Connor Christian & Southern Gothic, Sonia Leigh

Connor Christian & Southern Gothic

"Every night I have a new hometown," sings Connor Christian in the title track of the latest release from Connor Christian & Southern Gothic, New Hometown. Those words could be the mantra of many touring bands, whose lives become a blur of highways, hotel rooms, stages and crowds. But in the case of Connor Christian & Southern Gothic – "CCSG" as their fans affectionately know them – those words are more than just a metaphorical description of the troubadour lifestyle of a band on the road. They are a nod to the beginnings of a band – not just its members, who come from places as far and wide as Los Angeles to Russia – but also its music, an amalgamation of roots-rock, country and Americana.

"We don't like to box ourselves in," says Christian. "But we hear from fans all the time that our blend of sounds and influences is one of the things they love. When we get on a stage, it just clicks. It's seamless. And based on the way people are reacting, it must be working." It's working indeed. From the fiddle-driven and harmony-rich opener "Sheets Down", to the country-ballad swoon of "Only Need You", "(She's) My Salvation" or "Back in Dixie", to the unapologetic, raunchy swagger of "When I'm Gone", or the instrumental twin-fiddle blast of the aptly-named "Fiddler", New Hometown is an 18 song joyride. Produced by Christian and John Briglevich (Goo Goo Dolls, Edwin McCain), this is roots music crafted by a restlessness of spirit, born from the travels of a true troubadour.

Connor Christian was born in Los Angeles, but before he was a teenager, had lived in South Korea, Indonesia and Belgium. At the age of 14, he left home with a guitar and a backpack, and continued his travel and musical growth in Pennsylvania, Florida, Georgia, South America and even Africa. By the time he settled in Atlanta, GA in 1996, his life and his music were steeped in culture and influence from his well-traveled youth, and a tradition of diversity. And it was in that tradition that he began crafting what would become CCSG.

Connor met drummer Shawn Thacker in 2004. Thacker, a Rome, GA native, was raised as many rural Southerners were – surrounded by guitars, fiddles, mandolins and banjos. And, of course, KISS. "Hearing 'Detroit Rock City' by the flashing lights of my uncle's 8-track player was a life-changer," says Thacker. Suburban Washington, DC native and bass player Joe Abramson, who cut his teeth on '60s British blues and "pretty much anything with loud guitars," rounded out what initially began as a trio, the first incarnation of what would later become CCSG.

Continuing in the spirit of New Hometown, next came classically trained violinist (turned fiddler) Elena Martin, born and raised deep in Soviet Siberia. Aside from her fiddle work, Martin is beloved among fans for her huge smile and infectious on-stage energy. Multi-instrumentalist and Syracuse, NY native Jeff Spirko completed the lineup, joining in 2010. Spirko moves with ease between guitar, mandolin, banjo, fiddle and piano, but he's not alone in his multi-instrumental talent. Christian, in addition to his vocal duties, plays guitar, piano and mandolin, and Martin plays piano and mandolin when not blistering the neck of her fiddle. The band's ability to move between so many instruments adds not only a great dynamic to the music, but a level of excitement to their live show as well.

"Live, there are definitely some moments that might look like a fire drill. We have a song or two where some of us change instruments mid-song, so to the uninitiated, it looks chaotic. But it adds to the excitement. And it gives us so much flexibility on stage to do different things, and change the texture of the show from song to song."

CCSG has spent the better part of the past three years on the road. When not headlining, they've shared stages with such artists as Zac Brown Band, Tim McGraw, Willie Nelson, Corey Smith, Big & Rich, Uncle Kracker, Gloriana, STYX, ZZ Top, Heart, Foreigner, and more. The diverse nature of the artists with whom they've toured again reflects the diversity of the band's sound. "It works," says Christian in regard to the varying nature of the audiences. "We've played to country crowds, rock crowds, young crowds, old crowds. We've played to jam band audiences and we've played bluegrass festivals. The response with all of them has been fantastic."

Fantastic enough for Billboard Magazine to notice. CCSG was named "Artist on the Verge" in Billboard's Best Bets of 2012 issue. "It's pretty crazy," says Christian of the accolade. "I hope it's a harbinger of things to come."

And if the momentum gained in the past year is any indication, CCSG indeed has big things to come. The release of New Hometown on February 12 will be preceeded by the release of the video for "Sheets Down", directed by Mil Cannon (Usher, Pink, John Mayer, Collective Soul), and supported by the band's continued "never-stop" approach to touring.

"We've traveled the world," says Christian. "We find the people, the stories - there's always something familiar, no matter where we go. So when we get to play songs that are shaped by those people and those places, somehow it always feels like we are home, no matter where we are."

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."

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