Gospel singer Tasha Cobbs Leonard produced her latest full-length album, Royalty: Live at the Ryman, with a multiracial, multigenre crew of singers and musicians who joined her on the storied boards of Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium on August 3. Even though the pandemic eliminated the possibility of a live audience, the Ryman was an ideal location for Leonard’s inclusive recording because of what it represents. Built as a place of worship in 1892, the auditorium was the home of the Grand Ole Opry from 1943 till ’74, and its historic relationship with race is as complicated as gospel music’s own.
Leonard sings the glory down in the Ryman with the passion of an evangelist, even when delivering an inspirational ballad such as the exquisite “Never Gave Up.” On “God’s Been Good,” one of several songs cowritten by members of multicultural contemporary Christian music (CCM) collective Bethel Music, Leonard lofts praises heavenward to a turf-stomping country beat. Fiddle, banjo, and mandolin—instruments not typically associated with modern African American sacred music—complement the hammering rhythm section. Leonard’s duet with Detroit gospel star Kierra Sheard on “You Must Break” isn’t nearly as riveting as the combination might suggest. Instead, the album’s pinnacle comes during “God So Loved,” when Leonard and CCM harmony group We the Kingdom slow the tempo down to deliver a few lines of “At the Cross.” Hearing gospel and CCM artists combine on a 19th-century hymn beloved equally by Black and white churchgoers might help sustain the hope that a change is gonna come. v