August 23, 2011


Country Music's Gutsy, Modern Traditionalist (BARRY MAZOR, 8/09/11, WSJ)

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.

Ashton Shepherd: Country Music With Roots (NPR, July 29, 2011)
In these days of citified, even glamorous country singers, Ashton Shepherd lives the life other country stars just sing about. Her new album, Where Country Grows, is her second, but Shepherd hasn't moved to a big spread outside Nashville. She still lives in Alabama. She sells vegetables out of the back of her pickup truck when she's not on tour.

"Me and my husband are still living on six acres, in a single-wide trailer," Shepherd says. "I'll get depressed out on the road simply because I'm not being the mama that's cooking supper every night, or that's fixing my husband's plate and my baby's plate. You miss those things, and I miss them. It makes me feel good to grow things in the garden and put things up in jars."

A lot of the stories Shepherd tells in her songs are true stories -- none more so than the one in "Rory's Radio."

"Rory was my brother Jeff's best friend," she says. "Jeff lost his life in a car accident in 1999. I was 13 years old. And Rory was still there. It was really nice to have somebody that came by to see Mom and Daddy. That really was plugging such an empty space in our life at that time."

Shepherd says the song doesn't mention the sadness of her brother's death; it's about remembering the innocence she and Rory and her family had before he died.

"It doesn't drag you down," she says. "It actually lifts you up."

Posted by at August 23, 2011 5:29 AM

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