"This one is for our kids. Do what you love," Ashley Cleveland writes in the liner notes for her new CD, Second Skin. She does just that on her latest recording.

Cleveland has grown a thick skin -- thick enough to resist the pressures of the CCM industry and to continue making the music she wants to make, supported by a devoted fan base.

Since Cleveland's two-record stint with Reunion in the 1990s (Bus Named Desire, Lesson of Love), she's supported herself by touring, contributing a chapter to Becky Sowers' book on the Psalms, Dance of Heaven, and releasing a Grammy-winning live record (You Are There).

Second Skin, her first studio album since Lesson of Love, is her hardest-edged recording yet, unaffected by the trends in both secular and Christian music. Her voice and focus on Christ, both stronger than ever, result in uncompromising Christian rock at its best, heavy on straight-ahead guitar-based songwriting and untouched by post-modern detachment and irony.

Whether picturing childlike faith (Faith Like a Little Child), re-imagining John Hiatt's Riding With the King as an ode to Jesus, or discovering the love of Jesus in the darkest reaches of the soul (Broken Places, with a little help from Jennifer Knapp), Cleveland keeps it honest, gritty and soulful -- more Aretha Franklin than Amy Grant. The bridge on Life Is War alone is worth the price of the entire CD.

Second Skin, almost retro in its unabashed album-rock sound yet full of relevant expressions of struggle and submission, is at its most contemporary on Land of the Living, a reminder of God's presence through the trauma of Sept. 11. Trouble tells you to be afraid . . . Laughing at the plans you made . . . But if you fall, fall on your knees / Pray to the Healer of our land . . . The Rock of Ages, the great I Am . . . Who pours out His Spirit like a song on the breeze.

Cleveland has always seemed more comfortable to make her own way musically, without the strings attached by the Christian music industry, giving her the freedom to cover America's great songwriters -- Hiatt, Neil Young (The Needle and the Damage Done) and Tom Waits (Jesus Gonna Be Here Soon) -- without a whiff of pretension or any sense that the songs are out of place.

Cleveland chooses excellence, eschewing the diva and blond-bombshell roles that the record industry has tried to force upon her. For that, she'll likely be rewarded with little or no radio airplay, but she'll continue gaining fans among those who recognize quality wherever it's found -- whether in a fantastic live performance, a Neil Young song about drug abuse, a hijacked tribute to Elvis, or the several new songs written or co-written by Cleveland on Second Skin.