DIARY - 23 DECEMBER 2008 - ASHTON SHEPHERD
SHEPHERD - BAMA BELLE BURIES PAIN
got a cold beer in my right hand/ in my left I've got my wedding band/
I've been wearing it around for far too long/ and I'm more than ready
to see it gone." - Takin' Off This Pain - Ashton Shepherd
country singer-songwriter Ashton Shepherd is a cool aural oasis in the
desert of damsels frolicking in the crossover pop pond of the galloping
The bucolic belle rang a welcome peal back to the days of yore when radio
danced to the haunting, lonesome tunes of Cline, Lynn and Wynette.
When Shepherd burst out of the chute she picked up the torch carried by
pure country chanteuses diverse as Bobbie Cryner, Matraca Berg, Elizabeth
Cook, Mandy Barnett, Catherine Britt and Chalee Tennison.
And, like Cook and Britt, she scored airplay as an adolescent on local
She later played in a band with construction worker husband Roland and
brother-in-law, Adam Cunningham.
Shepherd, mother of a three-year-old son, and Roland played guitar - Adam
She won a talent contest and cut a three-song demo that landed an audition
with Luke Lewis, chairman of Universal Music Group in January 2007.
He immediately signed her to MCA Nashville.
Shepherd brought 40 original songs and cut 14 with veteran producer Buddy
Cannon for major label debut CD Sounds So Good.
Her single Takin' Off This Pain soared charts and launched the
album on the market.
It was a major breakthrough for the singer who wrote seven of the 11 songs
to survive the studio cull and co-wrote another three with Cunningham
who penned album finale Whiskey Won The Battle.
She penned most her songs as a teenager and debuted on the historic Grand
Ole Opry before she turned 21.
"Probably some of the most special moments were at the Opry when
I played for the first time," Shepherd revealed as she scored here
on ABC and community radio.
She earned wide acclaim from critics yearning to hear roots country -
not stir fried country pop - on radio and TV.
"Bill Anderson gave me such praise and pulled me back onstage,"
the singer added.
"Little Jimmy Dickens said it sounds like I'd never heard a pop song
in my life."
Equally enthusiastic is expatriate Australasian superstar Keith Urban
who invited her onto his bus.
Keith told Ashton, who performed live on CMT Awards, he felt the same
way hearing her album as when he discovered Randy Travis' debut disc.
"That was really unreal to be standing there talking to him about
liking my records so much," Ashton says.
"It was a special moment and something I will never forget."
5 foot 3, and Lord, ain't she sweet/ she's got everything a man believes
she needs/ but she ain't gonna stay, she don't work that way/ and the
man he is, you'd think it'd be somethin' he could take." - The
Bigger The Heart - Ashton Shepherd- Adam Cunningham.
was just six years after first chancing her art when her parents
funded an album cut at Alabama group member Jeff Cook's home studio.
"It was 12 songs I had written," Shepherd, 22, and touring
partner of multiple CMA Award winner Sugarland and Little Big Town,
"I was 15 years old when I made the CD. I went to Cook Studios
in Fort Payne, Alabama, and put 12 songs that I had written on a
CD. We took all the pictures ourselves - me and my mama did."
Her mother took the cover photo of the songbird born in Coffeeville,
population 360 and 90 miles north of Mobile, and living in Leroy
on the Tombigbee River - which doesn't even list a population.
had the minimum of 1,000 copies made of that CD," Shepherd
so many places where people said, 'Oh, we'd love to have a CD. Do you
have something?' So we did that so people could have something of mine.
We would sell them for $10 or whatever."
supposed to wanna do a lot of drinkin'/ at least that's what a lot folks
keep thinkin'/ I ain't supposed to stay out late till all hours of the
morning/ I'm supposed to be a young lady." - Not Right Now - Ashton
One of those
songs survived to be revived for her sequel.
"There were maybe four or five local bars in our area that we played,"
says Ashton. "The audiences always loved the original songs. One
of their favourites was Not Right Now because the women dig the
"The local playing was great but I wanted a career. I wanted my music
out there but we didn't know what to do. I talked to my husband about
it. I would get depressed, because I felt like the good Lord had given
me this talent, but I wasn't doing anything with it. Then one day all
of this just happened."
Shepherd has plenty of song roughage - she picked peas and sold them from
the back of a truck after losing a brother in a car wreck when she was
Now her career takes her all over the U.S. and maybe Europe and Australia
with no desire to live in Music City - industry HQ.
"We still live in Leroy, Alabama, and when we come up to Nashville,
we just stay at hotels right now," the singer explained.
"Eventually, we want to try to get us a place up here to come and
stay, but I just I think we're going to always stay there at home in Leroy
'cause, that is home. I love Nashville.
It's a fun place, and I respect so much all the history and everything.
But you know how that is: Home's home, and I think we'll always stay home.
I've heard about people bad things happening from moving to Nashville
too quick. I've watched a lot of biographies and a lot of stuff like that
growing up, CMT Inside Fame, because I was always curious about what people
do and how do they make it, and I imagine I would probably be the same
way. It probably makes you bitter after so long of being somewhere and
trying for so long and nobody really believing in you like you believe
in yourself. I imagine even once you do make it, you feel a chip on your
shoulder, so to speak. And I feel very blessed that things have happened
so quick for me. I never had a chance to feel that way, and I'm proud
of that, I'm proud that I didn't have to feel that way."
hey, now, don't you wanna come down/ bring your guitar, here we play music
with our own sound/ a lot of fine friendship and music's been born and
bred/ right here in our backyard at the Pickin' Shed." - The Pickin'
Shed - Ashton Shepherd.
even accentuated her love for her roots on the artwork for Sounds So Good.
It featured a cover photo of her on a pool table at the private Leroy
hangout where she and her husband get together with friends and play music.
They call it The Pickin' Shed.
"Growing up, I only pretty much listened to country music,"
Shepherd says of her aural embryo.
going to school, everybody at school would make fun of me a little
bit, like, "You need to listen to this or that." And I did
venture out and, believe it or not, I even ventured out and listened
to some rap, because everybody at school was listening to it. Of course
I liked some of it - and some of it I didn't. The older I got, the
more I started asking myself, 'Why am I listening to this? Because
I don't really like it that much. I'm just listening to it because
everybody else is.' But I just always loved country music. I used
to promote it to everybody at school that didn't listen to it. Because,
to me, it was like, how can you not like it? And as a matter of fact
my mama's got a tape of me singing There's a Tear in My Beer, when
I was three years old, so I just grew up listening to country music."
So the genre
was not an overnight awakening?
ever really remember just realising it all of a sudden because it was
so slow and gradual and I had done it for so long," Shepherd explained.
"My brothers used to make me sing when I was three and four years
old on tapes and stuff, and then I sang in church. And it was just like
the grownups were asking me to be in the choir when I was five and six,
and I didn't know why. I thought, 'I feel silly up here with all these
grownups.' But it was just like everybody saw it as something special,
and it made me believe it might be something special. So I've just been
doing it since I was about three and four years old."
What about the writing?
"I've got notebooks where I would make up stuff, like about my brother
going to war or something, and I would just make it up," Shepherd
"Like make-believe books or something. I've got stuff that I wrote
when I was six and seven and eight years old. I almost don't remember
because I was so little. I don't really remember where it came from. It
just came. And that's what I always tell people: I know it's got to be
God-given because I don't know how to tell people how I write or how I
sing or anything because it just has always been there for so long."
sat in her hospital bed drawin' pictures of the sky/ and through the pain
she felt she had never asked why/ but when the doctor walked in and said
it's time for your meds/ with tears in her eyes she looked at the doctor
and said." - How Big Are Angel Wings - Ashton Shepherd-Adam Cunningham.
And it was the maternal influence that ran deep.
"Well, my mama taught me just to be myself, because she was always
herself and she was always really a rock for our family," Shepherd
"When her mother passed away, she asked me to hold the family together,
so my house was where everybody came for holidays and for everything.
You know, I grew up watching my mama being such a mother hen to everybody.
And, really, it rubbed off on me because I'm that way now. So she taught
us a lot of things, not necessarily just beating something in our heads
but just by being a loving, kind mama. She taught us a lot of things,
and she sang to us all the time. She asked me the other day, she said,
"You don't remember, Ashton. I used to record myself singing and
play it for you and Tara [Ashton's sister]. I'd put, like, 20 or 30 minutes
of me singing on a tape, and I'd put it in the room with ya'll to get
ya'll to sleep." And I didn't remember that specifically, but I remember
her singing to us, and that's the kind of little stuff she done to show
she cared. She always loved music, and she played guitar when she was
pregnant with me. That's when she first started trying to play. She still
tries to piddle with it, but like mamas do, she didn't ever put herself
first. So she never got to exceed with it as I've got to do, but she's
really proud of everything."
AND KEITH ON THE WIRELESS
I still like a cold beer and a long dirt road/ and listening to some Keith
Whitley/ Hank Williams on the radio/ don't mean l ain't a good mama/ don't
mean I ain't a good wife." -
I Ain't Dead Yet - Ashton Shepherd
draws song sources from Dixie roots in homage to late mentors and
"Sometimes I walk around with pieces in my mind, and sometimes
I come up with an idea and I walk around with it for a few days,"
the young mother revealed.
"I've written songs pulling my little boy in his wagon around
the house, just humming something or coming up with it out of the
blue. And sometimes I come up with stuff in the shower. Like with
the song I Ain't Dead Yet, I just sat down and wrote it from
front to finish, and then I've just got my song.
But I do it all different ways."
Shepherd colour codes her songs.
"I actually have a blue notebook to keep my songs in that I started
keeping back in about the year 2000 because I thought about that,"
somewhere to be keeping them all. A lot of times, I'll just be able to
remember them in my head and forget to write them down right then, and
then I'll go back later maybe and write them down. But now I've got me
a green composition notebook I've been doing the same thing in. Once I
filled the blue one up, I got the green one and started with it.
So how does the singer protect her literary treasures from pirates?
"Actually it's not under lock and key, but it's under one of our
big sheds outside that's real protected with a big tin roof and all,"
"I'm just always scared about something happening to my home - if
it was to burn down or something. I think what would happen, how terrible
that would be. So I've got it all out under the shed in some Rubbermaid
boxes. I need to get a safe or something, but we'll do that when we can
a baby at home, a to-do list a mile long/ and a husband who comes home
each night/ I do the laundry, I cook and clean/ it's my responsibility
and I'm usually in bed by nine." - I Ain't Dead Yet - Ashton Shepherd
Shepherd, like predecessors Loretta Lynn and late Tammy Wynette, is renowned
for inspirational material, reeking of Dixie and maternal pride.
"I get a lot of e-mails, like on my MySpace and stuff about it the
song Takin' Off This Pain being something that uplifts somebody
that is in a real bad situation," Shepherd says.
"They hear it and say, "This song makes me want to feel better"
or "It makes me want to move on rather than being sad about something,"
which I'm glad for. I don't want anybody to do the wrong thing because
of the song, but I am glad to hear that it uplifts people."
Shepherd, like Cryner and Barnett, also pays homage to the late Patsy
Cline who died at 30 on March 5, 1963, in a plane crash that also claimed
"Sweet Dreams by Patsy Cline means a lot to me because I grew
up singing basically nothing but Patsy," Shepherd confessed.
"I sang I Fall to Pieces, Walking After Midnight and Crazy
and a song my brother always loved that I think was covered by somebody
else first, You Belong to Me. Just something about her voice. I
mean, it just was so deep and true sounding and honest, and that's what
I grew up singing. The very first competition I ever entered, I sang Patsy
Cline so it really does mean a lot to me 'cause she's been such an influence."
So what does Shepherd think about the flattering comment that she is too
country for radio, TV and industry power brokers?
"If somebody was to say that I am too country, I don't really think
you can be too country," Shepherd said.
"I mean, I think that if you're just being yourself, anybody that's
being real can't be too much of something. Because when they're just real
about what they are and who they are, I don't really feel like you can
be too country. I guess that goes back to loving it so much."
there ain't nothin' like the sound/ of a cooler, slushin' on the bed of
your truck/ and ain't nothin' like the sound of real country music/ come
on now, turn it up." - Sounds So Good - Ashton Shepherd
no surprise Shepherd performed Cline songs in talent quests as a
"The very first time I sang in public I sang Crazy and
Walkin' After Midnight when I was eight years old just nervous
as I could be," Shepherd recalled.
"And I didn't move. My brothers were out there - just holding
the camera. And my brothers are going, 'Look at us, girl. Look at
us. We can't see you! I held my hand beside me and just held that
microphone, and I didn't even look at the audience. I just was so
nervous, but luckily I started at that age. Because if I wouldn't
have I would probably be that way now on stage.
I'd be nervous and everything, but that was my very first performance."
So what was the reaction?
was very, very surprising," she added.
loved Walkin' After Midnight. I played it with the backup band
behind me. And I had told the band during practice that I didn't want
- I told them I wasn't being ugly - but that I didn't want them to play
Crazy with me. I wanted to do it by myself. And so I sang Crazy
with no music, and the audience didn't let me finish. When I got to
the 'crazy for thinking that my love could hold you' and when I said 'I'm
crazy for crying' some woman just screamed. You can hear it on the camera
and then the whole audience just started screaming, and my brothers were
just having a heart attack because the audience just loved it. I ended
up winning second place. They told me they didn't let me win because I
was too little. I was only eight years old, and they let an older gentleman
who had entered win it. But the audience loved it, and I remember that
night I got asked to start singing at the Greensboro, Alabama, catfish
festival. It's where it started to grow - where people started to go,
"Hey, can you come sing this for us or play this place for us?"
IT ALL STARTED
She was born
Ashton Delilah Shepherd on August 16, 1986.
Ashton's dad Donnie worked in a paper mill on the Alabama River.
Her mum Denise was a housewife and mother to Ashton, two older brothers
and younger sister.
Both parents sang and Denise's guitar playing attempts were emulated by
both her sons.
"There's a high school and some peanut fields and that's about it,"
Ashton says of her hometown.
"You blink and you miss it. My husband's family farms produce, so
we stay busy with that.
When the folks in Nashville asked what I'd been doing lately, I told them,
'I've been picking peas in the morning and picking guitars at night.'
But then she won a talent contest in Gilbertown, Alabama, in June 2006
- the chance to open for Grand Ole Opry star Lorrie Morgan.
A Nashville record producer heard Ashton, asked for a copy of her CD and
invited her to come to Nashville to record some of her tunes.
She arrived in Guitar Town on August 29, 2006.
An industry insider saw her perform and urged her to record a demo.
By that time she already had about 200 tunes she'd written and figured
she needed advice from a contract attorney in Nashville before signing
She called the first place she came across on the Internet and a woman
answered. "This lady out of nowhere helped me. She gave me her home
number and told me what to do and what not to do. She said it would take
a minimum of five years."
The woman was not a lawyer but worked in the attorney's office and knew
a lot about the industry and thought Shepherd had a lot of promise. The
two became friends and, through a series of contacts, she got the demo
to executives at Universal.
"We signed her immediately and sent her in the studio with Buddy
Cannon before she could become affected by Nashville or any of the trappings
of the business," said Lewis, the label chairman. "She had plenty
of material so we didn't have to hunt for songs."
I can't figure out just what went wrong/ I play it in my head like an
old Hank Williams song/ and I can't do this, I can't do this anymore/
the whiskey won the battle but your memory won the war." - Whiskey
Won The Battle - Adam Cunningham.
prolific writing is a raw, potent vehicle to ensure longevity beyond
fickle fame of radio.
Cunningham has been a perfect foil.
"There are a lot of people who learn to write songs, but she
was born to write songs," says Cannon who's worked with Shotgun
Willie Nelson, Kenny Chesney and Reba McEntire.
"We didn't change anything about her songs. She didn't come to
town and start co-writing with people. She was a breath of fresh air."
is thick and twangy and her sound is bedrock country.
tunes about bad relationships Takin' Off This Pain, remorse Old
Memory, Regular Joe, good times Sounds So Good, The Pickin'
Shed and domestic life I Ain't Dead Yet.
It's a far cry from the urban teen country of chart-toppers Taylor Swift
and Carrie Underwood.
"They come from a different place and that's just fine," Shepherd
"I feel like everybody is filling their places perfectly. They're
all in their element. But I think there is a void where my element is
And so does Lewis. He says what Shepherd may lack in seasoning she more
than makes up for in talent and authenticity.
"Many people have a preconceived idea of what it's like to live in
the rural South and raise a family at 21. Ashton's songs tell how it really
BORN TO SING
got a pocketful full of money I shouldn't spend/ to drink him away again/
my heart stops cold in my chest/ there he is in the back of the bat lookin'
his best/ he's just and old memory that doesn't remember me." - Old
Memory - Ashton Shepherd- Adam Cunningham.
has no plans to change careers if she hits hurdles.
"This is what I was born to do," she says.
"I've always been singing, but it didn't come from me. I didn't just
teach myself to sing. I've always sung. The songwriting is the same. As
soon as I was big enough to write on paper, I was coming up with stuff.
I've got notebooks where I was writing down songs when I couldn't even
spell correctly, from the time I was five, six, seven years old. I've
always dreamed of this ride I'm about to take. I feel as blessed as I've
ever felt in my life.""
And that resilience dates back to her childhood.
"I remember when Garth Brooks' Shameless was out and I'd sing
it with feeling and squint my eyes and my brothers would make fun of me,"
"I remember mama calling daddy over and saying 'Donnie, listen to
her. She knows every word."'
Shepherd says that when she was a girl she'd tell teachers she wanted
to be a country singer and they'd smile and say something like, "No,
honey, you don't want to do that. You want to go to college."
"It was stirring around in me all the time," she recalls.
"But I also had scared feelings. What would it be like for my family?
How are we going to do this? Is my daddy going to quit his job and go
to Nashville? It's not that I didn't want it to happen, I was afraid to
make a big step."
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