Way back when, this comment coupled with this article (hat tip, Martin) got me thinking about the Isaacs. Specifically, why didn’t or haven’t they left a more profound impression on the musical world? Or have they, and I just don’t know where to look? In this alleged age of the cross-over, poly-generic, stylistically diverse, mult-repurposeable artist, the Isaacs would seem to be or (in their heyday, which I sense has now passed) have been the perfect example from Christian Entertainment of artistic dexterity – a group able to gain and hold the attention of a sustainable portion of gospel, country, bluegrass, and some folk audiences and, with Gaither’s exposure, the inspo-anthem world. At least that’s the conventional wisdom. But have they in fact done that? Or instead did the Conventional Wisdom create a self-fulfilling myth about the Isaacs that was enabled by their affiliation with the Homecoming Tour but not supported by reality?
I honestly don’t know enough about the genres adjacent to sg in which the Isaacs work to speak authoritatively about this. But while I wait for someone to speak up who can, my own sense has always been that Sonya (obviously) and Ben have pro-quality skills and talents (as did the quiet boyish looking guy who played banjo but left a while back) but that that talent wasn’t enough to give the group as a whole the star-quality appeal they would have needed to become the sort of artist’s artists who thrive – musically and economically – in the space between conventional approaches and styles.
It’s hard to define, this lack of a certain something I’m trying to describe. But I sense it with some kinds of gospel groups, the ones who demonstrate obvious instinctual, native talent (”God-given,” in the vernacular), self-possessed artists with an ease to their artistry than many musicians twice their age and with greater formal training spend lifetimes never approaching. And yet this native ability only takes one so far and then another kind of intuition — not artistic, but strategic, entrepreneurial and self-promotional — is necessary to translate God-given talent into mass-market appeal.
On stage for the Isaacs, this lack of that certain something is most evident in Lily’s turgid emcee work. It’s often labored and ponderous and tills far too familiar ground while also relying on the assumption that an east-coast Jewish evangelical bluegrass emcee mother of pickin-and-grinnin’ country kids holds an intrinsic fascination for audiences that I’m not sure was ever that great and certainly has felt schticky for quite some time now. But that’s only emblematic (Sonya’s and Becky’s emcee fill-in is often barely more than serviceably better). More substantively, the Isaacs tried to pivot off their Gaither success into a kind of singer-songwriter thing with Heroes that they couldn’t sustain in the long run or simply didn’t stick with long enough.
I’ve always wondered if Sonya’s wasn’t of the sort of near-genius musical talent that was so creatively active and capable of seeing and doing so many different exciting things at once that she never could decide or stick with any one thing long enough to solidify a career to match her immense artistic capacity. Certainly she seems to have had the access and the ability to make it in country had she wanted to. And with the right cultivation, the Isaacs could have probably become much more of a Crabb-family mainstay in sg/country gospel (knowing what little I do about the ascendancy of purists in the folk and bluegrass world, I suspect the Isaacs’ eclecticism is or would have been responsible for keeping them out of a top-tier spot in the bluegrass world). Though of course, the Crabb Family exploded on the scene … and then imploded under the pressure of their own success, so perhaps that comparison proves, rather than counterpoints, what I’m trying to say about the Isaacs.
I guess it’s possible they already occupy a prime position in Christian entertainment and I’ve missed it, but I don’t think that’s the case. Instead, my hunch is that the worlds that we pontificators tend to think of as porously interrelated and ripe with possibilities for crossover synergy are actually far more insular and hostile to synergetic interlopers than we imagine. And that it takes an enormous amount of all the right stuff (not just looks and a good voice and God-given ability) to make the cross-over thing work. Sure there are the Gaithers and Mat Kearnys and the Oaks of the world. But oughtn’t there to be a sublunary tier of artists (like the Isaacs) who don’t necessarily remake the heavens with their crossings-over but sustain an above-averagely successful crossover career if the crossover theory is as descriptively accurate as we think it is? And if there isn’t any empirical evidence of this sort, how sustainable is the cross-over thesis?Email this Post