Best of 2008: Ashton Shepherd

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Ashton Shepherd is a 22-year-old Alabama songbird who writes and sings about motherhood, small-town rural life, music, her feisty streak and booze -- not necessarily in that order. Her mission statement: "I like a pint of Crown and a country sound and stayin' out all night."

On her debut album, "Sounds So Good," Shepherd channels Loretta Lynn, name-checks Keith Whitley and celebrates the pickin' shed behind her house. She sings, in a deep, honeyed drawl, that "there ain't nothin' like the sound of a cooler slushin' on the bed of your truck" -- which was merely the line of the summer.

Shepherd is the real deal -- a formidable songwriter and a gifted singer with a rich, expressive, decidedly twangy voice that's just brimming with personality. The country traditionalist sounds alternately tough and tender, with an emphasis on the former. "Sounds So Good" opens with Shepherd singing: "I've got a cold beer in my right hand/In my left I've got my wedding band/I've been wearing it 'round now for way too long./And I'm more than ready to see it gone/And I'm the only one who can set myself free/So I'm takin' off this pain you put on me." (As it turns out, it's a sharply drawn character sketch, not a real-life confessional: Shepherd is happily married.)

I joked in Sunday Style & Arts that somewhere, a jealous Miranda Lambert was probably breakin' out the kerosene. But Shepherd won her over, too, with Lambert saying earlier this year: "The first time I heard Ashton Shepherd's voice, it's like she reached out of the radio and grabbed me. ... I love that in her music you hear her life and the down-home feel of her lyrics. She is perfectly unpolished. The fact that she is a redneck, beer-drinkin' chick from Alabama, I mean what's not to love?"

Indeed.

"Sounds So Good" is my pick for 2008 album of the year.

Shepherd called from her single-wide trailer in southwest Alabama one recent morning. It was 8 a.m. CST, an unreasonable hour for a musician. I was hoping she'd explain that she'd been stayin' out all night, drinking a pint of Crown, etc. But no. "I like to do my interviews early," she said. "That way, I can let my little boy James sleep a minute. It's just easier than having him sittin' on my lap, watchin' cartoons while we talk." She noted that her husband was out hunting. So, so country. So, so great.

Was there ever any question that you'd make a traditional-sounding album? That's not exactly the easiest sell these days.
It was always just gonna be what it is. I remember when we first started, me and [producer Buddy Cannon] were starting to get to know each other. I remember talkin' to him one day and I was telling him the different music that I love. I said, "Buddy, I love John Anderson's music. I love that sound, with the fiddles driving a lot of his songs." And I gave a couple of other examples of real country music that I like.

I was a little afraid then because I didn't really know Buddy. I knew a little of his history of course and just how legendary he is. But I didn't know what he was going to want to do with my songs. Producin', that's not what I do. I'm just a singer-songwriter. I forget how he said it exactly, but he said: "Ashton, you're country, and I am too. And that's the record we're gonna make." When I got off the phone, I felt like: Gosh, he gets it. He gets what I do. He was sayin': "We're both fans of real country music, and that's what we're going to go in the studio to make."

I haven't listened to the record in a long time. I've kept away from it so I could start to listen through it again at the end of this year and start to think about a third single for radio and everythin'. I forget how traditional it sounds in so many ways. It's still kind of contemporary compared to old country music. But when you listen to it after listenin' to the radio a lot, you go: Wow, this is pretty country! (Laughs.)

You really need to listen to it again. It's awesome -- my favorite album of 2008, and I've heard a lot of them this year.
I'll tell you what: That makes me feel real good, that people believe in it. It really lifts my spirits and makes me feel good when somebody says you want to do an interview because I'm in your top albums of 2008. I'm going: Wow, it's really okay that I don't have a big No. 1 that stayed up there for eight weeks yet because I have a lot of other supporters in big ways.

(Much more inside.)

I know it doesn't buy you that swimming pool or big, 500-acre ranch or anything, but ...
You know, I'm such a simple person. Me and my husband, we live in a single-wide trailer with our son. We're very down-to-Earth people. My goal with my music -- of course, I want to be able to build a foundation for my son, to have money for his college and be able to put up trust funds for him. I would love to be able to do all of that stuff. But meanwhile, I'm just proud to be able to be makin' a living with my music. I was playin' music anyway. But I was playin' it for $300 a night at a little, bitty bar where people weren't listening, you know? But there was a really big change for me and my husband. He used to work construction work; he was a millwright. It was a total role-reversal for us. We went from me being a stay-at-home mom to him being sort of like a stay-at-home dad. They come with me over half the time on the bus when I'm on tour. But at home, he's got our son.

I don't mean this in a bad way toward the industry, but if this all fell out from under me tomorrow, I would still be playin' music here at home, and I'd still have my family. Last night, I was playing my husband some new songs, and my little boy got some money and gave it to me and said: "Here's money for playin' your guitar." (Laughs.) And he gave me a kiss. He's such a big little fan, and my husband is, too. That means so much. I don't have to have a lot of glamor and all that. It's nice, but at the end of the day, I'm just so proud to be able to be makin' music on top of already havin' my dream, which was to have a husband and a little boy and being able to have family livin' near us. All my family lives within a couple hours of us. None of them live out of state or anything like that. I'm a very fortunate person.

As you were making the album, you were also trying to mother your baby boy. Did you get to sleep at all?
(Laughs.) Oh, I did. But it was a very big transition for me. It went from me saying, "Miss Rachel" -- which is my husband's mama -- "can you watch James?" to them watching him more and more throughout the whole process. When I did radio tours, my husband went with me everywhere and they kept James all the time. And I'd never really left him from the time he was born. He never went to daycare or anything. I was home with him every day, which was what I wanted to do. I love to play with my baby all day and run to Wal-Mart or whatever and cook supper. That was fine and dandy with me. So it was a very big transition.

This might sound strange, but I grew up all my life being scared to death about making it. I wanted to, but I was scared to death of it. When I was little -- 10, 11, 12 years old -- and I had my little girlfriends at school, it was: "What am I going to do about my friends? Am I gonna just up and leave where I'm from? What am I going to do about my daddy's job?" I was thinkin' about all that stuff when I probably shouldn't have. And, of course, after I'm out of high school, I'm married, I've got a son, and I'm thinkin': "Well, I'm definitely not uprooting now. I live 30 minutes from my parents. My husband's parents live right next door. We've got a beautiful place to live. Why would I up and leave? That would be crazy. I want to make it, but I don't know how. I don't want to do the regular thing and move to Nashville and be there 10 years." I am such a homebody. That's such a different breed, I guess. So many people look at that and go: "That's just so weird. My parents live in Arizona and I live in Minnesota," or whatever. But I can't take being that far away.

Buddy Cannon told me that the studio musicians who worked on your album keep asking about you, which is pretty rare since they do so many sessions with so many singers. His point being that the "Sounds So Good" sessions were really special. What do you remember about them?
I remember just how easy it seemed to be, and how everything just flowed like magic. There was only three tracks on the record that weren't just acoustic, so we'd all sit in a room and listen to the acoustic versions of my songs, just me and my guitar. Then we'd step inside the studio, and they'd play it. The way they brought things to life in the matter of playin' the songs the first time just made it so special. It was just unbelievable what they were able to come up with and what Buddy was able to do. It was my first time to record an album that was supposed to be that significant. I was a little nervous myself. My thing was: How do I know where to start, where to stop, when to come in? They read music and all that stuff, whereas I can't read music. I just have to go off what I'm feelin'. But it just flowed. It was so magically easy, you know?

Obviously, you had pretty strong feelings about the songs, since they were your own. But at some point during the sessions, did you say to yourself: Holy Loretta, they sound even better than I'd ever imagined?
Oh, yeah. I'll get excited about every one of them 'cause, like you said, they're my songs. But when I write a song, I never know for sure what somebody else is going to think of it. I'm always pretty humble, I guess you'd say, about my songs. I mean, I've got some that I just love personally, like: Hey, please, let's put this on a record! But I always want to know what people's opinions are because I have such an attachment to all of my songs. I had no idea when I went into the studio that, like, "Sounds So Good," the title track to the debut album, was going to turn out like it did. I had no clue. Not one inklin'. It wasn't that I didn't think it was going to turn out good. But to me, it was just to me this simple acoustic song that I had wrote about what we do around where we live in a little small town in Alabama. I had no idea it was going to sound like it did. I couldn't picture it.

You're just a baby -- 22 years old. And yet you've been doing this forever: Singing around the house since you were barely out of diapers, and -- this is the most amazing thing -- writing songs since you were about five. What the heck were you writing about then?
You know, I've always been a huge country music fan. In school, I went a little south or whatever you want to call it and listened to a little rap and a little rock because all of my friends did it. They weren't really country music fans. When I was in high school and grade school, whoever Hannah Montana was back then, that's who everybody loved. But I was listening to Clint Black and Garth Brooks and Alan Jackson and Patty Loveless on country music radio.

I'm very perceptive about being able to listen to something and make my own thing out of it. That's what I did listening to country radio. I've been writin' songs since I was a little girl -- 5, 6, 7 years old. I kind of liked my alone time when I was little. I'd go outside, sit on the swing set or on the trampoline and I'd make up songs about a boyfriend-girlfriend or somethin'. I had a so-called boyfriend at school when I was 7. He'd come swim with us, Mama would make us sandwiches -- just little things like that that I would put into a song the best way I knew how from listening to the radio. That's kind of how I went about it.

I had some songs that were just as silly as could be. I had some songs I just made up. I even made up a song about my two big brothers being in the Army. Well, neither one of them was in the Army. I was just making it up. It's strange. It's a very God-given talent. I've been blessed with this ability. I totally understand people going: "How were you writing songs at that age? What were you writing about?" I was just going off of what I was hearin' on the radio. Sometimes it would be something I made up, sometimes it wouldn't. I still write that way. I still write based off other people's situations and mine together.

So country radio was your songwriting school?
Yes, I'm self-taught with it. My mama found five or six songs in a notebook that I had wrote when I was 10. I had wrote "For Travis Tritt" on one of them, "For Lorrie Morgan" on another one. That was just my hobby when I was little. It was writin' songs and singing them for my parents, rather than drawing them a picture. I don't know how in the world how the songwriting comes so easy to me. I used to ask my husband, "Well, how come you don't try to write a song?" He'd get frustrated with me and say, "Ashton, it's not like it is for you. You can sit down and come up with two verses to a song in five minutes. But most people can't do that." I take it for granted myself, just what a gift it is, cause I've had it for such a long time. I've been very fortunate.

You have solo songwriting credits on seven of the 11 tracks and co-writes on three others. The writing is just great; but you also have a fantastic voice. You a better singer? Or a better songwriter?
Oh, gosh. You know, it's hard to answer on my own because I always think of everybody else's opinion. But I would have to say probably singer. I feel like I'm not necessarily a Martina McBride or the Carrie Underwood-type belt singer. I can do that. But as you can tell from me talking, I have a different sound -- a lower-pitched voice for a female. If I ever did sing a Martina McBride song, which I used to when I was little, I'd have to lower it a couple of keys. I can't sing it at her pitch. I feel like my voice and what I do with my voice is somethin' different. I feel like it's special.

What's been the most amazing thing about this year?
Gosh, there's been so many. Every single thing that happens is something that I've never been through before. Everything's been a first. But I found it absolutely wonderful when I played the Opry for the first time. I was looking around going: "Wow, there's Bill Anderson! There's Roy Clark!" I never even pictured playing the Opry. It was completely out of reach.

So if you were scared of success and didn't even see yourself on the Opry stage, what was the dream when you were coming up?
I don't really know. I knew God had given me a talent. And I knew that it would've been a complete and utter waste to have not done something with it. But at that time, I had no idea what tour income was or what publishing money was. I knew a lot of singers were rich, but didn't know why. I was just really clueless about it, to tell you the truth. I just wanted to have a career in it.

I guess I was looking at it just like if I wanted to be a nurse or a veterinarian or just whatever people in class said they wanted to be. Of course, that got made fun of pretty bad. But that was what I wanted to do. They were like: "You need to go to college, and you need to do this, and you need to do that." But I didn't want to go to college. I was given this gift, and I wanted to do something with it. And I felt guilty, because I hadn't done anything with it. My songs were just all sittin' in notebooks and I hadn't moved to Nashville and I wasn't pursuing it any harder.

I guess the kids who laughed in school aren't laughing anymore, are they?
No! (Laughs.) That's such a nice feeling, I've gotta say. I'm not a very mean person or anything like that, but it's very nice to know that their flipping my videos on the the TV and hearing my songs on the radio. There were so many naysayers, probably more than there were supporters when I was in school. I had a lot of people that made me sing wherever I went; they loved my singing. But I had some people that just didn't give a rip about it. "Awww, that's just stupid. You're not ever gonna do anything with that." It makes me feel pretty good to be where I am now.

What's in that Alabama water? The two best Music Row albums this year, without question, are yours and Jamey Johnson's "That Lonesome Song."
(Laughs) I don't really know. It really is a neat thing that that many singer-songwriters come out of this area. Maybe it's just the traditional roots, the way we're brought up and that kind of thing. I don't know.

What are your favorite albums/songs of 2008?
Jamey's "In Color." The first time I heard it I just got chill-bumps all over myself. I love that song. I really like Lee Ann Womack's new song, "Last Call." I could just listen to those two over and over again. I think Taylor Swift is just an unbelievable writer. I think she's really got a great talent in how she's able to express herself in a song and put so much stuff in there. I'm a big fan of Miranda Lambert's stuff, too.

By J. Freedom du Lac |  December 29, 2008; 11:35 AM ET Favorites , Interviews , Year-End Lists
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