Ashton, Susan

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Susan Ashton

Singer

Turned on to Christianity

Quick Success

Gained Larger Audience

Selected discography

Sources

Susan Ashtons meteoric rise as a pop singer paralleled a big jump for Christian music into the commercial arena. For many years Christian music was equated with church hymns. But contemporary Christian musicians soon found that there was a vast audience for religious themes. Suddenly, gospel with a beat could sell a hundred thousand copies. Ashton was a bit astonished by the hurricane force by which she was propelled onto the world stage. She released her first album, Wakened by the Wind, in 1991 and by1994she was singing with country star Garth Brooks in Europe. As she told Todays Christian Woman, Everyone was shocked-including me! I certainly didnt make my success happen. I was just diligent in walking through the doors God opened. But then I was plunged into concerts, interviews and photo shoots.

Ashton embodies both zest and modesty. The spirit in her music is energetic but also vulnerablethe religious conviction counterbalanced by self-doubt. Some critics have compared her brand of contemporary Christian music to the mellow, folk-type style of Emmylou Harris or James Taylor, and she reaches a similar audience.

Ashton was born Susan Rae Hill in Irving, Texas, and grew up in Houston. Her mother claimed that she could sing before she talked; when she was a child she apparently turned heads by singing wherever she wentin the street, the driveway of the house, even the car. As Ashton admitted in a Sparrow Records press release: Im still that way. I love singing so much. When I worked in downtown Houston as a receptionist, I d be singing in the bathroom and hallways. Not quietlyas loudly as I felt like singing. I wasnt intentionally trying to annoy people, but Im sure I did. I sing when Im in line in the grocery store, embarrassing my husband. I sing all the time. Its not a conscious thing. I just do it.

She began singing in the church choir at age seven. At eleven, she sang Evergreen in a talent contest with such panache the judges thought she was lip-synching to Barbara Streisand. By the time Ashton was in high school, she was singing in the band, musicals, and competitions.

Turned on to Christianity

But Ashton wasnt always a good girl. As a teenager, she hung out with a rowdy bunch, smoked, and drank. Her love of singing, though, was stronger than her bad habits. When her choir director convinced her that smoking would ruin her voice, she quit. Her reawakening to Christianity was also connected to music. Ashtons parents asked if she and her sister Julie would try

For the Record

Born Susan Rae Hill, July 17, 1967, in Irving, TX; raised in Houston, TX; married J. D. (John David) Cunningham, May 1, 1993.

Discovered Christian music in a church social group, 1983; after high school, worked as a waitress and occasionally sang in Houstons local recording studios; sang on Wayne Watsons Watercolor Ponies, 1987; recorded with Dallas Holm in Nashville, TN; signed solo recording contract with Nashvilles Sparrow Records, 1988; paired with songwriter-producer Wayne Kirk-patrick; debut record Down on My Knees became Number One Christian single, 1991; toured Great Britain with Michael Card, 1991; released first album, Wakened by the Wind, 1991; released third album, Susan Ashton, 1993; toured Europe with Garth Brooks, 1994; recorded Along the Road with Christine Denté and Margaret Becker, 1994; toured with Gary Chapman and released album So Far, 1995.

Awards: Dove Award for best new artist, Gospel Music Association (GMA), 1992; GMAs female vocalist of the year and contemporary album of the year for Angels of Mercy, both 1993; voted top female vocalist by Cash Box magazine, 1994; CCM and Release readers poll awards, both 1995.

Addresses: Management J. W. Clarke Management, Inc., 5214 Maryland Way, Suite 103, Brentwood, TN 37027.

joining a church youth group. The girls were certain they would hate it, but her sister, a sports nut, found she could play basketball with the group, and Ashton discovered the music she came to love.

In the early 1980s Ashtons favorite musicians were the Eagles, Pure Prairie League, Bad Company, and the Nashville outlaws, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson. The church group sang the songs of Larry Norman, Amy Grant, and Michael W. Smith. Ashton had no idea who these people were, but the other kids in the group seemed to know all their songs by heart. She recalled in the Sparrow release, Ill never forget the first time I heard Michael W. Smiths song Friends. I was driving toward Houston, and that song came on. I turned it up and just started to cry, because I thought it was so beautiful. I didnt even know any of this existed. After she joined the church group in 1983, she learned all she could about contemporary Christian music.

Ashton soon began to get some experience recording in Houstons local studios. A friend even asked her to record a demo for her sons Christmas present. Around the same time, the young singer met Wayne Watson and sang harmony on one of his Christian albums. Then, in 1987, Watson asked Ashton to sing with him on Water-color Poniesa breakthrough album for Christian pop. Shortly thereafter, Dallas Holm asked her to sing backup harmonies on an album he was making in Nashville. The engineer at the session mentioned her to the people at Sparrow Records, a leading Christian record company. Ashton had dinner with a Sparrow executive and was amazed when he offered her a contract on the spot. She was twenty years old. After some soul searching, she moved to Nashville to pursue her dream full time.

Quick Success

Sparrows senior vice president Peter York and songwriter Wayne Kirkpatrick worked with Ashton for three years. Kirkpatrick wrote songs for herDown on My Knees among themcapturing expressions of the singers own heart. Down on My Knees was released in 1991 and became the number one Christian single in the United States. That same year Ashtons first collection, Wakened by the Wind, soared up the charts. Two other singles from the album reached number one: In Amazing Graceland and Ball and Chain.

The heady atmosphere of celebrity seemed odd for someone who was recently singing in a church social club, but the burgeoning commercial market for Christian music brought Ashton considerable wealth and fame. She was able to build a house for herself and her new husband, J.D.Cunningham, in theTennessee hills. Several awards and two other bestselling albums followed: Angels of Mercy in 1992 and Susan Ashton in 1993.

Gained Larger Audience

Success also brought offers of collaboration with other musicians. Ashton toured Great Britain with Michael Card in 1991 and was a special guest on Steven Curtis Chapmans Great Adventure tour in 1992. Her association with Margaret Becker and Out of the Greys Christine Denté resulted in Along the Road, one of 1994s top Christian albums. I n addition, Ashton worked with Paul Overstreet, Glen Campbell, and Billy Dean. When Kelly Brooks first heard her, he reportedly called his brother, Garth, and urged him to take the new singer on the road. That experience showed Ashton a whole new world. She told Release, I was really nervous before the first concert. But the people embraced my music and embraced me. Ive had great responses every nighteven some standing ovations. Brooks was impressed with Ashtons singing. Susan Ashton can go as far as Susan Ashton wants to go. Nothing is impossible for her. Im very impressed, he said, according to the Tennessean.

By 1995 Ashton had released her fourth solo album, So Far, and won numerous awards. That same year she received a Gospel Music Association Dove nomination for female vocalist of the year, and the Along the Road album and tour garnered many honors, including the CCM readers poll award for favorite inspirational album and the Release readers award for favorite vocal event. The trio of Becker, Dent6, and Ashton was nominated for a Dove Award for group of the year.

Ashtons spectacular rise has not changed the exuberant singers personality. She tries to keep her fame in perspective and focuses on her ultimate goals. When people listen to my records, at the end of that 45 minutes, I want them to feel as though theyve been taken to another placea place of encouragement, she commented in the Sparrow press release. Its not that life is always down and depressing, but, you know, sometimes its just hard. And, because music is such a powerful communicative vehicle, I want mine to be music that inspires them to keep going.

Selected discography

Wakened by the Wind, Sparrow, 1991.

Angels of Mercy, Sparrow, 1992.

Susan Ashton, Sparrow, 1993.

(With Christine Dent§ and Margaret Becker) Along the Road, Sparrow, 1994.

So Far.., Sparrow, 1995.

Sources

Country Weekly, June 20, 1995.

Release, November/December 1994; October 1995.

Tennessean, June 26, 1995.

Todays Christian Woman, November/December 1995.

Additional information for this profile was taken from a Sparrow Media Relations press release, 1995.

Paul Anderson

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