Album Review: Ashton Shepherd – Sounds So Good
It’s tough for some traditional country fans to admit that the days when every budding country music star steps off the bus in Nashville from the cottonfields of Dyess, Arkansas or the coal mines of Butcher Holler, Kentucky are over. This shift accelerated in the 1990s, when Windsor, Ontario native Shania Twain became the best selling female artist of all time and shared the airwaves with, of all people, Princeton, New Jersey born singer-songwriter Mary Chapin Carpenter. These days, it seems like artists who don’t land in Nashville after moderately successful Hollywood acting or pop music careers are moving there from places like Wyomissing, Pennsylvania, which is maybe somewhere near the heartland if not exactly the “country.”
Against this backdrop emerges Ashton Shepherd, who comes to Nashville from Coffeeville, Alabama by way of Leroy. A mother and wife by age 19 with a syrupy sweet drawl and self-penned songs about getting drunk and falling out of love, it’s hard for traditionalists not to celebrate MCA’s new artist as the second coming, a messiah to save country radio from all those Barbie Dolls who’d rather wiggle their glittering fuchsia toenails on MTV than sing Webb Pierce songs with the house band at some Alabama honky tonk. Sounds So Good, the debut album from this much-anticipated artist, makes it difficult to confuse Ashton with female artists in this other group. She doesn’t sing handpicked pop-country gumdrops from top Nashville songwriters but 11 tracks written solely by Shepherd and her brother-in-law Adam Cunningham.
Producer Buddy Cannon has worked hard to give Ashton a sound that is undeniably traditional yet surprisingly not far afield from pop-country radio polish. The album’s heavy on steel guitar, nasal twang and drawn-out vowels, but there’s no reason to fear that songs which sound more like early Sara Evans than Kitty Wells can’t slide relatively seamlessly into the radio rotation. Of these, lead single and album opener “Takin’ Off this Pain” is the most radio friendly. Ashton’s performance and writing are equally impressive: you can “hear” the sneer on her face as she navigates a song that’s angry yet smart and brash yet self-aware. Of the countless songs that have been recorded about life in the country, none “Sounds So Good” as Ashton’s title track: a telecaster and steel guitar do battle as Ashton sings about country music and “a cooler slushin’ on the bed of your truck,” a turn of phrase with more sincerity than the usual lines about cracking open a beer.
The fingerpicked guitar, synthesized keyboard and muted strings of “Lost in You” make for a jarring third track, but it’s not a terrible production decision given the content of the lyric. Ashton says she wrote this song at age 15, and I believe her: it’s the kind of saccharine and bland declaration of love that populates pop radio but the fact that it’s performed in an Alabama drawl makes the worst track on the album at least listenable. Things improve quickly with “I Ain’t Dead Yet,” a housewife protest that stands in clear succession to Loretta Lynn’s most famous material and can only be written and sung from lived experience. Ashton’s take on the theme is quieter and more desperate than Lynn’s: she stretches syllables in agony as she longs to listen to some “Keith Whiiiiiiitley on the raaaaaaaaaadio.”
Country ain’t country without love lost, and Ashton gives us two strong offerings in this category. Cannon’s production of “Old Memory” sounds too much like “Lost in You,” but Ashton saves the song by realizing that “I am a grown woman, I should have already set myself free” while wallowing in the memory of the lover she once had. “Regular Joe” is a nice continuation of this theme as Ashton approaches her ex’s new lover, not to make a scene ala Miranda Lambert but to remind her to hold onto the man who “ain’t your regular Joe.”
What missteps there are on this album are more or less salvaged by a jaw-dropping voice that could make Ashton the next vocal superstar. “How Big are Angels Wings?” is one of those horribly predictable and trite childhood cancer odysseys that has provided radio’s emotional fodder for years, but it’s difficult for even the most hardened radio listener not to feel a little something as Ashton opens her mouth wide and lets go with, “how biiiiiiiiig are angggggel wings?” “The Pickin’ Shed” is a nice portrait of the ramshackle cabin on Alabama cropland where Ashton’s music was born, but it competes with “Sounds So Good” as the album’s frame: Ashton and company would’ve been better off choosing one of these meta-songs. Likewise, “Not Right Now” treads on the same ground covered by the title track but is much less imaginative: who doesn’t “like my music loud / with a real big crowd / and a cooler close by?”
The album’s final two tracks may be the most important, as Ashton demonstrates versatility that is important to her long-term viability. “The Bigger the Heart” is an infectious little ditty about men who get silly over women and it’s the only song on the album that doesn’t shoot for something big. The fact that it’s still written and executed well is important in an industry where every commercial artist has to do their share of fluffy pandering. It’s hard to tell exactly what Ashton is singing about in “The Whiskey Won the Battle,” the only song on the album on which she does not have a writing credit, but it has something do with drinking away an old memory and it’s clear that Ashton believes it. What begins as a reserved vocal performance builds to a loud crescendo, as Ashton wails, “I had a headache when I woke up this morning” before concluding that “the whiskey won the battle but your memory won the war” over blaring guitars and a crying fiddle.
I was there on September 29, 2007, the night when Ashton Shepherd made her first appearance on the Grand Ole Opry and Porter Wagoner made his last, and I left a believer. During her first performance, Little Jimmy Dickens remarked to onlookers in the wings, “that girl has never heard a pop song in her life,” while at the night’s second show, host Bill Anderson shared Buddy Cannon’s observations that “this girl’s so country she makes Loretta Lynn sound like she’s from Liverpool.” To Ashton’s credit, her debut album doesn’t attempt to validate those observations. It’s not a statement for traditional country music, and it’s not devoid of Nashville tricks and polish. Rather, it’s an album by a woman who’s from the country and is singing what she knows about, and it Sounds So Good.
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