Born Susan Rae Hill, July 17, 1967, in Irving, TX; raised in Houston, TX; married J. D. (John David) Cunningham, May 1, 1993. Addresses: Management--J. W. Clarke Management, Inc., 5214 Maryland Way, Suite 103, Brentwood, TN 37027.
Susan Ashton's 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 by 1994 she was singing with country star Garth Brooks in Europe. As she told Today's Christian Woman, "Everyone was shocked--including me! I certainly didn't 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 vulnerable--the 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 went--in the street, the driveway of the house, even the car. As Ashton admitted in a Sparrow Records press release: "I'm 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 quietly--as loudly as I felt like singing. I wasn't intentionally trying to annoy people, but I'm sure I did. I sing when I'm in line in the grocery store, embarrassing my husband. I sing all the time. It's 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.
But Ashton wasn't 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. Ashton's parents asked if she and her sister Julie would try 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 Ashton's 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, "I'll never forget the first time I heard Michael W. Smith's 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 didn't 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 Houston's local studios. A friend even asked her to record a demo for her son's 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 Watercolor Ponies--a 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.
Sparrow's senior vice president Peter York and songwriter Wayne Kirkpatrick worked with Ashton for three years. Kirkpatrick wrote songs for her--"Down on My Knees" among them--capturing expressions of the singer's own heart. "Down on My Knees" was released in 1991 and became the number one Christian single in the United States. That same year Ashton's 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 the Tennessee hills. Several awards and two other bestselling albums followed: Angels of Mercy in 1992 and Susan Ashton in 1993.
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 Chapman's "Great Adventure" tour in 1992. Her association with Margaret Becker and Out of the Grey's Christine Dente resulted in Along the Road, one of 1994's top Christian albums. In 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. I've had great responses every night--even some standing ovations." Brooks was impressed with Ashton's singing. "Susan Ashton can go as far as Susan Ashton wants to go. Nothing is impossible for her. I'm 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, Dente, and Ashton was nominated for a Dove Award for group of the year.
Ashton's spectacular rise has not changed the exuberant singer's 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 they've been taken to another place--a place of encouragement," she commented in the Sparrow press release. "It's not that life is always down and depressing, but, you know, sometimes it's just hard. And, because music is such a powerful communicative vehicle, I want mine to be music that inspires them to keep going."
by Paul Anderson
Susan Ashton's Career
Discovered Christian music in a church social group, 1983; after high school, worked as a waitress and occasionally sang in Houston's local recording studios; sang on Wayne Watson's Watercolor Ponies, 1987; recorded with Dallas Holm in Nashville, TN; signed solo recording contract with Nashville's Sparrow Records, 1988; paired with songwriter-producer Wayne Kirkpatrick; 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 Dente and Margaret Becker, 1994; toured with Gary Chapman and released album So Far..., 1995.
Susan Ashton's Awards
Dove Award for best new artist, Gospel Music Association (GMA), 1992; GMA's 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.
- Selective Works
- Wakened by the Wind, Sparrow, 1991.
- Angels of Mercy, Sparrow, 1992.
- Susan Ashton, Sparrow, 1993.
- (With Christine Dente and Margaret Becker) Along the Road, Sparrow, 1994.
- So Far..., Sparrow, 1995.
- Country Weekly, June 20, 1995.
- Release, November/December 1994; October 1995.
- Tennessean, June 26, 1995.
- Today's Christian Woman, November/December 1995.
- Additional information for this profile was taken from a Sparrow Media Relations press release, 1995.