretta Lynn at age five and first realized her calling. Largely because of the supportive influence of her musician father, Leigh recalls songwriting as "something I never questioned if I could actually do."

It was this sense of destiny that gave rise to an honest career. As a child, Leigh absorbed and imitated every note of family favorites such as Hank Williams and George Jones. As she grew older, she began writing her own material. "I always had these songs in my head," she says. "I used to sit in school and write songs. I'd get home and get to my guitar and try to get some music connected to what I was hearing in my head."

Today the 32-year-old occupies a unique stylistic space at the crossroads of archetypal hard-knock country and the flighty modern stuff. Her music owes both to her childhood country heroes and to the rock 'n' roll she has loved for almost as long. Her lyrics live and die with the sort of ultra-efficient cleverness symptomatic of the mainstream. But there's a fire burning underneath, a rooted sense of pride.

As a budding songwriter with promise but few prospects, Leigh settled into the overpopulated Atlanta scene in her 20s. She gigged frequently alongside like-minded folks and self-released a handful of records. The defining factor of Leigh's music was her painter's touch of grit — a subtle hint of aggression on the edge of every otherwise easygoing song.

It proved enough to separate her from the pack. Among those who took notice was Atlanta's Zac Brown, himself a rising fixture on the country landscape and a fast fan of Leigh's lived-in tunes. The more established Brown began to mentor Leigh on her fledgling career, offering musical advice and needed guidance on the business side of things. Eventually he gave Leigh the break she'd been waiting for and signed her to his Southern Ground imprint. "We see the world the same way," Leigh explains. "We have the same values. I'm really lucky to have somebody like him around."

Brown's Southern Ground is equally lucky to have landed Leigh, a glimmer of old-school energy in a sea of new school vacuity. There's no disguising the fact that Sonia Leigh does not fit the mold of a modern country superstar. When discussing the matter she remains modest, forbearing nearly to a fault, but her music often plays like a rejection of the infantile romantic vision sold by the Taylor Swifts of the world. She makes no outward effort toward authenticity yet she exudes it without pretense. It's one of those intangibles many less talented but better-known country singers strive to convey.

Leigh is diplomatic when pressed about the steady glossification of country music. "Music is evolving," she says. "Hip-hop's evolving; rock and roll has evolved. As far as country goes, there are people who are more traditional, listeners who expect it to be like when Johnny Cash and Hank Williams were around. But we live in a different world now. People are writing about different things."

The good news is that Leigh seems unwilling to dumb down, though she does acknowledge country music's biggest conundrum – that cracking the mainstream often requires some level of creative surrender. "It's about what the fans are giving their time and money and attention to," she says. "If anybody's got anything to complain about, like what's on the Top 20, people have got to stop supporting things they don't like."

As she sings on "My Name is Money," the first single from her recently released Southern Ground debut 1978 December, "I can chain you down and I can set you free/I can make you feel so high and bring you down to your knees." Whether or not it's pop enough for the charts, Leigh places more value in her own artistic currency. "I'll leave the categorization to everyone else. I just want to stay true to my art, and what I'm doing."

It's consistent with the script she's followed thus far. But as she embarks on the next chapter, bound from the beginning to do precisely what she's doing now, she can't help but wonder where it goes from here. "It's pretty crazy," she marvels, "when you think about it."