Return to Sons of Sylvia

Siblings tackle success with an assist from Carrie Underwood

By Tony Sauro
Record Staff Writer
September 28, 2010 12:01 AMThe Sons of Sylvia also could be called the Brothers of Carrie.

"It's been, like, something crazy," said Ashley Clark, one of three siblings in the Nashville-based Sons of Sylvia. "It's been just like, go, go, go, go, go, go, go. Like that. She's been totally supportive, She's always giving us shout-outs."

More than that.

Underwood was instrumental in helping them break out as a group and has supported and elevated their career by including them on her 101-city "Play On" tour that arrives at Stockton Arena tonight.

Underwood, of course, is the 27-year-old singer-songwriter who won Fox's 2005 "American Idol" competition and was voted the Academy of Country Music's back-to-back entertainer of the year in 2009-10.

An "out-of-the-blue" phone call Clark received from Underwood's representatives in 2005 helped create the impetus for Sons of Sylvia.

"It was a call asking me if I could play for this girl named Carrie Underwood," Clark, 29, said from a recent tour stop in Portland, Ore. "They said, 'Hey, do you sing background vocals?' I said, 'Yeah. I play fiddle, too.'

"They asked me if I'd like to play. I said, 'Yeah, sure.' I didn't know who Carrie Underwood was. I didn't know that much about 'American Idol.' Next thing I know, we're on (David) Letterman and 'SNL (Saturday Night Live).' I'm going, 'This is really big. This is huge, you know?' "

It got even bigger.

After accompanying Underwood for two and a half years, Clark reconnected with brothers Adam, 31, and Austin, 26, to rekindle half of the Clark Family Experience - in which they and three other brothers (Aaron, Andrew and Alan) had supported their father, a traveling preacher, for most of their lives.

With Underwood's assistance, the Clark brothers got a spot on Fox's "The Next Great American Band." They won.

Underwood asked them to sing a duet ("What Can I Say") on "Play On," the 2009 album that's become her third straight million-seller. They changed their name to Sons of Sylvia.

"She wanted us to do a duet," Clark said. "I grabbed her by the shoulder and said, 'Sure. We're nobodies.' We just laughed."

She introduced the brothers when they performed "Love Left to Lose," the single from their 2010 debut album ("Revelation"), on the April 28 "American Idol" results show. It was their first gig as the Sons.

"Our song went to No. 1 pop on iTunes and No. 2 overall," Clark said. "We were the most Google-d band the next day."

Underwood has been an inspiration.

"Oh, she's amazing," Clark said of the Muskogee, Okla., native who's at the peak of her popularity. "She's, like, really just genuine. She's the same person I first met in 2005. Nothing has got to her.

"She's, like, the perfect combination of timeless country, and brings just the right amount of pop in there, too. It's not overkill. She does it just right."

So do the brothers, who grew up playing country, bluegrass and gospel but are expanding into rock and pop. They write their own songs.

"We're still discovering new sounds," said Clark, who sings and plays fiddle, mandolin and guitar. "The sound we play is kind of bluegrass. We want to make it more rock or something. We're kind of figuring out ways to make a mandolin sound like an electric guitar."

Born in Preskile, Maine, the three Sons - Adam plays guitar and violin, Austin sings and plays resonator guitar - and their three siblings (born in various Virginia locations) spent their youth on the move, following dad Freddy, a nondenominational preacher.

Clark said their mother, Sylvia, "Wanted girls really bad. She was determined to have girls. She had a bunch of 'A' names picked out. After the six boys, she finally had twin girls, Amy and Amber.

"We moved all the time," said Clark, who, like his brothers, was tutored by a family member. "We grew up playing music our whole life. It just feels like a normal thing. Just like it's a part of us. It doesn't feel strange or anything like that."

Their post-preaching Clark Family Experience ended in bankruptcy, though they did record one hit single ("Meanwhile Back at the Ranch") in 2002.

"No one could get on the same page," Clark said. "Your whole life you play together and you know what? When you get older, you kind of want to be on your own for a minute.

"The six of us were, like, country kids. We were just kids. We tried a country thing and all just split up. I know I learned something. I think I learned what not to do."

Following the breakup, Austin was performing with SHeDAISY. Clark was stranded at a "little church in the middle of nowhere."

He saved some money, bought a 1986 Ford Bronco - "a piece of junk" - and drove form Rocky Mount, Va., to Austin's Nashville residence.

"I showed up and asked, 'Can I sleep on the couch?' " Clark said with a laugh. "He said, 'I'm sleeping on the couch. You can sleep on the floor.' So, I did."

Clark got a gig fiddling in James Otto's band. Then came the Carrie Call.

After Adam arrived in Nashville, the brothers started jamming. Underwood suggested trying "The Next Great American Band."

They cranked out a crude audition video in Austin's basement, got invited to Las Vegas and won.

Then, "Carrie asked if we would open up on tour for her," Clark said. "It was all so surreal. Man, I'm just enjoying it. I'm thankful and feel blessed."

Despite the usual sibling rivalries, Clark family life on the road remains mostly harmonious.

"There are definitely times when you're just, like, 'Dude, I love you guys, but I've gotta get out of here,' " Clark said. "It's not as bad as it used to be. We used to be, like, horrible to each other. Now, we're really closer and just enjoying the moment. We might never get this chance again."