Last year, Ashley Cleveland won a GRAMMY in the Rock Gospel Album category, just as she had twice before. So, unless we're in a time warp, it doesn't seem like she could also be releasing her first gospel album on May 19.
But she is. And it's a reminder that musical categories can get slippery—especially when they're built on the music's content, sound, origins and market. Here's the thing: God Don't Never Change is gospel gospel—as in, music birthed in African-American religious traditions, with roots reaching back centuries. Cleveland, on the other hand, has spent the past 18 years writing and recording her own satisfying, bluesy rock songs with spiritual themes.
"Gospel has become sort of a catch-all phrase," she says. "But it's not really. I mean, to me, true gospel—and in this case black gospel—is very, very distinctive and blazes a very clear trail from its origins to where it is today."
Cleveland has never gone about selecting album material this way before, not even for her only other "covers" set, a hymns collection. The process was not unlike song-plugging, done in reverse. (Her fans—not publishers or songwriters—sent recordings of old gospel songs for her to check out.) "I think one of the things that so touches me about the old hymns and these old gospel songs is that idea that people who were really in situations that were unspeakable in terms of pain in their lives were still able to believe in a God that loved them," she says.
Cleveland worked to make the songs her own with the help of her husband, Kenny Greenberg, an A-list guitarist who's played on every one of her eight albums and produced most of them. "In a very real way, when Kenny and I make these records, he's as much the artist as I am, although he chooses not to be identified that way," she says.
They took the country-blues number "You Got To Move"—which has been recorded with a bone-weary feel by everybody from Mississippi Fred McDowell and Rev. Gary Davis to the Stones—and attacked it as feverish Chicago blues-rock. Theirs is twice the tempo of even Aerosmith's 2004 version. "I felt like the lyric was just so.... It was about moving," Cleveland says. "So it lends itself to that."
The heaviest lifting—call it wrestling, even—happened at the vocal mic. Cleveland is a fabulously gritty singer, capable of unleashing heat of the sort gospel singers are known for. And even though she says the songs felt like home, they also demanded more of her than she's used to giving.
"I had to keep singing them until I could forget about it and just sing it," she says. "I was very intimidated by the original recordings, and I also felt like there was no need for me to try to re-create what they'd already done so beautifully.... After you've been making records for a while, you feel like you have some idea of how to do it. But this is really pretty new territory for me. It was a stumbling block in a way. But in another way, by the time I did finally get to the right vocals, I was so happy that I stayed with it and refused to settle."
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