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The church is also where LaDonna’s life as a performer began. Although she grew up in a music-loving family and sang along to the radio since she was two years old, her first performance was with her mother Shelby’s gospel group in the Pentecostal church near their home on Lookout Mountain in Georgia. “Church really influenced my music,” LaDonna recalls. “We had both white and black members in my mother’s church, and the music had a more soulful kind of feel because of that. Church put the soul in me.”

From there LaDonna went on to become a featured singer in her mother’s trio — “Ever since I was a little girl I wanted to sing like Janis Joplin when I grew up,” she notes — and joined her high school’s marching band and chorus. Another gift LaDonna got from her mother, who was one of 11 children and traveled the world as a missionary, was the inner strength that would sustain her through the rough times ahead.

At age 16 she became pregnant. She married and moved to Alabama, and within three days the relationship became abusive. LaDonna lived with regular beatings and death threats as she tried to raise twins and carried a third baby.

“I kept any ideas I might have had about my music inside and struggled to live through each day,” she says. “I would wake up in the hospital having no idea how I got there. Once he had the barrel of a gun pressed between my eyes with the hammer pulled back while my two two-year-olds stood at my feet. It was beyond horrible.”

The abuse finally ended on Christmas Day 1979, when her husband announced that he was going to burn down their house. LaDonna grabbed her children and fled, and 90 minutes later her home and all her possessions were in ashes. LaDonna moved back in with her parents.

“If it wasn’t for the generosity of my parents and friends, and complete strangers, who gave us food and clothing and other help, I don’t think I would have recovered from that,” she says today. “That helped instill a faith in humanity and God inside me, and a belief in helping others.”

When LaDonna began to regain her equilibrium, she focused on securing her children’s future. She worked multiple jobs while studying for her real estate license, even enduring two nervous breakdowns under the strain.

After LaDonna got her real estate license, raised her children, and became highly successful in selling and developing property, she established her non-profit organization LaDonna Cares and Shares Inc., which provides food, clothing, medical assistance, and other needs for disadvantaged individuals.

Although she’d occasionally performed at friends’ events and family gatherings, LaDonna didn’t make a committed return to singing until 1990, when she recorded her first album. “I was trying to find my way in music again, so that record wasn’t really me, but it helped me get grounded musically.”

Another decade passed until she cut Long Hard Road, a collection of 15 rocking inspirational numbers that she today considers a dress rehearsal for Rock My Soul. Neither of those albums were released.

It took another seven years until LaDonna discovered her foundation. “I was developing a way to blend all the music that was in my heart — gospel, soul, blues and rock ‘n’ roll — into something that was my own,” she relates. “I was nearly all the way there when I heard Mike Farris’ Salvation In Lights in 2007. I instantly knew that Mike needed to produce my next album and that he would help me find the missing pieces I needed to really express myself.”

After Farris agreed to produce LaDonna’s album, they began sifting through songs. “We wanted to put together a list of songs that would really express different sides of my story — the faith, the struggle, fighting with depression, being a caring person, and ultimately emerging as a victor, not a victim.”

Farris assembled a band of Nashville A-list players for the October 2011 sessions at Music City’s Studio G! The group included Double Trouble keyboardist Reese Wynans, rising blues guitar hero Bart Walker, famed singers the McCrary Sisters, saxist Jim Hoke, trumpeter Steve Herman, bassist Rhodes, keyboardist Brown, and drummer Derek Phillips. They laid down tracks over the course of several days, but before LaDonna could return to the studio to complete her vocals, near-tragedy struck again. She began hemorrhaging and had to be rushed into the hospital for an emergency hysterectomy. It took her five months to recover and return to the album.

“But when I came back, I was ready to give the vocal performances of my life,” she attests.

LaDonna’s strong, burnished voice packs plenty of punch into the propulsive title track, a pure feel-good shout-out written by blues great Elvin Bishop. She gives Dylan’s “Gotta Serve Somebody” a smoldering honey-and-grits delivery, supported by the angelic voices of the three McCrary’s — one of whom, Regina, also performed on Dylan’s original rendition. And Walker’s crisply chiseled guitar plays counterpoint to the soft edges LaDonna puts on the strong melody of Delbert McClinton’s “Sending Me Angels,” where she once again channels her gospel roots in a glorious pop context.

“I want people to understand who I am when they hear these songs,” LaDonna says. “I want them to know that I’m a rebel, a rocker, and a survivor. And despite what I’ve been through — and maybe in some ways because of it — I can finally be myself.”



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