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Ashley Cleveland: God Don’t Never Change

| November 17, 2010 | 0 Comments

Ashley Cleveland is a three-time Grammy and two-time Dove Award winner who has released eight critically acclaimed albums. She is the first woman ever to be nominated and the first ever to win in the Best Rock Gospel Album Grammy category. She is the only artist ever to receive three nominations in the Best Rock Gospel Album category and win each time.

In some very real ways, God Don’t Never Change is Ashley Cleveland’s first gospel record.

Yes, the new record is Ashley’s eighth full-length project. Yes, she’s been plying her trade in the ephemeral corner of the music world called “Christian music” pretty much from the get-go, crafting earthy songs with a heavenly message for nearly two decades. And yes, she’s even recorded an entire album of hymns, 2005’s Men & Angels Say.

The songs on God Don’t Never Change – ranging from the Blind Willie Johnson title track or the Washington Phillips tune “Denomination Blues” or the echoes of Mattie Moss Clark on “Going To Heaven To Meet The King” – send Cleveland in yet another direction.

These vintage black gospel songs come from a rich history of struggle and pain, more from open-sky fields than high-ceilinged cathedrals, and have found their latest voice in a woman willing to work hard to find her own place within them.

“I’ve always been interested in other people’s songs,” Ashley says. “These songs and old hymns, both types of music, speak to such a specific place in my soul. They’re so much a part of my life, having grown up in the South, and that music is part of my heritage as much as the hymns are.

God Don’t Never Change was inspired by an NPR “Fresh Air” interview with Baylor University Journalism Professor Bob Darden in which he discussed his passion for old obscure recordings of black gospel music.

“Kenny [Greenberg, Ashley’s producer/guitarist/husband] and I are both huge fans of Fresh Air and National Public Radio in general,” Cleveland says. “So we were each in our separate cars, and we were listening to an episode where Terry Gross was interviewing Robert Darden. He has taken it upon himself to track down old, obscure recordings of soloists and choirs. Terry was interviewing him and it was fascinating, and then they’d play little pieces of the music.

“Kenny came home and said, ‘I heard the most amazing thing on NPR,’ and I said, ‘I heard it too!’ And he says, ‘You need to make a record of that music. That’s you. That’s always been you. Why aren’t you making this music?’ Once it became real, I started gathering songs.”

“I had a few songs that I knew I wanted to do, like [the Edwin Hawkins Singers classic] ‘Joy Joy’ which I’d had since the ’70s,” Ashley says. “One fan sent me an old radio show from 1959 which features Mahalia Jackson being interviewed by Studs Terkel and singing. It was so fantastic to find the songs that I felt like I could really own to the fullest extent.”

“What was hard for me was the singing. We’re talking about trying to recreate a song that Mahalia sang, and it’s intimidating. You’re trying to step into some pretty big shoes,” she continues. “Several of those songs, I bet I went after those vocals 10 times before I was finally satisfied. Kenny would say they sounded great, and I’d insist that, no, it’s just not right, you can hear me thinking.”

Admittedly, it took a little bit of a move to the side for the longtime songwriter to shift into song interpreter. “It almost becomes like songwriting in a way, because I rearranged some things to fit more what I can do,” Ashley says. “The best example is the first song on the record ‘My God Called Me This Morning,’ because I found that on a Fairfield Four record and it was a cappella. It was magnificent, but I ain’t the Fairfield Four. When I tried to do it a cappella, it was pitiful.”

“I loved so much what this songs says, a tremendous declaration of an encounter with the living God, so I was determined to figure out how I could find my own way into the song,” she continues. “I sat down with my guitar and started going into different tunings and found this spot where I could own it. In a way, I collaborated with the song itself.”

For Ashley, gathering stories about the songs and the people who popularized them was an equally important part of the process. “I asked Odessa Settles, whose father Walter was the member of the Fairfield Four who sang the lead on that song, if they wrote this, and she said, ‘Oh, no, it’s just an old field holler,’” Ashley says.

“And then there was Reverend Gary Davis, who sang “You Gotta Move,” and he embodies all the darkness and light of any great Old Testament figure you could possibly think of,” Ashley laughs. “He could write some pretty low-down blues music, but then he’d turn around and play these amazing gospel songs.”

“That tension, to me, in what little I know about him, is so real and so true to every human being in the world. He just displayed it a little more entertainingly.”

“With the hymns, it’s all about the poetry, where with black gospel, there’s this economy of words. Both types use straight scripture, but where the hymns will expand on it and the words will flow, the gospel song will have fewer words but the right ones,” Ashley says. “You’ve got ‘Keep Your Lamp Trimmed And Burning,’ which is a straight repetition from the Psalms, and then ‘see what the Lord has done.’ And you’re finished. That’s a lot of information in two lines.”

And as she has become a de facto historian and caretaker of these songs, Ashley Cleveland has grown in her understanding of how many of them emerged. “To me the most amazing thing is people taking horrible pain and loss and allowing something God-given and beautiful to come of it, as opposed to succumbing to bitterness,” she says. “These songs speak to the sorrow in my own soul, and they’re uplifting.”

NOTE FROM LYDIA: Speaking of uplifting, here’s a video of Ash performing the Stones’ “Gimme Shelter.” Wow. Just wow.

Category: Be Heard Jukebox Archive

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