Ashley Cleveland, Gospel All-Stars share inspiration in Winter Park
Special to the Sky-Hi News
Ashley Cleveland has been through a lot in her life, and she’s not afraid to share her experiences with an audience. And what she can’t express in conversation, she communicates in song.
“It’s a way to articulate the inarticulate,” Cleveland said. “Singing, when I’m in my zone, is an incredible way to express that which often can’t be spoken. It’s a way to go to a different place.”
Her journey, she believes, is best told through Christian and traditional black gospel music.
“I grew up in Tennessee,” said Cleveland. “I had the benefit of many African American women in my life who taught me gospel. But I’m atypical. I go everywhere and belong everywhere. I play a lot in the secular marketplace and I bounce back and forth.”
Cleveland, who lives in Nashville, started playing the guitar when she was 15.
“I learned five chords,” she said. “They were all Neil Young songs, and then I announced I was ready to do a show. I came of musical age in the 1970s, and you could be 16 and work in a club.”
The club scene had a big influence on the young teenager, who says she never felt she would amount to anything. It didn’t take long before Cleveland became an addict, using drugs and alcohol to hide her pain.
“I’d sit up late at night with a pack of Marlboro’s and a bottle and write songs,” she said.
Music was the one constant in her life, a beacon of light as she struggled to find sobriety.
“I got sober for the first time at 28, stayed sober for seven years, then relapsed for six,” Cleveland said.
She continued performing in Nashville, eventually meeting and befriending country singer Pam Tillis.
“It was Pam who told me I should be a songwriter,” Cleveland said. “It was a turning point for me. I got into recovery, and had such a powerful encounter with the God of my understanding. “
She started writing more and more, using her newfound faith as an inspiration. And as Cleveland described her own struggle, she found herself returning to the sounds that shaped her: traditional black gospel music.
“It depicts a time and place,” she said. “That time was slavery. I’m a white girl, and I don’t have any personal understanding of that horrible time. But I do understand sorrow. And when music comes from suffering, whether it addresses the suffering or not, there is a weight and power to it that can’t be denied.”
Cleveland is bringing her powerful renditions of gospel music to Grand County this June, as part of the Blues from the Top Festival.
There’s a big connection between the two, according to festival creator John Catt.
“Gospel and blues go way back to the beginning,” he said. “Just like a brother and sister relationship. A lot of inspiration comes from the church; Ray Charles was famous for it. It’s traditional in a lot of blues festivals across the country.”
This year, Catt is keeping that tradition alive. He’s produced the most ambitious gospel show in the history of the festival, and invited Cleveland to be part of a group he created called “The Gospel All-Stars.”
“We wanted to do the biggest one ever,” he said. “This was the most dynamic way to put together all of these amazing performers.”
The Gospel All-Stars will feature more than a half-dozen vocalists and musicians, as well as some special guests. Most of them have never performed together before, and will meet in a special rehearsal the day before the show.
“We have a point person who will put together the set and get everyone the material,” Cleveland said. “I’ve sang on hundreds of records as background vocalist, and I just need to find out what people want. With this many great singers, it would be criminal not to use everybody.”
Featured artists include Cleveland, Zac Harmon, Eleanor Tsaig, Cedric Goodman, Reese Wynans and Dorothy Morrison, who co-wrote and sang the famous Grammy winning gospel song, “Oh Happy Day.”
“The record she sang on was called ‘Let Us Go Into the House of the Lord’ and I had it on vinyl,” said Cleveland. “I played it over and over again. It made a huge impression on me in a big way. I’m excited to meet her.”
The Gospel All-Stars will take the Blues from the Top stage on Sunday, June 28, at 10:30 in the morning. For more information, head to http://www.grandblues.org.
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