Interview: A Set with Ashley Cleveland and Kenny Greenberg

Blog / Produced by The High Calling
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"Set your seal upon this rebel girl,
be my companion in this tear-stained world
lyrics from Before the Daylight's Shot

—Ashley Cleveland

The most public feature of this married duo is Ashley Cleveland's powerful, passionate voice. "Muscle and blood," says Emmylou Harris. "Grit, angst, and passion," says Amy Grant, "she sings the way most of us feel." Anyone viscerally drawn to Ashley Cleveland's unvarnished artistry will be undone by her way with a hymn.

Less visible, less vocal, but a powerful force in Nashville music, is Kenny Greenberg. His highly admired work and low profile add texture to probably every country album you love.

In this rare dual appearance and too-brief conversation, Ashley and Kenny share the microphone to riff on the subjects of creativity and work, failure and success, business and art, marriage and music.

High Calling: To start, tell us how much of your work is creative—the way we think of successful artists spending their time—and how much of your day, for lack of a better phrase, is the usual grind?

Kenny: I've worked hard to make my life a good three-quarters creativity. But we’re both self-employed and there are phone calls to be made. Each day probably has a good hour of calling, but I've really tried hard to get to a place where I can stay as much as possible in a creative mode.

Ashley: This is actually a big question for me. Over time, I feel like I have sacrificed a lot of creative energy to the more mundane, daily grind. By the time I deal with the needs of my family and my desire to have some creativity in our life together and then get the elements of my business together, the thing that gets lost is that creative space.

God gifts each of us in unique ways, and they're all creative. We don't look at an accountant's job, necessarily, and say, "Oh, that's a creative job!" But it is. You have to give time to creative thinking. I need to set aside time to think about song ideas—the creative expression of my work. I need to think about how I want to communicate in concert: what stories I might tie in to move toward a certain idea. Sometimes I'll come up with a great idea—once every few months, maybe. The rest of the time, I'm slogging away wondering whoever told me that I could write a song.

Kenny: She's making an important point. I cowrite more than Ashley does, and as much as everybody wants time for creative space, to make yourself be creative is hard. It definitely is easier to make these five phone calls. A common experience among writers is to sit down then say, "We better go get another cup of coffee before we start. Are your pencils sharp? Let’s go sharpen them."

High Calling: We've heard people talk about "BIC"— Get your "butt in the chair" and work.

Ashley: Once you're there, you usually find that you can stay there a while and go into that zone. But there's resistance; and for me, it's consistent enough to be alarming. I realize that I resist getting my butt in the chair, and because of that, I'm sacrificing a gift precious to me.

High Calling: It's almost a stewardship issue.

Ashley: I definitely think we have a stewardship obligation to our gifts. And I think it's common for humans to look for the easy way out. But that disregards the Giver and the investment. They say you use two percent of your brain or some appallingly paltry bit. But I think we use two percent to ten percent of our gifts. If we were using our gifts the way the Lord intended, it would be astounding. But it requires surrender, diving into the mystery that I resist too. I'd much rather do something I don't have to think about that will produce instant results. It's the fast-food mentality.

High Calling: You've turned what you love to do into a business, and I wonder: business requires you to sell records and make compromises. Other people tell you how to do your art, how you should express your faith. How has that challenged your faith and your love for music?

Ashley: When you discover music, it's like you've found the hidden treasure. Then you get into the music business, which has nothing to do with artistry, and the artist becomes the commodity, along with her music. And you're either marketable in their estimation, or you're not. It's a feel-good-on-the-front-end kind of industry. You're the greatest! There's never been anyone like you! They blow so much smoke up your skirt, you feel like Mary Poppins.

A tiny percent of artists remain bulletproof, but everybody else hits that day when no one takes their phone calls. And it's devastating. You find yourself worrying about who's playing your song on the radio or how many records you sold last week. Creativity is sucked into the business machine. And what gets lost is your art.

Regaining my artistic footing was huge after feeling so devastated. Simultaneously, when expressing music in a faith context, a whole lot of people have a whole lot of opinions about what is appropriate. But once I got my artistic footing back, I thought, "I feel accountable to certain authorities in my life but beyond that, I'm going to do what the Lord has called me to do and do it with all my heart; because I know how it feels to lose this." Trying to keep the business alive, you begin to second guess. You try to change your music or your presentation to remain marketable. At least I did. And it was a terrible failure. I didn't like my music, and it wasn't working. I compromised myself. So I'm a little militant now about not compromising my gift.

Kenny: I have a basic understanding of the music business. As my faith gets stronger, I just want to play music. I mean, I know how to get on the phone and wrangle up some gigs, but I'm not going to get eaten up with it.

High Calling: What I'm hearing is that you run into trouble when you start to let something or someone else redefine what success means to you.

Ashley: That's right. My career bears no resemblance to what I had envisioned initially. But some elements of it are more wonderful than I could have ever imagined. You have to redefine success.

Kenny: I've been around some people who are eaten up with success. It becomes their idol—and I say to myself, they bought into the lie.

High Calling: That brings up another point: though your careers overlap, you're a two-career family, and you both travel. How do you stay centered?

Ashley: To be quite honest with you, I'm home more than any full-time working mom, and ninety percent of what Kenny does is in the studio. He typically works Monday through Friday, 10 to 6. One of us is with the kids almost all the time. We have dinner together almost every night—and our kids' activities are as much a challenge as our careers.

We try to maintain that time where we sit down together and connect, get our kids to tell us what's going on. Time with them is so short. But in my industry, when women express regrets, almost every time, it's that they get at the top of the list and wish they'd been home more. I do not have that regret. Some of it is that my career has been less successful—and what I thought was a failure was a great gift.

High Calling: Sharing an industry as you do, that has so many ups and downs, does a feeling of competition ever come up?

Ashley: It used to but not anymore. I think we really enjoy playing together.

Kenny: It's not like we compete for the same gigs.

Ashley: I want him to be successful, and I think he wants me to be. When he's gotten on me, it's because he felt like I wasn't using my gift enough. I'm an artist, but he does so much more. He plays with many different artists on their records, and he produces records. If I was a really strong musician and he wasn’t, that would have been hard. But he's a strong artist in his own right.

High Calling: Kenny, I've read somewhere that you love to practice.

Ashley: [Laughs] He's an enigma.

High Calling: How, how do you teach someone to do that? Can you teach someone to love to practice?

Kenny: No.

High Calling: How did you learn to love to practice?

Kenny: I don't know. I know that my playing suffers when I don't. Ron Carter, the jazz bass player, is about 70, and he's taken a teaching job at New York University. He has a new CD coming out—some Miles Davis tunes, I think—and when someone asked him about touring less, he said, "Yeah, man. I've got time to practice now."

There are these guys with great hands, like athletes, like Jimi Hendricks. I've got normal, stubby hands. To do what I want to do, I have to get them in shape.

On the days when I can, I like to start my day with a cup of coffee and practice for about an hour. I hit all the different channels, a little CMT, then MTV, then BET, just surf around and play along with whatever's on. Then I have certain things I want to learn. I started playing pedal steel guitar. So at the end of the day, I go downstairs in my studio and practice. It's like therapy.

One of the top session guys was telling me that he went on a vacation with his family; they rented this place in the mountains. And he said, "Man, I went to a store the second day and bought this hundred dollar guitar, you know, every morning before my family gets up and I sit there and just practice for an hour." And I said, "Man, I hear you."

High Calling: Ashley, you'’ve said that you feel split—too untamed for most Christians and too Christian for some of the mainstream. What gives you the courage, then, to continue to be authentic when you feel like you're getting marginalized by both sides?

Ashley: I'm going to be 50 next year, and for whatever time I have here, I want to be as transparent and real and authentic as I can be. I feel no motivation to go out and recite the four spiritual laws to people just to be doing it. I feel strongly, however, that I have encountered a transforming God who has absolutely changed my life and gives me a level of freedom and beauty that I didn't know was possible. I want to try to express that in my daily life—not just in my career but on every level. I'm always thinking about what it is to be bold, but I also want to be authentic, not just out there promoting the Gospel because I think I should. I'm not worried about fitting in anymore. I'm more worried about being true to what I believe, who I believe I am.

High Calling: This question is for both of you: what do you think your work taught you about prayer?

Kenny: Do you want me to go first?

Ashley: Hm-hmm.

Kenny: Work is a form of prayer. This sounds corny, but every time I'm playing, I'm saying, "Thank you for letting me do this." It really is an expression of my faith. I think about it all the time, regardless of the musical style.

High Calling: So, you've learned to pray without ceasing.

Kenny: For a long time, I scoffed at my abilities. I didn't care about it, and I let it go. Then as my faith got stronger, my musicality came back.

Ashley: I understand what he's saying. There is a place that I get to in playing where I feel a real deep connection with the Lord. It's like the guy in the Chariots of Fire who says, "When I run, I feel His pleasure." I can get deep contentment sitting by myself in a room playing or even in performance. Where prayer comes in for me is that it is important for me to get on my knees—and I mean get on my knees—before I play for people. I know if the Spirit of the Lord does not come down, ain't nothing gonna happen as far as touching people's hearts. They may like my songs; but because I definitely want to use my gifts to point to the Lord, I absolutely have to ask him to do what he wants within any context—in a church or in a bar, regardless of venue.

High Calling: What would you consider God's purpose in your work . . . or even more broadly, what is God's purpose for entertainment? Though that's probably too big a question . . .

Ashley: No, I kind of like that. Entertainment is a wonderful way to reach people. Their guard drops, and little things can slip in that maybe they might be protecting themselves against otherwise. I use humor, and there's such a place for laughter. It's so good to let down and let wonderful things happen. Entertainment doesn't always have to be serious. I think the Lord probably loves to see us laugh and have fun together.

Kenny: The Christian industry has tons of people doing praise and worship records. Our real value is outside of the Christian industry. It's got to translate on some level if that's your emotional intent. Ashley did a song called "Salt and Light," and I feel like that's what we're doing. I can play on a country record because of the Lord.

Ashley: At the end of the day, people look at how you treat them, how you conduct your life. The good thing is our creditability in the music industry, because of our work, is our entree. More to the point, people who have known us a long time see changes in us. They know about the loser parts of us, and they see evidence of God in our lives. Kenny in particular will play on some crummy record that will never see the light of day, where most musicians of his caliber, if they even agree to go play on the record, certainly wouldn't put their heart into it. He puts his heart into it. Seeing the change in us, for many people, is profound. They may not be interested in the Gospel, but they see something in us that was not there before.


More about Ashley Cleveland:

Ashley's website

Ashley's interview with The Phantom Tollbooth

Ashley's interview with

Ashley's interview with Mars Hill Review

Ashley on Wikipedia

More about Kenny Greenberg:

Kenny's website
Kenny on Wikipedia