Prime Cuts: When Are You Coming Back, Grand Canyon, Here in My Heart
Susan Ashton took the road most travelled and ended up in the valley of the shadow of despair. In hindsight, Ashton's story is a stirring parable. Starting in the late 80s, throngs of Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) felt a need to "crossover" from the Christian music market to its secular counterparts. Russ Taff, Michael English, Kim Hill, Michael W. Smith, Gary Chapman have all made the excursions, most of which have had received nothing but a mere tepid response. Out of the numerous genre migrants, Kathy Trocolli and Amy Grant were the major ones who could set up camp at the top end of the pop charts. Susan Ashton was not as successful. After three successful Christian albums, Ashton too wanted to conquer the country music market.
Unfortunately, the market then was already saturated with country divas such as Shania Twain, LeAnn Rimes, Faith Hill, Lorrie Morgan, & Reba McEntire that there was no room for Ashton. After a few attempts that sizzled out in failure, Ashton was dropped by her label, leaving her heartbroken in despair for many years. And for 14 years, she had no album released. In hindsight, one wonders what the road would looked like if Ashton have stuck to her initial calling of singing explicitly about the Lord. She may not have lucrative returns of touring with Garth Brooks, but at least she would have blessed the Kingdom of God with more albums and more musical life-giving truths.
"Angels of Mercy" takes us back to 1992 when Ashton was still untainted by the lure of earthly fame. Her first three CCM albums were her period of fecundity: together she scored 10 #1 Christian hits. "Angels of Mercy" arrived a year after her debut "Awakened by the Wind." There's an air of simplicity to this record that makes it such a delight to listen to. Whilst in her latter music, you really cannot discern if she's singing about a paramour or a friend or the Lord, the guess work as to the song's recipient is significantly less.
"When Are You Coming Back" demonstrates Ashton's country roots with her use of rustic instrumentation over a string of narratives where the sufferings of their protagonists beg the question of when the Lord would return. "Walk On By" (no, not the Dionne Warwick song) is a kicking pop number about not yielding to temptation that features a saxophone bridge so congruous of the music of the 90s. "Better Angels of Our Nature" (from its lyrics the album gets its title) calls to mind John 8 where Jesus asked elders of Israel to cast the first stone of judgment to an adulteress woman. The profound uses of Scripture, images, and language are just stellar.
"Here in My Heart," the album's lead single, has such a well-crafted melody about Ashton's love for her Saviour that Martina McBride later also recorded a version of her own. Also, coveted by Kathy Mattea for her "Walking Away a Winner" is "Grand Canyon." A ballad that has become a signature song of Ashon, "Grand Canyon" speaks of the gulf that we sometimes feel between the Lord and ourselves. Piano ballad lovers will adore Ashton's introspective "Let Me Go." To this day, 24 years later, "Angels of Mercy" with its light AC pop feel still doesn't sound dated. And its messages still speak to our lives. This is the type of music Ashton does best.