The Best Rock and Roll Album You’ve (Probably) Never Heard Of

Want a great way to start an argument that doesn’t involve politics or religion? Ask a group of music-lovers what they think was the greatest decade in rock and roll. (First, ascertain if they even know what rock and roll is. One of the answers I saw to this online was “The 80’s, because of Michael Jackson, Madonna, and Cyndi Lauper.” Bzzzzt, you’re disqualified. Also, we’re revoking your Spotify playlist privileges.) After the furor dies down, you’ll probably find that everyone settles on the decade they were in high school, because that’s the music they know.

Even then, you won’t find many that answer the 90’s. The 90’s are when rock and roll died, after being slowly poisoned by radio the decade prior. It’s when rock was broken into a million fragments, to try to appeal to a million different polling segments, satisfying none of them. It’s when it stopped existing by itself and gained permanent prefixes — alternative, hard, metal, etc. (For example, try to find a straight “rock and roll” radio station on iTunes internet radio. Go ahead, I’ll wait.) Yes, I know, it was the decade of Achtung Baby and R.E.M and Pearl Jam. Although I love them all, they only prove my point.

However, several months before Bono and Edge and company reinvented themselves, a then (and unfortunately, often now) unknown singer/songwriter released Big Town, a rock and roll album with no prefixes, no pretense, and no ‘pologies. She’s since won three Grammy’s, but Ashley Cleveland’s first album still remains my favorite.

It begins inauspiciously enough, with an a cappella rendering of André Crouch’s “Soon and Very Soon,” but you immediately know something is different, perhaps even out-of-place — if you’ve ever heard someone sing the song in church, there’s a good bet it didn’t sound anything like this. Her voice is husky, raw, and rough around the edges. It is a spectacular voice, but it’s made for rock and roll, not André Crouch songs.

Thirty seconds in, as the drummer counts down and the guitars kick in, you find out she knows it, too.

I gave a few years to fantasy, and a few more to drugs and drinking
I’ll give what’s left to some honesty, in exchange for wishful thinking

The title track is an ode to a future formed by grace, not by the many past lessons learned the hard way. “See you in the Big Town,” she sings, and you certainly hope so, because you want to hear that voice as long as possible. “Powerful” doesn’t do it justice — if her voice were a generator, it could power New York City for a fortnight.

And I ate it up like an ice-cream cone and willed him to be right
And built a dream on a string of “If’s” and “Maybe’s”

You also quickly find out that, if she isn’t wearing her heart on her sleeve, she’s not burying it beneath four layers of metaphors, either. Love on the Mainline cranks the honesty up several notches; like Rich before her, who she is inhabits what she sings. An hour with this album (or, indeed, any of her albums) is like spending an evening with a friend. A ridiculously gifted and brutally honest friend.

Seemingly fueled by the honesty, the energy level goes through the roof, too. Her now husband Kenny Greenberg was and is one of the best guitarists in Nashville, and you quickly find out why. This is man whose work needs no embellishments. Just a really loud set of speakers.

I know it’s just plain English, but I don’t have a clue
What in the world do they mean when they say “I’ll call you”?

Like most of our conversations with friends, it’s also sprinkled with humor. I’ll Call You is a hilarious ode to that phrase most insincere uttered by men down through the ages. I would have loved to have been in the studio as she recorded the coda, responding to a “Yeah, baby, I’ll call you”, cutting each syllable off cleaner than any scalpel could have.

I.
Can’t.
Wait.

The penultimate song is, to my mind, the heart of the album, and the woman herself. It starts off quietly, with a bit of a bounce, but quickly builds to a chorus that demands the volume be cranked up to eleven. (I just did it while typing this; my wife loves Ashley’s music, but would prefer I listen at four or five. Sorry, honey, it’s simply not possible.)

Take a walk to the well, taste living water
Live to tell, of a faithful Father

The album ends with a song written to, and about, her daughter. Ten songs, just under an hour of music, and not one under four stars in my iTunes ratings. It is desert island music; the choice between this and one of Rich’s The World as Best I Remember It albums would be hard enough I would probably drown before I could decide.

For a three-time Grammy winner, Ashley is criminally underknown (I know, I just made it up). She has a little too much faith for the mainstream music industry, and not nearly enough JPM’s for the CCM music crowd. What she began with Big Town she has continued on for another seven albums. Her blistering “Gimme Shelter” on her live album will leave you gasping for breath and wondering, “The Rolling who?”

So, carry on in your conversations about which decade is rock and roll’s best. But before rendering judgment, make sure you’ve listened to this album a half-dozen times or more. We wouldn’t want you losing your playlist privileges, would we?

(For the record, and I admit I’m fudging a bit, the answer is the ten-year period from 1967-1976, give or take a year on either side. That it might or might not encompass my high school years is immaterial: it is provably true. Hendrix, Skynyrd, Who’s Next, Zeppelin, Clapton in several different forms, Exile on Main Street, need I go on? I didn’t think so.)

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