This week’s Roots features a woman who sings about the inspiration of God and a girl who sings with apparently God-inspired talent. It’s a compliment and contrast worthy of Roots, balancing the exuberance of youth with the wisdom of experience. I hope the gentlemen on our bill this week have fortitude and self-esteem, because as great as they are, I think the aura around the females will be very bright indeed.
Ashley Cleveland, our wily veteran and show-closing artist, makes her second appearance at MCR more than five years after her first, which was back in our WSM days at the Loveless Barn. Supported by her husband Kenny Greenberg on guitar plus a staggering Nashville rhythm section of Chad Cromwell (drums) and Michael Rhodes (bass), she offered a crash course in the genre in which she’s won several Grammy Awards: Rock Gospel. While a lot of Christian pop music gives me sugar cavities and a brain freeze, this is the terrain where artists have had plenty of musical space for groove, grit, volume, guitars, passion and soul. (Now there’s an even earthier Grammy category for Roots Gospel Album; the first last year was won by our pal and certainly a gospel rocker, Mike Farris.)
“I did not start out singing Christian or gospel music,” she told BMI in an interview. The Knoxville native spent years in Nashville singing background vocals prolifically and writing before she landed a deal on the mega-major Atlantic Records. “My fantasy, and my heart, is as a rock and roll singer, and my deal with Atlantic was a rock deal. But on that first record, Big Town, I had written two songs that were very clearly about faith. So even though that record didn’t even have distribution in the CCM (Contemporary Christian Music) market, Christians recognized those two songs as being songs about faith and began to talk about them.”
Atlantic didn’t want to go that direction, but she found labels that did, and she dove deep into a musical world that was very big out of Nashville in the 1990s. Her album Lesson of Love of 1995 nabbed her first Grammy award. Not that all of this was easy. In her recent memoir Little Black Sheep she describes the wounds of a difficult childhood, struggles with addiction and a slow, challenging journey to recovery and fulfillment. Her place of respect in Nashville’s music scene and her long marriage to Greenberg are two visible parts of that success story. You’ll hear all this experience and faith in her powerful performance.
Then there’s EmiSunshine, a tiny person making big waves in country music, and while her name is all sweetness and light, she is – at only 10 years old – showing an uncanny feeling for the darker, deeper sides of the genre as well. She sings delightfully as you’d expect from a child prodigy from rural Tennessee, but she’s got a rich, grown-up break and yodel in her voice that she uses brashly, and then suddenly she’ll be roaring and growling and showing emotional intensity that a lot of adults never achieve. She sings Dolly and bluegrass standards, but she also covers the Grateful Dead. And she writes too. Has since she was five. She brought the house down upon making her Grand Ole Opry debut last year, and she played the Today Show. Now she’s out juggling school with 150 dates a year touring with her family band, including Dad on bass. It’ll get interesting when record companies start glomming on to her with their message of “We love you; now change!” But here’s what Emi’s bio says: “EmiSunshine’s career moves will be dictated not by opportunities, but integrity. She knows who she is and what she wants her music to be, and her parents remain committed to ensuring that her wishes are not compromised in any way.” You go girl.
Andrew Duhon visits us for the first time since his Feb. 2013 Roots debut. Right about that time the much awarded troubadour from New Orleans released his formal debut album The Moorings, and it’s a stellar blend of easy, smart folk pop and funkier, bluesier music like the ancient-sounding “Sidestep Your Grave.” He’s an expressive guitar player, an honest storyteller and an avid traveler. He loves ink on paper, as you’ll see if you check out his unique approach to blogging. And by the way Andrew was set to be on our star-crossed Feb. 18, 2015 show, which ended up being the only one we’ve ever had to cancel for freezing weather. We’ll welcome him warmly.
And our other dude of song is Ryan Culwell, a native of the Texas panhandle who’s moved to Music City. In his seriousness and uniqueness of voice he reminds me of Oklahoma newcomers Parker Millsap and John Fullbright, both MCR alums. But Ryan has his own thing going on, and he told All Access that it’s not as tied up with the Texas Guy/Townes thing as you might expect: “When you live in such a remote area, you don’t really have any context for what is going on regionally. I just developed my sound the way I saw fit, more influenced by windstorms than anything else. Turns out it fits with other Texas songwriters pretty well.” Windstorms. That makes me shiver a little bit. This is deep and nourishing stuff and it’ll open our show. It may be on the dark side, but by the time we’re done on Wednesday night, you’ll be sure to see the light.