Opening doors in a Grand fashion

The Isaacs perform at Coffmania in Danville, Ky., on August 28.

Isaacs humbled by Opry invitation, see another opportunity to share the gospel

By John Herndon, KentuckySings.com

(First of two parts. Coming soon, The Isaacs talk about their latest album, “The American Face.”)

The Isaacs had no idea that August 10 would be a night that would change their lives forever. 

None. There was no clue that a special night would be elevated to the realm of extraordinary.

And there was certainly no indication that the most coveted invitation among Nashville musicians would be theirs before they left the stage that Tuesday evening.

And almost three weeks after being asked to become the newest members of The Grand Ole Opry, there was still a sense of wonder in their voices. 

“We were going to have a release party at The Opry,” Lily Isaacs remembered as the group was preparing to sing at Coffmania at Danville Church of God on August 28. “We were scheduled to perform at The Opry on August 10. When we found out that our new album (“The American Face”) was going to be released on August 13, we asked The Opry if we could feature a couple of our new songs that were coming on the album.”

Most sets on The Grand Ole Opry last about 15 minutes, giving artists time to sing only three or four songs, at most.

“They were so kind to give us half an hour,” Lily said.

Little did Lily, her three children or most everyone else in the audience know what was coming.

They sang four songs to an audience that included some of their best friends from around Nashville there for the album release party.

Lily Isaacs sings during Coffmania at Danville Church of God, August 28, 2021. (All photos by John Herndon.)

Only then did anything seem remotely unusual. 

Lily, whose parents had come to America after surviving the Holocaust, continued, “We were getting ready to do the last song of the set, ‘The American Face. I always introduce it because of my history of being an immigrant, my parents becoming citizens and myself. I love to introduce that song and how America gave my family a chance. 

“I stepped up and heard somebody talking into a microphone behind me. It caught me off guard. It was Ricky (Skaggs). I turned to the side and he said, ‘I have something to say.’

Skaggs, a member of The Opry since 1982, was holding a plaque congratulating the group on the new album before saying, “And The Opry would like to know if you would like to become members of The Grand Ole Opry.”

Stunned cannot capture the reaction of one of gospel music’s most beloved groups. 

“It took us a second to process that, but once we did, we lost it,” Lily smiled. “It was like shock. It was a total surprise.”

It was also a surprise to Skaggs, a fellow Bluegrass musician and a close family friend.

“They didn’t tell Ricky he was going to be inviting us until about 10 minutes before he went out”  Sonya Isaacs Yeary remembered. “Ricky and his wife, Sharon, who sings with The Whites, are such godly people. They love Jesus more than anything in this world. He has a very prophetic gift. On top of that, Ricky is one of the greatest influences on our musical careers. We listened to Ricky Skaggs records growing up and tried to emulate his style, me with the mandolin playing and just singing the harmonies.”

It was fitting that the Opry’s management chose Skaggs to extend The Isaacs’ invitation. 

Sonya Isaacs Yeary sings and plays her mandolin during Coffmania at Danville Church of God.

Membership in The Opry does not have a set criteria, but is considered the pinnacle of success in country music and related genres such as Bluegrass and Americana. Opry.com explains, “There’s no magic formula, no secret code that grants access to one of the most coveted invitations in all of music. Opry membership is the highest honor granted to artists who have not only made a significant contribution to country music but also continuously demonstrate a commitment to the Opry and the relationships made within its hallowed halls.”

While The Isaacs have been performing at the Opry for decades, membership invitations extended to gospel groups are very rare. Only a handful of gospel groups have been members since the Opry began in 1925 and there are currently no other predominantly gospel groups holding memberships in the Grand Ole Opry.

There are currently 65 active memberships at The Opry and The Isaacs will be inducted at the show on September 14. Also scheduled to appear on the Opry that night are The Gatlin Brothers, Drew Parker, Mark Wills, Rhonda Vincent and Skaggs. Tickets are available at Opry.com.

“The first show we did on the Opry, we were invited by Porter Wagoner,” Lily recalled. “We had been on his TV show several times, so we visited the Opry three or four times a year. 

Not only will The Isaacs be the only predominantly gospel artist holding an Opry membership, they will be the first family group to be inducted since The Whites in 1984. The only other family group with an active membership is The Gatlins, who were inducted in 1976. 

Those statistics alone speak to the magnitude of The Isaacs’ invitation to The Grand Ole Opry. While the group has been ultra-successful in gospel music, there has always been some crossover into country and bluegrass music and the friendships they developed has opened a door that The Isaacs firmly believe is God at work. 

Sonya remembered a conversation she was part of not long before receiving the life-changing invitation to The Opry.

“About three weeks before the Opry, we were out and talked to a pastor friend of ours and he began to pour into us somewhat prophetically and said, ‘God has shown me that He is going to open a door for you all and it’s going to be a great door. And behind this door is a great mission field for your family.’”

And that’s how The Isaacs see what has opened before them. While they are well-known among Opry members — “We love them and they love us,” Lily said — having an Opry membership gives the opportunity to present the gospel through yet another avenue. 

Ben Isaacs at Coffmania on August 28, 2021.

“We were so honored that the Lord would give us this opportunity because in my heart, we have been placed there by the Lord for a reason,” Lily said. “In my heart, I feel that. I feel that we are supposed to be there now or we wouldn’t be there. Every time we have ever been at the Opry, there are so many of the artists that are good friends of ours. We have gone to worship services with them. We have dinner with them. We fellowship with them outside of work. They just seem like family.”

And the audience for hearing the gospel just got bigger for The Isaacs. It’s not a preachy style of sharing God’s message. Instead it’s through lyrics delivered with the tight family harmonies for which The Isaacs are known.

There is no secret of the message in their music.

“Everyone approaches that differently,” Lily explained. “We feel like we have to share the gospel, but I think you can share the gospel without preaching….That’s not my personality anyway. I come from Judaism. I think if you live the life and be the light that Jesus wants you to be, that speaks louder than words sometimes.”

And now those actions will be in the spotlight of country music’s biggest stage.

“If you can identify with people, they will trust you,” Ben said. “We have always been about the Word. We love the Lord. We love the Christian acts. That’s what we have been and that’s not changing. It’s just we are expanding and trying to bring more people in.”

But Ben broke into a big smile as he reflected on the honor bestowed on The Isaacs on August 10.

“In nearly 100 years of the Grand Ole Opry, there have only been 216 artists invited as members and we are No. 216,” he said. “If you look at music — bluegrass, country, Americana, the crossover genres — to have what I call an ‘attaboy’ from your peers, it is very special.”

Opry invitation a blessing in the midst of tough times

Even though The Isaacs are one of the most popular groups in gospel music, they have not been immune to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Like every other artist across all musical genres, The Isaacs were largely shut down when the pandemic slammed America in March 2020. Things came to an abrupt halt as dates were mostly canceled and other projects were put on hold.

Then the coronavirus became personal. “I actually had COVID pretty bad last July and August, really August,” Ben Isaacs said. “I was down for about 16 days. My biggest lesson during that time was, ‘Trust His Word.’”

Becky Isaacs Bowman says God has shown his faithfulness in meeting needs during the COVID pandemic.

The virus also infected Lily, Becky and Sonya, but with much milder cases.

Like others, the Isaacs tasted the new experience of staying home for extended periods. “I really enjoyed being with my kids but it felt sort of like the Twilight Zone for the first couple of months,” Sonya Issacs Yeary remembered. “Something just doesn’t feel right about what’s going on. We were thinking we need more work so we really prayed a lot….We were like, ‘OK, Lord, we are depending on you. And He met every need.”

It was simply a manifestation of the words of a hymn The Isaacs featured on their Grammy nominated album, Nature’s Symphony in 432.

All I have needed Thy hand has provided

Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord unto me.

— Thomas Obediah Chisholm, 1923, 1951 Hope Publishing Co.

“In my life, there are a lot of different scenarios that God is faithful,” Becky Isaacs Bowman said. “I look at my family because we are constantly living with the threat of being shut down again in 2021. If God hasn’t proven that He can sustain us through a famine of 2020, then we did not learn our lesson. God is faithful. He has proven to be faithful in the valleys and wilderness areas.”

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