Tony Cummings reports on the US group ASHMONT HILL who've registered in both the black gospel and white CCM charts
One of the most off-putting aspects of the whole American Christian music scene is how divided the industry remains along racial grounds. Black gospel radio stations will seldom consider playing any music by white artists and the scenario is reversed with white CCM stations giving little or no exposure to gospel music (whether traditional, R&B or hip-hop). Addressing this perplexing anomaly are a vocal group from Boston whose musical style is an amalgam of black and white influences.
Ashmont Hill got their name from an inner city area of Boston, Massachusetts. They are led by Phil Thompson who formed Ashmont Hill out of Jubilee Christian Church, his father's congregation in Boston, with sisters April Joy Thompson and Deborah Bullock, along with Deborah's husband Will Bullock. Commented Phil, "We actually love all types of Christian music. We grew up on The Winans and Commissioned; me and April were BeBe & CeCe growing up." Added sister April, "We also grew up on Michael W Smith and Amy Grant. We love listening to Hillsong, Nichole Nordeman, Natalie Grant, Leeland - we love Leeland! Our Dad instilled in us from the beginning the need to be a church without walls. It really fed into our belief that the Body of Christ needed to hear the music that the Lord was inspiring within us."
April spoke to ChristianMusic.com about the origins of Ashmont Hill. "There are five boys and three girls in our family. We all grew up singing. It's a very musical family. We performed at weddings, funerals, that kind of thing. Then one day my dad asked four of us to sing something before he preached, one of his favourite hymns. We really liked the way we sounded together. Philip and I have always wanted to do something professionally. We always had that desire to record and sing. It was like a divine moment for us." Originally, the quartet included brother Michael. When he became youth director at Bishop Thompson's Jubilee Christian Church, it became impossible for Michael to tour. Deborah's husband, Wil, replaced him, keeping it in the family.
The group's creamy harmonies and desire to challenge the prejudiced thinking inherent in the black-white divide eventually paid off when, in 2008, Ashmont Hill signed with Axiom Records. While the group were still working on their self-titled debut with producer Sal Oliveri they landed an opening slot on tour with CCM's most popular female singer Natalie Grant. The 'Ashmont Hill' album, with its mixture of originals and worship songs (including two Matt Redman numbers), began to get attention from both black and white radio stations with the inspirational ballad "Song Of Glory" eventually becoming a Top 5 hit. The album finally reached number 10 in the black gospel charts and number 16 in the white CCM charts.
If 'Ashmont Hill' was a good start, the group's second release, 'Your Masterpiece', released by Axiom on 25th May, is far more focussed. Said Phil Thompson, who had a hand in writing nine of the album's 13 tracks, "As we were coming into this album, we had a better idea of who we are as artists and I felt a lot more confident as a songwriter. The first album helped us learn what our sound is, but I feel the touring and radio experiences since helped us to step up our game and build upon that sound. We now have a clearer picture of who Ashmont Hill is. I really feel like we have grown leaps and bounds from the first record."
Like its predecessor, 'Your Masterpiece' has its share of worship songs. Both "Sanctuary" and "Your Love Saves Me" are tender Hillsong-styled ballads that draw the heart into quiet thankfulness and surrender to the Lord. But it's clear from talking with Phil that the title track is the song that he is especially proud of. "I was talking one day with my co-writer Zenzo [Matoga] about writing a song about the cross. And we came up with this amazing melody, but the lyrics just weren't flowing that day. Stepping out of the room for a moment, I suddenly had a vision of Christ on the cross as a painting, and the word 'masterpiece' came to me. It then occurred to me that the cross was the canvas with which God created his greatest masterpiece. Everything flowed and clicked from there." April chimed in, "The first time I heard that song, I just wept. I caught Phil's vision from the lyrics and it just gives me goose bumps: 'On the cross with blood/You painted Your masterpiece/Selfless love hanging on a tree for me/Your outstretched arms is a portrait for all to see/Selfless love hanging on a tree for me.'"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.