There is just something about Guthrie, OK and the love of bluegrass music. For Lisa Sorrell, that combination led her to become one of the finest custom shoe and boot makers in the country.
It all began with her dad, Don Johnson.
“While driving home (which was in Guthrie) from Oklahoma city, Don witnessed a hawk drop down and grab a snake in his mouth; later that evening, Don drew a sketch of that. Lisa was 4-5 years old, and with pencil in hand she sketched that vision,” shared her mother, Lana Johnson.
Every year for Christmas and birthdays, Lisa got art sets. She was 12 years old when she expressed an interest in sewing. Lana taught her the basics of sewing. One of the most important things Lisa learned was, “This is the tension. Don’t touch the tension.”
The Johnson family moved quite a bit, and eventually settled in Neosho, MO. Lisa’s natural sewing talent allowed her to get better and better, and it wasn’t long before she held the title of seamstress for the Neosho Missouri Choir at the Ozark Bible Institute, which was her last big project in Missouri.
Lisa and Dale Sorrell were wed in 1989 and the couple moved back to Guthrie, OK. Soon after their arrival, Lisa responded to an ad in the local newspaper, advertising for a top stitcher at a local boot shop. Jay Griffith, legendary cowboy boot maker, handed Lisa an application. That application wasn’t on paper; it was actually, leather tops for a boot. A mere two weeks later, Griffith labeled Sorrell as the best he had seen. Sorrel and Griffith worked side by side for 1 ½ years.
Sorrell Custom Boots opened in 1996, and Lisa set out to become one of the most creative and notorious boot makers in the world, a goal she has surely accomplished in spades. She actually quit counting the number of custom boots that she had crafted at 500.
Her work has come to the attention of a number of celebrities. In 1997, Marty Stuart contacted Sorrell to donate him a pair of boots in exchange for advertising her wares. Lisa had to decline as she couldn’t afford to do so so soon after the shop had opened. But now, Lisa shared, she hopes he will ask again. “Marty, I will donate you a pair now. Contact me!” She is pleased that Marty understands crafting.
One day Byron Berline was walking back from the bank and dropped into the boot shop in downtown Guthrie. As they were visiting, Berline came across Lisa’s portfolio and a picture of her Sorrell’s Cherokee Fiddle boots. Sorrel shared that Berline said, “That’s me. I recorded Cherokee Fiddle, I was the fiddle player on that recording.”
Music has always been an inspiration for Sorrell. In her youth, Lisa remembered a few country and bluegrass albums her family listened to, such as Buck Owens, Dust on my Bible, and the Louvin Brothers, Satan is Real album. “Bluegrass has my heart, and classic country has my soul,” she says. Lisa actually names each pair of boots after songs that inspire her.
Lisa is a mother of two, Arthur, a librarian, and a daughter, Paige, who was her mother’s shadow in the shop. At the age of 12, Paige made her first pair of leather shoes. Paige received a full ride to the University of Central Oklahoma, but only after one semester, came home and told her mom, “I don’t want to go to college. I want to be a boot maker.” And she did. But Paige passed away in 2017, and with her death also went the wind out of Lisa’s sail.
Lisa has a very personal platform which she bases her work and life upon. That is mental health awareness. “Paige struggled daily with anxiety and depression,” Sorrell said. “There is little support for the other level of pain. Paige found peace at the shop, and the power of crafting.” Lisa was ready to quit, to give it all up, but music brought her back.
After Paige’s death, Sorell was attending a Malpass Brothers show in Branson, MO.
“I felt a peace that day, a pull to go backstage. I am sure their manager wondered who I was. I stood around and finally got to talk to both Chris and Taylor. Their music gave me a reason to live. I told them I wanted to make them a pair of boots, and I actually measured their feet backstage.”
Sorrell made Taylor a pair of Satan is Real boots, with their band logo on the back. And Chris received custom crafted Malpass Brothers footwear. Another positive thing that happened after Paige’s death was when a shoe maker from New Zealand, Flora Knight, contacted Lisa about an apprenticeship. Lisa picked Flora, a talented bluegrass fiddler, up at the airport, and moved Flora in with her and her husband. Flora has since moved into her own place, but still works side by side with Sorrell. There are rules with an apprenticeship, an apprentice never touches the master’s boots, but they are allowed to use Sorrell’s machines and supplies. “Apprentices are always welcomed,” Lisa says, “but just like the boot you must be the perfect fit.”
Being a woman in a male dominated world and craft, Sorrell has established quite a reputation for herself. She teaches clinics all over the world, holds several titles for her craftsmanship, and in November 2022 was commissioned by the Oklahoma Arts Council to create the first ever State of Oklahoma boots. Each piece of leather is cut, and sewn at one of 5 machines. Each design is hand stenciled, and nothing is computerized. “I can only draw at my bench, or the inspiration doesn’t happen,” shared Lisa.
Also, in her shop, Lisa sells supplies to other bootmakers/shoe makers. Sorrell stocks 14 models from size 4-13, 4 – EE. She also sells all leather tools and supplies. Lisa also has the only hardbound book on The Art of Leather Inlay and Overlay, published by Schiffer books.
During the Oklahoma International Bluegrass Festival in 2022, Lisa was disappointed when the Grascals went next door to Byron’s shop, and didn’t stop by her’s. She wasn’t shy about her disappointment, posting it on social media, and the next day, The Grascals dropped in and toured her shop.
Lisa still has dreams. Her biggest one is to see Russell Moore walk in the front door of her shop.
During our discussion, we had a slight interruption when the telephone rang (yes, a landline). It was Nancy Cardwell with IBMA Foundation. Sorrell had contacted the foundation to talk about raffling off a pair of custom Satan is Real boots (valued at over $10,000). These custom-made boots will be raffled at the IBMA Foundation’s Strings For Dreams Bluegrass Raffle in the Spring of 2023.
Cardwell explained a bit about the raffle and the Foundation.
“The tickets for the online raffle will go on sale April 1 and end May 12. The live online drawing will be at noon Eastern time at the IBMA Foundation Facebook page on Saturday May 13, 2023. The other prize this year will be a 1967 D-35 Martin Guitar.
The IBMA is a sister organization of the IBMA Foundation whose roots were planted in 2007. They are two separate entities with separate boards, missions and staff. They have different bluegrass music-related missions. The IBMA Foundation is the philanthropic agency for bluegrass music that supports programs and initiatives that foster the growth of bluegrass music. We are focused on supporting efforts to share bluegrass music with future generations.”
From fabric to leather, Lisa Sorrell embraces bluegrass music and will be giving back.
You can learn more about Sorrell Custom Boots, and see her portfolio of unique creations, by visiting her web site online.