NEW YORK — What does it take to get country legends like Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton and Merle Haggard on the same album? A 19-year-old newcomer named Mary Sarah.
Sarah’s debut album, “Bridges,” features duets with their original performers including Parton and Nelson on their well-known country songs. It also includes one of Ray Price’s final recordings before he died last year.
She was able to pull off the dream list of collaborators after meeting country singer-songwriter Freddy Powers, a close friend of Nelson and Haggard. Sarah, a Texas native, had performed throughout the Texas Opry circuit for years, mostly in Galveston and around Houston. She originally planned to record an album of covers from top Texas-based country singers.
“We took it to a couple people in Nashville and they said, ‘I don’t think you’re thinking big enough,’” said Sarah, who released the album independently on Tuesday. “The idea wasn’t to have a legends project. … What it turned into is really crazy and mind-blowing.”
Sarah eventually moved to Nashville, where she met Parton’s producer, who introduced her to the country diva. Other big names started rolling in, she said.
“It was miracle after miracle that these artists did this on a handshake,” she said.
“Bridges” also features Vince Gill, Tanya Tucker, Ronnie Milsap and Lynn Anderson. The big-voiced teen had been recording the album for two years, and she had kept the project “on the down low.”
“We didn’t tell many people and I think now that it’s coming out, people are like, ‘What? When did this happen?’” she said.
Sarah will reach even further territory when she opens for Haggard on his tour starting Aug. 20 in Starkville, Mississippi.
The singer, whose voice echoes Carrie Underwood, was able to hone her craft when she toured at age 12 with Kidz Bop, the brand behind the compilation albums featuring young adults rerecording popular songs. Sarah said she discovered music was her calling while on that tour.
“When I started singing, the whole crowd started singing along with me and it was a magical moment because it sounded like a choir of angels,” she said.
Another boost came when Joe Bonsall of The Oak Ridge Boys tweeted about Sarah after watching her YouTube videos and invited her to one of the group’s concerts. Backstage, he asked her to perform an a cappella version of Connie Francis’ ”Where the Boys Are,” which appears on her new album with its co-writer Neil Sedaka. The Oak Ridge Boys, who had contacted Sarah before she recorded “Bridges,” also appear on the album.
Sarah, who now lives in Franklin, Tennessee, said her follow-up album will be original songs. The blond beauty decided not to put her face on the cover of “Bridges,” which instead features the names of her collaborators.
“This project isn’t just about me. It’s about the legends and bringing this to a newer generation,” she said. “I didn’t wanna put my face on there. I didn’t wanna do anything cheesy.”
Sarah said she’s a big fan of country contemporaries like Underwood, Kacey Musgraves and Miranda Lambert, as well as Katy Perry and other pop stars. She said she hopes people her age will discover some traditional country music by listening to her album.
“I had friends all the time in high school tell me, ‘Who is that? Who is Merle Haggard? Who is Willie Nelson?’” recalled Sarah, who graduated last year. “And I’m sitting there like, ‘Oh my gosh, these people are legends and you don’t even know who they are.’”