Ashton Shepherd Feature in the Wall Street Journal
Country Music's Gutsy, Modern Traditionalist
By BARRY MAZOR
Ashton Shepherd, at 25, is expecting her second child in September; the doctors say this one will be a girl. And she's just seen the release of her second album, "Where Country Grows," the follow-up to her much-praised 2009 debut, which earned the Leroy, Ala., singer-songwriter serious, heady comparisons to Loretta Lynn for her smarts, distinctive vocals and charming, undiluted down-home style. The early hit single harvested from this new album, "Look It Up," is a spirited kiss-off to a clueless, drunken cheater, so that comparison is unlikely to stop now.
It's another new Shepherd song, though, the pointed weight-of-the-world ballad "I'm Just a Woman," that most directly reveals her as a gutsy 21st-century traditionalist primed to respond to what's come before in country—in the form of a rejoinder to one of the most debated lyrics in "Stand By Your Man."
"I knew that would just be sweet," Ms. Shepherd noted, with the relish her generation can put into that word, during a phone conversation as her tour bus was leaving Lancaster, Pa., after a show. "As soon as I thought of the line 'I know that you're just a man,' I knew it had to be 'and after all, you're just a man,' tipping my hat to Tammy Wynette. Because my mind and my heart feel as strongly as they do for country music, sometimes that all just comes out. . . . I've always been aware of the music of Tammy Wynette and George Jones and Loretta; theirs are classic songs that should never die, whatever age you are."
At a time when new country acts are so regularly culled from prime-time talent contestants, the ranks of pop or film stars, or aspiring business majors, Ms. Shepherd's route to recognition has itself been more traditional—singing at county fairs, rodeos and local competitions; opening for John Conlee, Charlie Daniels and Ronnie Milsap by the age of 10, with an early repertoire heavy on Patsy Cline material learned from the record collection of her aunt, a beauty-shop operator. A self-made record at age 15 led to an invitation to make demos in Nashville, the trip financed by a loan from a neighborhood bank. She was soon signed as a writer and singer. She arrived on the scene with a love and knack for understated traditional country, despite coming of age in the era of Shania Twain and Garth Brooks pop theatricality.
"I was always a little behind my time," she notes, "because I had a couple of big brothers 10 and 12 years older than me, and they listened to older country music from George Jones and Keith Whitley. And when I was in school rawer country from Randy Travis, Alan Jackson, Patty Loveless and Pam Tillis were still pretty present on the radio." (With the unmistakably greasy, R&B-influenced Deep South tinge to some of Ms. Shepherd's vocals, it will not be a surprise to learn that she's also spent time taking in the music of The Black Crowes, Etta James and Elvis Presley.)
The rural references in Ms. Shepherd's songs are unsurprising in the sense that she and husband Roland Cunningham routinely return home to Alabama and cows that need milking, but they're not the core content of many of today's pop country records. Neither is a native twang as rich as hers, and for today's radio that can sometimes be raised as an issue in itself.
"It has been," she admits. "There's so much politics and so much business that go into the music business, and sometimes I think that can water things down too much. I can't go into Nashville and make a record and not think about whether it's radio-friendly; doing that's just smart business. But you don't give up any of your music because of it. I definitely don't believe in sacrificing who you are, or how you want to sing—or anything like that. So I'm proud that I can go, 'You know, this really is my own sound, and these songs really don't sound like anybody else's.'"
It's pleasing to picture Ms. Shepherd at home on the porch with a guitar, writing her songs, solo, and many of her slow, personal ballads were born right there. But she's recently found Music Row style co-writing, working with such proven hit-making veterans as Dean Dillon and Bobby Pinson—an energizing alternative, especially for the faster songs on her record.
"I was a little leery of it, but it really ended up being pretty cool, and I've learned some things off of it. Bobby and I sat down, and I said I had some ideas, but I didn't need another ballad. Well, he's a genius for melody, and he starts humming this little ol' melody right there, and it's real kicky. I knew this was going to work out. And we sat there and wrote 'Where Country Grows' in about 45 minutes. I like things spontaneous, and first-time kinds of things, and that was the first song we ever wrote together, which makes it a little more sparkly."
If singing the national anthem at Alabama's Talladega Superspeedway was once an unimagined milestone of recognition for her, seeing songs she's written and co-written form the bulk of two major-label albums, appearing before tens of thousands during Nashville's CMA Music Festival this year, charting singles, and appearing on Jay Leno's "Tonight Show" are more recent markers—the sort that can strain the very down-home connections that lurk behind Ms. Shepherd's music. She's aware of it, and is being careful.
"I think staying in Alabama, and the fact that we're still looking for the right land to buy and the right house to build, and the financial stability to do those things, will matter. Right now, we still live in a single-wide trailer."
Still, football-stadium appearances one day, tending 5-year-old son James back home the next has some potential for personal whiplash.
"We went into a restaurant after my baby doctor's appointment the other day, to eat at the buffet, and the ladies came out and said: 'Can we fix your peach cobbler for you, dear? We saw you on Jay Leno.' They want to do little extra things now. But it's so funny, because I looked awful, totally different than I did on TV. I do stay really real at home; I don't wear make-up when I go to Wal-Mart—though some think I should."
How does her life, growing up, and as a working mother today, affect how Ms. Shepherd's own music "grows"?
"You know, it just does, because at my core I'm the person that I am. I don't know if you would call where that's pulled from 'roots,' or if it's a family-oriented thing. I know it's God-driven, too; I've always felt a force there, and it all ties together pretty soundly. My music's part of me—just like I have two arms."