Ava Rowland has long been a small-town girl with a big-time faith. So, two years ago, when a demo suddenly appeared in her mailbox in Ohio from a singer/songwriter from Oklahoma eager to share the song that he had written for his late mother, this aspiring country music artist knew exactly what was happening.
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God was having a moment.
“There is no doubt in my mind that it was truly a God moment,” says Rowland of the story that ultimately resulted in her new single “Mama’s Favorite Song,” exclusively premiering Thursday (January 14) on American Songwriter. “I knew God was directing this song in a way, so it would ultimately be heard.”
Although they had never formally met, Rowland and fellow songwriter Stanley Ward spent hours on the phone with one another, talking about the lyrical and spiritual backbones of “Mama’s Favorite Song.” And with every recollection and every memory, Rowland fell more in love with the song that spoke of Ward’s late mother’s love for the hymn “Amazing Grace.”
“He told me all of these stories about his mom and her love for Christ and just how much she loved the song ‘Amazing Grace,’” remembers Rowland, whose rendition of the somewhat simple song certainly conjures up young Carrie Underwood vibes. “I felt really blessed that he trusted me to take it to Nashville.”
Granted, there is a good chance that Nashville has have never heard of Stanley Ward. “Papa Stan”, as many knew him, wasn’t a man with a publishing deal or an agent. Instead, he was just a proud grandfather and a man of God, a gas well pumper and a road foreman, a mower of lawns and a hunter of deer, who spent countless hours of his day writing his thoughts in a series of journals he kept throughout his life. And while he wrote many a song, “Mama’s Favorite Song” always stood out as his forever favorite.
“His dream was to share his music with others,” Rowland says quietly.
And in a way, he shared that dream with Rowland. The daughter of a pair of worship leaders, Rowland grew up in the church, performing hymns and nurturing a faith that she continues to hold on to this day. Inspired by the faithful souls of country music greats such as Dolly Parton, Lauren Alaina and Gabby Barrett, Rowland considered becoming a Christian artist, but later decided that the country music genre would allow her to reach more people with her message. Soon, she found herself on the stage everywhere from Nashville’s legendary Bluebird Café and Puckett’s to CMA Fest in 2019 along with festivals all across the Midwest. And in 2020, the 22-year-old made waves with her flirty first single “He’s Like a Habit.”
In the fall of 2020, Rowland made yet another pilgrimage to Nashville to head into the studio with producer Britton Cameron to record the song she had found in her mailbox just a year before. And while she knew the story behind the song, she also found herself finding her own personal connection with its bittersweet lyrics.
“I was definitely thinking about my great grandma, who is no longer with us,” recalls Rowland, who plans to move to Nashville later this year to continue building her career. “She was my role model. She was a great woman with an intense love for God. When you hear the song ‘Amazing Grace,’ you think of your grandparents and your great grandparents. So yeah, I think of her.”
But as Rowland was in the process of recording the song, Stanley Ward passed away at the age of 65. According to his obituary, he was laid to rest ‘in the beautiful red oak bottom at his home’ after a long battle with health issues.
But while he is no longer here to hear his song, maybe he is still listening.
“God has always had a plan for this song, I truly believe that,” Rowland concludes. “I’m just praying that God does what He wants with this song. The chance that this song might be heard both by Christians and non-Christians means that we just might reach the unreached, in a way. I can imagine that’s what Stan would have wanted.”
And so, can we.