august 2008

Gone Country? Try Born Country

Ashton Shepherd Sings It, Writes It Like It Oughta Be

(But Now, ‘I don’t get to just go get up and pick me some tomatoes’)

By David McGee


One of the most memorable opening lyrics anyone will hear on any album in this or any other year is sung with a robust, downhome twang and ringing conviction: “I’ve got a cold beer in my right hand/on my left I’ve got a wedding band/I 've been wearing it round now for way to long and I'm more than ready to see it gone/am I the only one who can set myself free/so I'm takin' off this pain you put on me.”

From the outset on her debut album, Sounds So Good, newly turned 22-year-old (on August 15) Alabama native Ashton Shepherd means business, and the person who’s in her way need pay attention—not in a song, mind you, but in real life. She may be young, she may be from a rural town (Leroy, AL) that’s barely a spot on the map, but she’s as savvy about the business as she is purposeful in her everyday life in a way city slickers should envy. A leggy, strikingly attractive brunette whose rich mane of hair cascades around her shoulders, Sheppard, even when smiling, has a determined look about her, bespeaking a captivating blend of sensuality and strength. Happily married and the mother of a three-year-old son, she has lived a lot in her meager years, developing uncommonly sharp wits along the way. No story better exemplifies this than how she landed her label deal.

A couple of years ago a Nashville producer spotted her at a Colgate Country Showdown in Gilberton, AL, and invited her up to Music City to make a demo, at her expense. Having been singing and writing almost from the time she could walk and talk, Sheppard leaped at the opportunity, borrowing money to pay for the sessions. When those were done, the producer asked her to sign what she calls “an agreement,” and she balked, fearing it contained language that would have bound her, or her future royalties, to said producer for all time. “I just didn’t think it was a necessary thing,” is how she puts it, adding: “I thought, The first thing I want to be signing here is a record deal, not something that I’m not even sure what it is.”

Being a thoroughly modern gal, Sheppard Googled Nashville lawyers, found one she says remains “one of my best friends,” who introduced her to Shelby Kennedy at BMI. Excited by Shepherd’s demos, Kennedy arranged showcase visits to the Nashville labels, including the Universal group, whose head honcho, Luke Lewis, offered a deal on the spot after hearing her sing.

“It is sort of a funky little story,” Shepherd admits rather sheepishly on the phone from her tour bus, which is bound for a show in Wisconsin. “It’s such an odd thing—I meet a guy that produces demos, he produces one, gives me an agreement, and then I call to get help on it and the person I called becomes one of my best friends and opens all these doors for me. It’s one of those things that you know God meant to happen. Don’t get me wrong. God means for everything to happen that happens, but for anybody that thinks stuff just floats in the air, it doesn’t just float in the air. There’s stuff going on that we don’t know.”

One of the things we know now is that Ashton Shepherd can sing and write like nobody’s business, and with the respected veteran Nashville producer Buddy Cannon steering her studio sessions (she can’t praise Cannon enough, saying, “Buddy’s whole attitude is so calm and easygoing; he’s funny, just easy to work with, and me and him both were on the same page as to what my record was gonna be. He knew I was country, he knew that’s the music I do, he was excited about working on it,” which helps explain the rapidity of the recording sessions, which started with Shepherrd’s guitar-vocals and were completed within a couple of weeks, minus a couple of overdubs), she’s served notice of having a long-term impact on country music, the emphasis being on “country.” Listening to the delicious twang in her voice, no one will ever mistake her for being influenced by, say, Sheryl Crow (please—that is not a knock on Ms. Crow, but rather a comment on the number of young female artists of recent vintage who have pointed to her as their main influence, even though Crow is no more a country artist than Jon Bon Jovi). Growing up not with musical parents but in a house suffused with music from the radio and a mother who frequently sang to her kids, Sheppard zeroed in a “several different people,” she says, when she started finding her own style, most of them male singers. “From Vern Gosdin to George Jones, Dolly Parton, Keith Whitley, John Conlee,” she points out. “Just so many of the traditional artists—Merle Haggard, Conway Twitty—who had such a sound of their own and so much to bring forward to the music. I have a God-given talent, and I think when you’re given that, and growing up listening to the music I listened to, it all rubbed off on me making my music, y’know.”

Her songwriting developed more organically, from her self-directed study of song structure as she listened to what was coming over the airwaves. She was “eight, nine years old,” when she started penning her own verses, knowing those should be in “verse-chorus-verse form, or have a little bridge phrase somewhere.” By her early teens she was fluent in songwriting, and by her mid-teens was writing a couple of the songs that wound up on Sounds So Good.

“I had learned that from listening to songs on the radio, obviously, and through the years, subconsciously, I don’t realize how much I do pay attention to that stuff. It’s not necessarily to copy it but to listen and pay attention to what somebody else is doing and it lets me know what I want to do with my music. I’ve always been that way. I’ve always been so attuned to the radio with voice and song and the writing of the song. You try to listen to how it’s worded and things like that. Y’know, a lot of people like to listen to the bass in a song, or they like the drums, but I always focused on the lyrics part of it.”

'Y’know, a lot of people like to listen to the bass in a song, or they like the drums, but I always focused on the lyrics.'

Boy howdy. These are not your everyday country songs, nor are they in the vein of the tough chicks Miranda Lambert and Gretchen Wilson, or the adolescent angst so effectively articulated by Taylor Swift. Sheppard’s songs come from a young but grown woman’s perspective, with a couple of killers about a wife asserting her independence in a relationship, lest hubby thinks he can go out cattin’ around while she stays home and tends the kids, including the aforementioned album opener, “Takin’ Off This Pain,” one with the self-explanatory title of “I Ain’t Dead Yet,” and a witty takeoff on an expression so many men dread to hear, “Not Right Now,” but in this context refers to a gal announcing her intention to sew her own wild oats for awhile before settling down. A slightly bemused Shepherd says these tunes in particular are striking a chord with her audiences—but across gender lines.

“You know, they love it, and believe it or not there’s a lot of menfolk that like the song ‘I Ain’t Dead Yet’ because that thought, ‘I may be getting older but I ain’t dead yet,’ everybody feels that way. There’s a lot of menfolk that are single dads,” she says. “I do say ‘it don’t mean I ain’t a good mama,’ but of course I would say that because I’m a female and I’m a mama, but I think it’s a very relatable song to a lot of people. I’ve had people come up in meet and greet lines and say, ‘This song means so much to me because I feel like I’ve got so much to do all the time and it makes me feel like it’s okay to do this.’

“‘Not Right Now,” it starts off talking about being a young lady, but there’s a lot of guys that love that song. I mean the guys are singing it just as loud in the crowd as the girls because they feel like they ain’t got to settle down either. I feel like it’s a guy’s and a girl’s record, and that’s the good thing about it. Sometimes female artists really push themselves to the female so hard—I mean, I want to do that too, but I don’t want the guys not to want to buy the record because of that.”

Shepherd doesn’t merely write these songs, though; she feels them, not only on the record but in her life, even now. “I struggle in my own soul about feeling guilty,” she admits out of the blue. “Like right now my son and my husband aren’t with me. They’ve been comin’ out with me but this week he stayed home with my little boy and next week they’re coming out with me. But I feel guilty right now because they’re not with me. I enjoy just having my own little time. I feel like I’m missing ‘em, but I’m enjoying having my time. But it’s that guilty feeling in between that a woman gets or a man gets when you have children. It’s just so relatable; it’s just a real feeling that everybody experiences. I’m trying to make ‘em feel better about it in the song, to say it’s okay to feel that some time.”

If men are relating to those songs, they most certainly should be feeling a glow when Shepherd drawls a heart-tugging love letter, “Lost in You,” and perhaps feel vindicated in songs such as “Regular Joe” and “Old Memory,” in which Shepherd waxes eloquently, and poignantly, about the good guy that got away. Fellas rarely find themselves portrayed in a positive light in songs about broken relationships, a truism Sheppard finds to be a puzzlement.

“You know,” she says in an animated tone, “before all this happened to me, I listened to radio and I just could not figure out why are women not singing about this. It happens every day, it’s real stuff. Why aren’t they singing about it? Instead, it’s someone singing about sunshine and roses all the time, and that’s fine to have some songs like that. But something like the song ‘Old Memory’ or ‘Regular Joe,’ or even ‘Lost In You’ being a love ballad, you know people feel that way. And I just think that’s what people need to hear—stuff they can relate to. I feel like the album has a great mixture all the way around with songs like ‘The Bigger the Heart,’ it’s a fun little song, just as cute as it could be, then you’ve got ‘Not Right Now.’”

But Sounds So Good isn’t totally devoted to gender politics, or love songs. One of the showpiece ballads, a big, beautiful production, is “How Big Are Angel Wings,” a beautiful but wrenching account of a terminally ill little girl preparing to die. It’s territory that has been trod many times before in country and bluegrass, but too often in cloying, melodramatic fashion. Not so here. Sheppard’s vocal is modulated and restrained, letting the lyrics speak for themselves rather than her cueing the listener’s emotions with some bravura belting. The title and basic idea came from her brother-in-law and occasional co-writer, Adam Cunningham. Like many of her songs, it’s animating impulse comes from Sheppard’s own life in a family she says has “had issues with cancer”—her grandmother died of leukemia before Ashton was born.

“Adam came to me with a title and he knew he wanted it to be a child asking the doctor that question,” she recalls of the writing session that produced “How Big Are Angel Wings.” “We sat down together and we just put ourselves in the position of what it would feel like. As I tell people in the audience, I have a little boy and I’ve never been through this. I don’t know if I could even sing the song if I’d been through anything too close to it, because it’s such a touching song. It is a beautiful song, and very sad. Matter of fact, I signed a picture for somebody in my meet-and-greet line for somebody who told me it was for a little girl that had cancer and had three months to live. You hear stuff like that and think, Oh, my gosh. And if I think about stuff like that too hard I can’t really play the song. It’s a song I felt gave the record that extra touch of softness to let people know that I also write songs to that effect. It’s a touching song for people who’ve been in that situation or people maybe that haven’t, but it will make them realize it is a true thing that affects a lot of people.”

For those of a certain generation the backwoods sound of Shepherd’s voice is a rare treat nowadays, a singular voice, instantly identifiable as hers, and in that sense a throwback to the days when artists weren’t signed unless they could answer exactly as young Elvis Presley did when the Sun studio’s Marion Keisker asked him who he sounded like: “I don’t sound like nobody,” the Hillbilly Cat proclaimed, before proceeding to prove it after Sam Phillips arrived. Ashton Shepherd don’t sound like nobody, either, and that’s a very good thing. One wonders whether she’s been told she sounds “too country” for modern day tastes. Her answer becomes the occasion for another of her pointed discourses on the state of contemporary country music.

“You know, I have, believe it or not. I’ve had a few comments here and there like that. But honestly, what’s odd about it is I’ve had more warm reception for being country than I ever have negativity from it. That’s odd to me because I don’t know why there’s such an absence of it when I’m getting accepted as much as I’m getting accepted. I thank God for that. But when I went to Nashville, every publisher I met—I met Warner Bros. Records, I met Capitol Records, I met Sony BMG, I met so many people—all seemed to be refreshed with what I was doin’. That really made me feel good, because I just knew—I listen to the radio every day, and I had been listening to it before I ever got my record deal, wondering where are they getting these songs? Why aren’t there more people writing their own music on the radio? Why isn’t there more country sounding stuff on the radio? And I didn’t know the answer to that. Is it because Nashville doesn’t like it anymore? Is it because there’s nobody around to do it? I couldn’t figure it out. And now I feel like maybe it’s because the artists just drifted away and people have forgot what it is, and I’m hoping—I don’t ever want to say too much that I can’t fill my own shoes in saying—I want to be somebody that tries to bring more country music artists to the table. Even my new single, ‘Sounds So Good,’ it’s not Loretta Lynn country, but it’s about the same thing that people used to sing about, and it’s a totally different sound. Most of the songs on the record are steel-drenched, fiddle all in it, it’s a country record, and that’s what I hope to keep making. I hope it grows really big and brings country back, y’know.”

shepherdAshton picking peas with her son James. "Going home is my going to Hawaii. That’s my vacation. I’d rather be home than anywhere else.”

Touring is wearying and wearing enough when you’re not raising a young ‘un back home, but Shepherd recognizes that this is where she’s at if she wants to achieve her goals of controlling her own destiny, giving radio a steady stream of hits and eventually being able to make her own decision as to when and for how long she tours. Right now, it’s nose to the grindstone time—“at this point you have to work extra, extra hard to get over that hawmp [translation: hump] and my goal’s to get over this hawmp and let it be smooth sailing after that, with touring during the summer months and the fall of every year, just having a good time with it, making a living making music.”

Still, there’s no place like home. Asked how her life has changed in the wake of her debut’s positive reception by critics, radio and fans alike, she pauses a second before answering.

“You know,” she says with a sigh, “I’m just not gettin’ to be home like I wanna be. I enjoy my touring, I enjoy meeting my fans, and it’s the most cool experience. But I miss being at home, gettin’ up in the mornings, and me and my husband—well, his mama and daddy have farmed produce for 15 years, and I don’t get to just go get up and pick me some tomatoes, I don’t get to do as much of the normal stuff I wanna do. Say I’m home three days one week, then I’m touring the rest of the time. Well, three days seems like a long time, but when you’ve been gone, and you’re trying to catch up, you can’t seem to get caught up and you don’t want to overwork yourself while you’re at home because you want to enjoy it—there’s a bit of a struggle there. That’s the hardest thing about all of it, and truthfully, that’s probably the hardest for every artist. Just to have to turn that on and off switch from mama to wife to performer, back and forth every week. Which I enjoy doing—going home is my going to Hawaii. That’s my vacation. I’d rather be home than anywhere else.”

Sounds like a good country song in the making.


Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
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