HOMETOWN: Atlanta, Ga.
INFLUENCES: Bob Dylan, Melissa Etheridge, Bruce Springsteen
ALBUM: 1978 December, out now

Sonia Leigh first began playing guitar at age 10, learning chords from her father. “I’d come home every day and practice after school and use his guitar,” she says. “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. Then I started writing. I was writing songs as soon as I could make chords—lyrics and everything.” By 14 one of her songs caught the attention of a major-label producer, which in turn led to a management deal when she was 17.

Encouraged, she set out on her own to pursue a musical career. “When I left home I had 50 bucks, a garbage bag full of clothes and my guitar,” she recalls. “And that’s it.” She worked several jobs, joined a band and began making a name for herself in the Atlanta music scene. Among the friends she made there was Zac Brown, then a rising star in the jam-band world and today a platinum-selling country hitmaker. “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. Even if I wasn’t playing, I would go.”

Brown eventually signed Leigh to his Southern Ground imprint and co-produced her new major-label debut, 1978 December. “I’m nothing without all the people who have been there for me,” says Leigh, who will hit the road with country star Eric Church starting in February. “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.”

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