It's not often that somebody who only likes country of a classic vintage can find common musical ground with somebody who bought, say, the latest Rascal Flatts CD. But Ashton Shepherd is the rarer-than-rare contemporary country act who has the potential to make fans of both, and that's a good thing.
There's plenty about her music — and her — that's unabashedly down-home, which places her squarely in the lineage of Loretta Lynn. But there are also moments when Shepherd's new album, Where Country Grows, aims for the sanguine accessibility that scores at country radio in 2011.
Shepherd got her foot in the door late last decade in strikingly old-school fashion. Just 10 months after winning a small-town Alabama talent competition — and with it, the opening slot for a small-town Alabama Lorrie Morgan show — Shepherd had a deal with MCA Nashville. No time was wasted releasing her 2008 debut album, a collection of modern hard-country originals — all of which she either penned solo or co-wrote with her brother-in-law — called Sounds So Good.
That kind of thing almost never happens nowadays. "I mean, I knew it was moving quick," says Shepherd, "but I did not realize how abnormal it was. I maybe didn't appreciate it enough at the moment, because I really didn't know how making records worked up here in Nashville. I didn't know that people spend two, three years hunting songs, writing songs, trying to make a record."
Then there was the fact that — like Lynn, and unlike most of the other women who've launched country music careers this century — Shepherd was already a young wife and mom when she arrived on the scene; she's due to have her second child in a couple of months.
In the midst of working on the album, she and her husband Roland Cunningham decided they wanted to expand their family. "It's something I didn't want to wait on," she says. "It was like, 'Let's start trying. We know we've got this music career, but we're hopefully going to [continue to] have this career. ... Maybe I'm rich one day and able to have two, three buses out on the road. Well, maybe we'll get to that point in a couple years, but what if we don't? Are we gonna sit here and keep waiting year after year and just let time keep slipping by?' "
Shepherd seems to navigate all aspects of life with similar clear-eyed perspective. She's had to learn how the music business works, but she's always known what she wants. "I've made decisions, but I've got a lot of help," she's quick to point out. Cunningham sometimes joins her on the tour bus to look after their son, the in-laws live right next door, and her own parents are just 30 minutes away in the itty-bitty town of Coffeeville, Ala. (with a population of less than 400), where she grew up. The fact that Shepherd still resides in Leroy, Ala., two albums into her Nashville major label career also sets her apart. Lots of current country acts sing about rural Southern life. But only a fraction of those singing — or those listening, for that matter — live the reality.
"It's a matter of keeping yourself grounded," Shepherd says of being content where she is. "My management and some of the label have come down to the house before in Alabama, and they got to see that it's really different. It's really different from if I lived here in the city. ... I mean, it's 70 miles to Target."
The significance of those 70 miles can be felt in Shepherd's songs. During "More Cows Than People," for starters, she extols the pleasures of backwoods isolation and doesn't have to try to make it feel believable. The experiences of motherhood and marriage shape her songs, too, and sometimes in unexpected ways. A pair that appeared on her first album — "I Ain't Dead Yet" and "Not Right Now" — took up for a responsible woman/wife/mother's right to kick back with a beer.
Though Shepherd practically blazed through the making of Sounds So Good, it took three years and a multiphase song-selection process to complete the follow-up. For the first time, she co-wrote with outside writers — tried-and-true pros like Bobby Pinson and Dean Dillon — and cut a couple of songs that she didn't have a hand in writing.
"The record label has never been real bossy with me about how I dress or how my hair is or how I talk — even with what [went] on this record," she says. "The only thing we really did different was listen to some outside material and do the co-writing. And both of those things ... I was never opposed to doing. It wasn't like I was against it and had to do it."
Shepherd came to realize that for her, writing alone tends to yield emotionally heavy honky-tonk ballads. "You start thinking about your live show as a writer," she says. " 'What could I write that would really go over good live?' ... As a writer that didn't have a [touring or recording] career, just writing at home, I wrote a lot of the same type ballads." Her new co-writers nudged her in more up-tempo directions.
"Look It Up" — the strutting, exaggeratedly tough-talking kick-that-cheater-to-the-curb lead single from Shepherd's new album, and one of the songs she didn't write — performed slightly better on the country chart than the two singles from her debut. And bits of her personality are evident even during the perky, co-written numbers aimed at rousing crowds and grabbing programmers' ears.
"To the record label, and to me too, that's kind of the name of the game," she says. "You want to have at least two or three of those good little radio songs on there to drive the record. Because if you don't have a certain amount of chart success, it sort of numbs you, to a certain extent. I mean, you can grass-root it for sure. There's a lot of artists that have done that. But the artists that end up usually being the biggest are people that end up with hits."
Shepherd's taking up what is quite possibly the biggest challenge in corporate radio-ruled country music: producing potential hits while maintaining a distinctive voice. The two bona fide knockouts on Where Country Grows are ballads she wrote alone. One is a wrenching, powerfully and expressively sung plea for marital mutuality called "I'm Just a Woman," and the other — the raw-nerved country power ballad "That All Leads to One Thing" — captures a wife confronting telltale signs of infidelity.
Says Shepherd, referring to the latter song and the entire album, "I think everybody needs a little empowerment, especially today's society. I think this is kind of the people's record."
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