Ashton Shepherd Gets Personal with MSN Music
Ashton Shepherd: Getting Personal
Breakout country singer flexes new songs, new strengths
By Phyllis Stark
Special to MSN Music
Ashton Shepherd was feeling the pressure when she stepped into the studio to record her second album this year. An unassuming young wife and mother from Alabama with a hardcore country voice and a gift for pouring her simple life into memorable songs, Shepherd's 2008 debut, "Sounds So Good," caught the ear of fans, radio and, especially, music critics, who hailed the album and the artist as one of the year's best.
So when it came time for the follow-up, the newly released "Where Country Grows," Shepherd by then pregnant with her second child says she and her producer, Buddy Cannon, felt scrutiny from all sides to top their previous work.
What they had to live up to were accolades like the ones from The Washington Post, which named "Sounds So Good" album of the year, and The Wall Street Journal, which compared Shepherd to Loretta Lynn and called her album "the most promising debut of 2008."
"Everybody felt the pressure," Shepherd says about the making of her sophomore set. "Buddy was more nervous this go-round, and I feel like the record label was [too]. Everybody was sort of sweating a little bit because there had been such critical acclaim and that first record, and you had no idea what the critics were looking for [on] the second one."
Shepherd, who will turn 25 next month, admits that if she'd let herself think about it too much, that pressure might have been paralyzing. Instead, she put her faith in the eight songs she'd written for the album, and the two others she found including the hilarious leadoff single, "Look It Up" and set out to make the best record she could.
The end result negated all prior worries, and so far the critics seem to agree, with reviews for "Where Country Grows" matching and even topping the previous laurels heaped on Shepherd. Rolling Stone said, "Her debut, 'Sounds So Good,' was one of the best country releases of 2008. 'Where Country Grows' is even better." The Washington Post named her as one of its five top new artists to watch in 2011.
"Now," Shepherd says, "I'm really relieved because everybody's seeming to like it."
Shepherd says the new album ended up being "more personal" than the first one, although she says, "My goal wasn't to be more personal. I [just] wanted to reintroduce Ashton Shepherd to as many people as I could."
That she felt she needed to be reintroduced three years into her professional career is a surprise, but Shepherd explains, "I think you just kind of reintroduce [yourself] each time you make a record. You're constantly telling people who you are, where you are, what you've been through at the time, and relating to people.
"People might have known [me] or got a dose of the first record and sort of had an idea," she adds, "and this is just kind of a way of closing that gap for them."
Shepherd emerged, seemingly from nowhere, three years ago with her debut single, "Takin' Off This Pain." And while it stalled at No. 20 on the Billboard country singles chart, the song established her as an artist to take seriously. Fans and critics alike were as charmed by her authenticity and unpretentiousness as her working-class anthems.
When not on the road, Shepherd continues to live in a single-wide trailer on a seven-acre family farm in rural Leroy, Ala., with husband Roland Cunningham and their 5-year-old son James, stuffing all of their belongings, including her stage wardrobe, into the home's meager three closets.
"I'm a little tired of not having any room," she says, "but we make it work.
"Eventually, if I get a lot of money, I want to build me a big house," she adds. But even with success, you get the sense Shepherd's idea of "big" doesn't mean McMansion.
She brings the family on the road with her as much as possible, particularly when she plays summer fairs and festivals, where she says young James "has a big ole' ball."
Thanks to the last three years spent largely on the road, Shepherd says, her vocals have gotten even stronger than they were when she made her debut, helping her overcome some occasional vocal problems.
"I have a very raspy voice anyway, and it's very airy," she says. "I struggle with losing my voice here and there, just getting hoarse easily and not [being] really sure why.
"But I definitely feel like my voice has gotten stronger and more developed, just more mature," she says of her time on the road and in the studio. "I've learned how to not use my voice as strong as I used to. I used to kind of over-sing a little bit. Now, I've learned I can kind of let back and still get the same thing out. You just learn from experience the more you do."
Along with her vocal seasoning, Shepherd says her already impressive songwriting has improved as well.
"I've got a few more years on me now, and my second child [due in September], so my writing definitely evolved with where I'm at in my life, for sure," she says.
The songs on her first album were mostly things she'd written, by herself, between the ages of 16 and 21. Now, her songwriting has taken on a maturity evident on the new project with songs like "I'm Just a Woman."
She also tried out co-writing for the first time with some of Nashville's most seasoned songwriters, something that not only netted some great results, but also opened the young star up to new ways of thinking about the process.
"I've learned how to write different kinds of songs," she says.
As a fledgling songwriter, "I wrote a lot of the same kind of songs & a lot of heartache, a lot of hurt. At 15, 16 years old, [its about] going through your boyfriends and breakups sort of the Taylor Swift kind of feel and riding dirt roads with your fella," she says. "Then I evolved into being a mama and being a wife, and I was writing songs about that and still growing up, as I am now."
Co-writing also gave her the opportunity to get some welcome outside feedback on her tunes from her fellow writers.
"All your songs feel like your young'uns," she says in her distinctive low drawl. "You would just love to put them all on a record, but you've got to have people there to kind of help you situate."
Even with all the maturity a 24-year-old can muster, Shepherd still retains a refreshing "gee-whiz" attitude about her success. She recently tweeted a grinning photo of herself sitting next to her own likeness in an ad for her album covering a Nashville bus stop bench, a sign that she remains grateful for the opportunity to turn her talent into a real career.
"It's very gratifying, because there's so many people on the streets of Nashville and in the bars trying to make it," she says.
Even now, Shepherd says she often wonders, "Is this really happening?" and tries to absorb every moment. "Sometimes I don't think you can think about it deep enough for it to sink in," she says. "It is a little bit too surreal."