On her new album CCM veteran ASHLEY CLEVELAND brings new passion and conviction to the American hymnal. She met Phil Whittall in Nashville.
Respected by fans and critics alike, Ashley Cleveland has pedigree - she was the first woman ever to be nominated for a Grammy Award in the Best Rock Gospel Album category, the first woman to win that award and the only woman ever to receive the award twice. She has notable name recognition in both the CBA and mainstream markets as reflected by her two Grammy Awards, three Dove Awards, and a Nashville Music Award (NAMMY), and has toured with artists such as Rich Mullins, Amy Grant and Margaret Becker and contributed vocals on over 300 albums during the past decade.
Her latest album is 'Men and Angels Say', a collection of hymns that portray the spiritual journey the singer has experienced in life. It's picking up considerable airplay on American Christian radio. What is ironic about Ashley's on-going popularity in Nashville's CCM scene is that she had set out intending to forge a career in the mainstream. Cleveland was born in Knoxville, Tennessee in 1957 but moved with her mother (following a divorce) to San Francisco where she was brought up. Relocating to Nashville in 1988 she was soon singing backing sessions for numerous stars both mainstream (Joe Cocker, Emmylou Harris, Patti Smith, Steve Windwood) and CCM (Amy Grant, Russ Taff). A song Ashley wrote, "Threshing Floor", was recorded by Steve Camp and another, "Well Done", was a Christian radio hit for Trace Balin. However, with the help of acclaimed singer/songwriter John Hiatt, Ashley won a mainstream record deal and in 1991 Atlantic Records released Ashley's 'Big Town' debut. It didn't sell though Billboard proclaimed it one of the year's "Ten Most Overlooked Albums". Ashley signed with a Christian label, Reunion. Her 'Bus Named Desire' with its sensual songs about married love offended the sensibilities of blinkered Christians but the next one, 1995's 'Lesson Of Love', with its gritty blues-tinged sounds produced a number one Christian radio hit with her cover "He Is", penned by country gospel man Buddy Greene. By 2000 she'd left Blanton & Harrell's Reunion Records but after an album for small independent 204 Records signed with Rambler/BHT Records, the company started by Mike Blanton, Dan Harrell and Steve Thomas. 'Men And Angels Say' is her first album with the company.
It's certainly much, much more than a CCM star doing the predictable hymns album. The passion and energy Cleveland puts into ancient worship anthems like "Come Ye Sinners", "Christ the Lord Is Risen Today" and a powerful rendition of "Holy Holy Holy" draws the listener into a closer understanding of the grace and mercy of God. The album explores the messages of hope and mercy behind these anointed hymns, which Ashley is passionate about keeping alive in the modern Church.
The songs on the album portray the struggles and spiritual journey that Ashley has experienced first-hand. Cleveland feels very strongly about the music on this project. "This is a deeply personal album for me. When I was entrenched in alcoholism and drug addiction, the hymns that I grew up singing would come to me unbidden and forgotten for years, and I would come undone remembering the messages of hope and mercy in each song," recalls Cleveland. Now, she is passionate about these precious songs and pays homage to and reintroduces a collection of hymns that have impacted her faith and helped her through the dark periods in her life.
Ashley recalls, "I have wanted to make an album of hymns for a good 10 years; I've been including them in my performances longer than that and am something of a crusader to keep the hymns alive in the Church. I think that there is something about these songs that touches my soul in a way that no other music does. They are the truest form of worship for me and when my mind and body were addled and full of despair, hymns would float through my mind and give me a sense that God was near and that there was hope."
When asked whether there was a personal favourite hymn the answer was unequivocal. "My favourite hymn is 'Come Thou Fount' because it is a flawless hymn musically and lyrically to me and because I deeply identify with the author's wandering heart: 'Prone to wander, Lord I feel it/Prone to leave the God I love/Here's my heart, oh take and seal it/Seal it for thy courts above.' Yes!!"
It's been a mixed journey of faith and discovery for Ashley as she herself admits, "I don't remember a time in my life when I did not believe the Gospel but my understanding of God has changed dramatically over the years. My initial impression was that he was performance oriented and somewhat capricious - much like my own father. Eventually and specifically through a pregnancy where I was unmarried, drug and alcohol addicted and waiting for the bomb to drop, I discovered a tender, merciful God who rescued me from that black hole and whom I've devoted my life to."
The influences on her life both musically and spiritually are diverse and eclectic. "I am a child of the '70s and most of my musical influences are from that era. I'll give a partial list: Neil Young, CSN, Joni Mitchell, The Rolling Stones, Van Morrison, James Taylor, Bonnie Raitt, Stevie Wonder, Little Feat, Aretha Franklin, The Who, etc. Spiritually, apart from the scriptures and various relationships I've had with pastors and other teachers, I am impacted by great writers such as Annie Dillard, Brennan Manning, Madeleine L'Engle, Kathleen Norris, Frederick Buechner to name a few. I have also been profoundly instructed by the book Alcoholics Anonymous and its practices."
Her experiences with alcohol and drug abuse have led her to be very involved in efforts to combat these issues and been involved in a music project called SHARE as Ashley explained, "SHARE is an acronym for Songs of Hope And Recovery. An album of music was created around that theme to provide awareness regarding addiction and also to raise money for a treatment fund for those that needed it. I was asked to sing a Neil Young song, 'The Needle And The Damage Done' on the record and was pleased to be part of it because the recovery community plays a large role in my life and faith - I am now recovered from alcohol and drug addiction but remain active in a 12 step programme and consider it life saving. I also consider Neil Young as a primary influence (if not "the" primary influence) in my music so it was a treat to record one of his songs. I have played a number of concerts for SHARE for various recovery based organisations and now include it in my career focus."
In addition to a new album Ashley also enjoyed some unexpected publicity when one of her songs, "Power Of Love" was featured on reality TV show American Idol. The song, which was performed by semi-finalist Nadia Turner, was penned for Cleveland's 2002 release 'Second Skin' and was co-written with husband Kenny Greenberg (2004 Country Music Association nominee, Musician Of The Year and one of the music industry's most in-demand guitarists and producers) and proved to be a pleasant surprise to Ashley. "The whole event was surreal to me but wonderful in a way for two reasons: Firstly I became instantly relevant to my children and secondly I loved the idea of someone singing a gospel song in such an overtly secular environment. The production people at American Idol had contacted the company that administrates my publishing catalogue for sheet music on the song (which we, of course, did not have) so I knew something was afoot but did not know exactly what."
A lot of the remainder of 2005 will be taken up with a significant tour with Jars Of Clay but going on the road over a long period of time got a mixed reaction from the veteran singer. "I don't think anyone with any kind of meaningful family life enjoys touring - the road is very anti-family. But I love to play; I love my fans and I love connecting with new audiences so, for me it's kind of a love/hate thing. But I'm really looking forward to this particular tour, I think the music will be stellar. I worked with Jars Of Clay on their last record: 'Who We Are Instead' which was a highlight of that year for me. I sang with them last year on the Dove Awards but have otherwise not worked with them on a tour."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.