If you know anything about the history of rock & roll--or have at least seen the movie Ray--you know something of the part that Gospel played in the beginnings of the more secular form. The intertwining of the two genres has been a running theme since the days when Little Richard was a preacher, Jerry Lee Lewis fought his battles with God and the Devil, and Elvis released records of sacred songs. It is an alliance, unholy or otherwise, that continues to this day, when Jars of Clay rock out with faith-based anthems, and Afro-American churches resound with R&B and hip-hop influenced hymns. Even metal heads can find music that praises the Lord.
Enter Ashley Cleveland whose sweet sandpaper vocals have been extolling the joy and comfort of salvation over the course of numerous award-winning records for the last decade and a half. If she is not better known even in Christian circles, it may be because her music is emblematic of the battle between body and spirit that has always been part of great rock and roll from Al Green to U-2. Though the lyrics of her own tunes and her cover choices always reflect a firm level of belief, her sexy sound and rocking band leave no doubt that the lady has not completely forsaken the pleasures of this world for the rewards of the next.
Before The Daylight's Shot brings the Christian elements slightly more to the fore than 2002's brilliant Second Skin (she released a record of hymns in the middle). The cover of former employer John Hiatt's "Riding With The King" on Second Skin is indicative of Cleveland's own lyrics on that CD, with "King" open to both secular and religious interpretation. On the new record, there is not much ambiguity about a song called "I Need Jesus," but even this non-believer could be moved by the song's message about the difference between what we want and what we need, that which is important and that which is essential. Or, I could just ignore all that and revel in husband Kenny Greenberg's slashing guitar work, and the sheer joy of singing that is evidenced every time Cleveland lets loose on the chorus.
There is plenty of pleasure here for believers and non-believers alike. The opening paean to Aretha ("Queen of Soul") and the cover of "Higher Ground" that references two Stevies--Wonder and Ray Vaughn--will appeal to those of any spiritual persuasion who love good music, as will Cleveland's rock-solid songwriting and Greenberg's perfect production.
Listening to Ashley Cleveland, I feel like the character in Marc Cohen's "Walking In Memphis." When, after entering a church meeting, he is asked if he is a Christian, moved by the music he replies, "Ma'am, I am tonight!" • Michael Ross