In the brooding, intense title track from her inspired — and inspiring — second LP, Rise, fiddle player and vocalist Andrea Zonn sings, "Child, don't you worry, it's out of your hands/We all have trials we're not meant to understand/Still we rise, rise, rise." It's a heartfelt, hopeful message made even more poignant by the reality that just a few years ago, Zonn's now 7-year-old son underwent a series of perilous brain operations.
But far more than just addressing her son or herself with those lyrics, Zonn's music, a lovely tapestry of Americana, with touches of country, folk, bluegrass and Celtic, taps into listeners' collective souls, her gentle voice and thoughtful words a soothing balm for difficult times.
"After my son's medical issues, I was reflecting on that and I just sort of had this emotional landscape," Zonn tells Rolling Stone Country of the basic idea for Rise, her first album of self-penned tunes, due out on Compass Records September 25th. "It was just this thing that was ready to express how life has been unfolding the last few years. I was quiet for so long because life dictated that, it required that. There was a part of me that felt crazy for taking on something like this now, at this late stage. But at the same time, it was like, why not?'"
Although her first solo recording (also on Compass) exposed the gifted musician to new fans, millions of concertgoers and record buyers throughout the world already know Zonn's work. She's been a featured performer (on fiddle and backing vocals) in pop icon James Taylor's band for more than 12 years. Before that, she toured and recorded extensively with Vince Gill, as well as Lyle Lovett, Trisha Yearwood, Alison Krauss, Jerry Douglas and others, including Linda Ronstadt, Neil Diamond, Mickey Newbury, George Jones and Randy Travis.
Rise, which was cut "at lightning speed," in Zonn's words, over a two-day period, includes songwriting collaborations with Kim Richey, Bill Lloyd, Peter Cooper, Thomm Jutz and others, and is also distinguished by the top-shelf vocalists who contribute to the project: Taylor, Gill, Trace Adkins, Mac McAnally and Keb' Mo'.
"I like to sing with tall, skinny men: James, Trace, Vince, Keb' Mo', Mac, they're all very tall men. I've got a type," Zonn says with a laugh. "It's like dating drummers, which I've finally gotten over, thankfully. One of my better growth spurts, emotionally speaking."
To her credit, the musicians and singers who lent their talents to the project were more than willing, even if some of them were more challenging to approach, especially her current tour boss Taylor, who just this year earned the first Number One album in his 45-year career.
"I was nervous to ask everyone because I haven't recorded my own material before," Zonn confesses. "Especially with James and Mac and Vince — people who are, in my opinion, master songwriters. To say, 'Can you sing on a song that I wrote' was incredibly intimidating. But, beyond that, with James, because he's such an icon and because I have so much reverence for our working relationship, I didn't want to over-ask. He knew I was making a record and he was really thrilled about that and supportive. After we had already cut all of the rough tracking pieces, I took him a CD and I said, 'James, here's a CD and it would mean the world to me if you would….' He said, 'Yes! Anything you want.' I didn't even finish the question. I said, 'Well, listen and tell me if it's OK with you.' He was like, 'It is.' I cried. I cried a lot during this record."
One of the most instantly endearing tracks on Rise, thanks to its lilting melody and uplifting lyrics is "Crazy If You Let It," which Zonn penned with Thomm Jutz and Bill Lloyd.
"You can go one of two ways," she says of the song's message. "You can either shroud yourself or isolate yourself from risk or you can go forward and risk it and allow yourself to potentially have some joy. The less we can let the other stuff get in our way the better."
To help deliver the song's hopeful message, Zonn enlisted Gill, with whom she first started touring when she was 20. (Listen to their collaboration below.)
"He's been a part of more than half of my life," she says of the Country Music Hall of Fame member who gave the musician her first high-profile gig. "I've always been somebody who does my homework and comes prepared. Working with him, his standards are so high. If you liken it to a baseball player having a batting average, you'd better be close to hitting a thousand. It's what his music demands and what it requires when it's at its best."
Rise, which also features veteran players Steve Gadd and Willie Weeks on drums and bass, respectively, is distinguished by Zonn's sweetly vulnerable vocals on such tracks as "Let Them Go." But the singer also gets a little jazzy with the wistful "Another Swing and a Miss," and soulful with the Celtic-flavored "Ships," which features the booming bass of country star Adkins.
"I adore Trace," says Zonn. "I did a Christmas tour with him a couple of years ago. I was so nervous because he's six-foot-seven or something and as wide as Mack truck. He doesn't say much when you meet him. He's a studier. So it took a little while. But the nature of that Christmas record that he did, it's all Celtic. He sings that stuff so beautifully. I got a real sense of. . . I call it his soft underbelly. He doesn't like when I call it that. [Laughs] He's like, 'Nobody's supposed to know about that.'"
On August 26th, Zonn and many of the artists who assisted with Rise will perform on Nashville's Americana variety show, Music City Roots. The hour-long set will be filmed for an upcoming Public Television special. Zonn's Rise 2015 Tour dates are scheduled throughout the fall.
Here's the track list for Andrea Zonn's Rise:
"Another Side of Home"
"No Reason to Feel Good"
"Crazy If You Let It"
"I Can't Talk About It Now"
"Let Them Go"
"Where the Water Meets the Sky"
"Another Swing and a Miss"
"You Make Me Whole"