The dry spell is finally over for Susan Ashton. Way back in the 90s, Ashton was the dame of Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) with the midas touch. Her debut Wakened by the Wind was the all-time top selling album for Sparrow Records. Her sophomore effort Angels of Mercy birthed four CCM number one hits with one garnering a Grammy nomination. Her 1996 release, Distant Call found her working with Sheryl Crowe, Alison Krauss, Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith. Later, Ashton did branch out of CCM and scored big time with pianist Jim Brickman as their song "The Gift" became a number #1 Billboard Adult Contemporary hit. She even got to open for Garth Brooks on the European leg of his World Tour. Then in 1999 Ashton left CCM completely by recording a country album. Closer yielded the top 40 country hit "You're Lucky I Love You" and had top writers like Diane Warren, Kim Richey and Matraca Berg offering Ashton their songs. Just when Ashton thought she was in for the ride of her life, her second country album was stalled. She was released from her recording contract. After dropping another CCM album, Ashton vanished. She entered a dry season in her life where she left the music business, became a nanny, and, according to her website, she was also shovelling horse poop. Finally, after 14 years without a solo record, God has brought Ashton back with a six track EP titled The Thief.
So, what does Ashton's EP sound like? As they say a picture is worth a thousand words, the album cover is most telling. The cover depicts a black crow perched on a tree branch. Perhaps because of their plumage, their unnerving calls and their tendency to eat carrion, crows are often symbolic of being harbingers of gloom and sin. Likewise these songs revolve around how often we have allowed Satan (the thief) to bring us gloom because we do not know how to face up to our sins. Therefore, each of these six tracks deals with sin in its various repercussions and its encroachments. Stylistically, Ashton adopts an organic, starker and rootsier candor than say her 1999 Closer album. And if comparisons are to be made, Sara Groves or Shelby Lynne in her post-Nashville days come to mind. "Moonshine" is a subtle song that grows in stature with each listen. "Moonshine" is an artsy treatise of human nature, comparing us with a moon that is dark in nature but only lightens up when it reflects the sun's rays. Likewise human nature is deprived and sinful, but we can only shine if we allow Christ to live and reign in us.
Following "Moonshine" is Ashton's take of Gary Wright's "Love is Alive." With its shimmering B3 organ, the bluesy plucking of the acoustic guitar, Ashton's full passionate alto is in full glory here on this jaunty country-sounding tune. The tempo drops with the guitar-driven narrative driven title cut "The Thief." Though the word "Satan" is never mentioned, Ashton did tweet that the song was inspired by John 10:10 where Jesus calls Satan a "thief." Here, Ashton tells of Satan's serpentine nature and how he often leads us into temptation. The uptempo "Become Myself" is the most God-explicit song where it functions as a prayer for God to save us from the lies that make us inauthentic. The cream of the crop is the spiritual surging country ballad "Wrong Well." "Wrong Well" finds Ashton returning to the root of the problem of sin: we have deliberately chosen not to drink from the well of living waters.
What is most disappointing about "The Thief" is that after 14 years between records, all we get are merely six tracks! Nevertheless, they are wonderfully crafted. Let's just hope the wait for Ashton's next album won't be as long. But the years of waiting certainly have given Ashton a more mature, seasoned delivery. So when she cries out to God not to overlook the forgotten in "Not Small" they're deep seated gravitas of faith, pain and joy coming from a woman who knows what she is singing about.