Blake Shelton Steps Out of His Own Past With 'Savior's Shadow'

Brian Bowen Smith/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images
Blake Shelton photographed in 2015.

The Gospel track on Shelton's 'If I'm Honest' album "helped save my life."

One of the bedrock, yin-yang foundations of country music — the Saturday-night sinner and Sunday-morning saint — is really about the coping mechanisms one uses to get through life and the loss that goes with it.

With the release of “Savior’s Shadow,” Blake Shelton firmly inhabits both sides of that Saturday/Sunday equation. Much of his public persona has been built on winking nods to the Saturday-night solution, with alcohol weaving through such songs as “Sangria,” “Neon Light” and current single “Came Here to Forget.”

“Savior’s Shadow,” the final track on his forthcoming album If I’m Honest (May 20, Warner Bros.), reflects on the Sunday part. It’s a 21st-century hymn, a humble piece of assurance that a higher power really does offer guidance and comfort. Warner Music Nashville released it to country and Christian radio via Play MPE on April 11, though it wasn’t part of the typical chart strategy in his career.

“I’m not trying to get a No. 1 song out of this,” says Shelton. “I just feel like it needs to be shared with everybody. I feel like people need to be aware of this song for whatever it might mean to them.”

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“Savior’s Shadow” has enormous meaning for Shelton. It was the residue from a dream he had at his home in Oklahoma in May 2015. The events of the dream were immediately forgotten, but four lines of lyrics and melody were clear as day. He grabbed his smartphone and sang the passage into the memo function before it was lost.

It was a difficult period in his life. His relationship with then-wife Miranda Lambert was crumbling, and the words — “I feel the rain, I hear the thunder/As He cries for me” — became a powerful source of strength.

“That’s when it became apparent that, you know, things weren’t going to work out with my marriage,” he says. “We both knew that it wasn’t going to work out, and I was walking around, randomly singing that song to myself, and somehow it would make me feel better. At first I thought it was that I’m so sad and pitiful that even God feels sorry for me and He’s crying for me. And then I thought, 'No, it’s just that He’s on this journey with me and He’s walking with me.'"

That July, the same month that they divorced, Shelton made an effort at his Los Angeles residence to finish “Savior’s Shadow.”

"I just knew that it came to me for a reason," he says. "I had to do something with it."

But progress was fleeting at best. Finally, he turned to songwriter Jessi Alexander (“I Drive Your Truck,” “The Climb”), with whom he had co-written “Friends” for the movie Angry Birds (due May 20) in March 2015. Ironically, Alexander and her songwriter husband, Jon Randall (“Drink On It,” “Whiskey Lullaby”), were experiencing their own potentially traumatic change: moving into a new house.. She had just stepped into the home, ahead of Randall and the movers, carrying boxes into the empty dwelling, when she received a text from Shelton: “Sis, I need your help again.” Alexander knew instinctively that he had a song idea, and she immediately made herself available.

“He texted, ‘What are you doing?’ ” she recalls. “And I’m like, ‘Nothing.’ ”

Shelton sent her the short “Savior’s Shadow” voice memo, and she was struck by its raw vulnerability.

“It was so gut-wrenching and beautiful, like the most pure prayer,” she says. “So J.R. walks in the door, and he’s asking me where to put the couch and the boxes, and I got tears in my eyes. I’m like, ‘Well, we have to help Blake finish this song.’ ”

It became sort of a tag-team affair. Alexander worked on the song while Randall brought in more possessions. When she ran into a wall, he picked up on the writing while she turned her attention to the house. Since it was a gospel song, it offered sweet irony: At the same time they were unpacking those cardboard boxes, they were working outside their usual creative boxes, unconcerned about how a predefined audience might receive its tempo or unconventional phrases.

“We didn’t have to deal with that,” says Randall. “Blake really felt the song, and sometimes those songs -- even if they don’t get recorded -- they’re still the most special songs you ever wrote.”

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Calling on their own experiences with church music, Randall and Alexander gave it the chorus it needed. They instinctively matched the rain and the thunder from Shelton’s verse with majestic mountains and oceans in the final stanza, and Alexander gave it one last twist. The chorus typically ended with “Standing in my savior’s shadow where I’m supposed to be,” but she tagged one more line, “Standing in my savior’s shadow, I’m who I’m supposed to be.”

"'I'm who I’m supposed to be,’ for me, conjures up a bigger picture,” explains Alexander. “I’m kind, I’m patient, I’m a survivor, I’m humble, I’m powerful, I’m a forgiver. It’s like I’ve got the traits that God gave me, that I’m the way I’m supposed to be.”

They texted back and forth with Shelton throughout the day and got the final voice memo with Shelton singing the entire song while they were standing in the kitchen.

“What a way to bless the new house,” says Randall.

A few weeks later, Shelton flew into Nashville without telling the rest of his team for a quick demo session that Randall booked at Zac Brown’s Southern Ground recording studio on Aug. 20. Engineer Brandon Bell captured all three writers harmonizing over Randall’s Martin guitar. When Shelton played that demo to producer Scott Hendricks (Dan + Shay, Jana Kramer), Hendricks decided to use Randall’s guitar to gird the final recording.

“Every studio musician has an array of guitars that sound differently,” says Hendricks, “but this particular guitar, whatever it was or however his was recorded, I love the sound of it. So I took it and, between myself and another guy, edited it to make it feel a lot better.”

Hendricks cut Shelton’s final vocal back at Shelton’s home in Los Angeles -- the third house he has been given while working on NBC’s The Voice. For this album, the vocals were all done in a walk-in closet for best effect.

“It’s a pretty nice closet, I will say,” adds Hendricks with a laugh. “But it didn’t matter. I mean, we were haulin’ and he was comfortable. That’s what mattered.”

Returning to Nashville, Hendricks captured new harmonies from Randall and Alexander, and he invited Randall to visit while he recorded a string section -- arranged by Charlie Judge -- at Ocean Way. It was an appropriate setting: a former church with an array of stained-glass windows to underscore the spiritual solace in “Savior’s Shadow.” The final touch came with Russ Pahl, who overdubbed bittersweet steel notes on top of the whole production.

Thanks to his party-boy image, even Shelton knows some fans will resist his gospel song -- "I can, on some level, understand a pushback," he concedes -- but plenty of people who are able to see the Saturday/Sunday connotations in their own lives have been moved to tears by the sincerity of Shelton’s performance and the resilience that it represents.

"This is from a different place," says Shelton. "I feel like that song helped save my life."

This article first appeared in Billboard's Country Update -- sign up here.