Album Review: Ashton Shepherd — Where Country Grows

CM Wilcox | July 13th, 2011

ashtonshepherdcountrygrowsLike neckbeards and prostate cancer, the desire to load albums with songs glorifying rural locales has been a primarily male affliction. While Blake Shelton and Jason Aldean (country’s top-selling album artist of 2011 so far) have made lasting careers of hillbilly bones and dirt road anthems, Carrie Underwood and Taylor Swift focus most of their creative energies on love: finding it, inspiring it, avenging it. The few redneck woman type acts that do pop up tend to be short-lived.

Although Ashton Shepherd has been touted as a modern-day Loretta Lynn, the viewpoints espoused in her songs wouldn’t even be progressive by the standards of 1972 (when Lynn shook up the charts with “Rated X”). In fact, Shepherd’s unwillingness to challenge prevailing social mores and unironic deployment of much-abused redneck tropes make her more like a female analog to Blake Shelton.

Where exactly does country grow? “In the hearts of those who know what life’s all about,” the title track informs us. As supporting evidence, Shepherd points out that the countryside is the only place you’ll find people who pray, feel proud of themselves, and hold doors open for old women. Unable to hang with the door-slamming ways of city dwellers, the transplanted backwoods boy of “More Cows Than People” predictably hightails it back to the country as quickly as possible. Given the rural boosterism of Shepherd’s own writing, even an attentive listener would be hard-pressed to identify the Peach Pickers’ song “Beer on a Boat” as one of the album’s two outside cuts.

Shepherd’s takes on relationship troubles are no less black and white: the guy is usually in the wrong, and she’s not shy about telling him so. That’s certainly the case in “Look It Up,” the Angaleena Presley-penned kiss-off of a lead single. Working the feminine empowerment angle just as insistently, “I’m Good” finds Shepherd exploring the upper ranges of her voice, sounding something like rural Alabama’s answer to Jennifer Nettles. Her most interesting effort along these lines is “That All Leads to One Thing,” a dramatic story song produced in the manner of an old Reba hit. Much like Shelton, it’s in the domain of relationship songs that Shepherd takes her biggest chances, musically if not lyrically.

Even in love, she never quite outruns her songwriting demons. Witness “I’m Just a Woman,” an essentializing take on gender relations whose best and most subversive trick – the sly twist of the knife at  “After all, you are just a man” – is borrowed directly from Tammy Wynette circa 1968. Elsewhere, the song kills its momentum by rhyming ‘glad’ with ‘sad’ and explaining away individual feelings with questionable generalities such as “I guess I’m just a woman/And that’s what women do/We carry the weight of the world on our shoulders.” Oh, is that what women do? I thought they were real people, not made-to-order martyrs.

Still, Shepherd’s is a charismatic and authentically country voice and Buddy Cannon’s production keeps real instruments (fiddles, steel guitars, harmonicas) distinguishable in the mix throughout, making this at least better than your average mainstream country release. If the young singer-songwriter could expand her topical palette a bit and reach less often for easy lines and pat dichotomies – country good/city bad, women good/men bad – she could really start making some headway.

 

3.5 Stars

  1. Karlie
    July 13, 2011 at 9:27 am

    I find myself going back to her first album over and over again – but other than her big ole country voice, I didn’t find much I loved about this one.

  2. bob
    July 13, 2011 at 10:10 am

    Great review. Hate that divisive country good/city bad stuff. Maybe she only wants people like herself to buy her music.

  3. Ben Foster
    July 13, 2011 at 10:11 am

    She’s such a talented vocalist. It’s a shame to see her leaning so much on the stale “I’m so country” themes.

  4. Sam G.
    July 13, 2011 at 10:23 am

    I picked up her debut album, and I ended up WANTING to like it more than I actually liked it. I like her voice, I like her traditional country leanings, but the songs just didn’t hold up their end of the bargain. Sounds like I’ll just be cherry-picking songs from this one instead of getting the whole thing.

  5. Brady Vercher
    July 13, 2011 at 10:30 am

    I haven’t had a chance to check the album out, but I’m not sure how exactly the title track creates a division by simply extolling virtues of country living. The song doesn’t say those virtues are solely the domain of the country, nor that city virtues run counter and I think it’s important to note that. It’s simply a celebration of what she finds ideal about country life.

  6. Blake Boldt
    July 13, 2011 at 11:14 am

    Ashton’s sure getting a lot of positive press for this one, and I’d like to see her make headway at radio and retail, but I think this album is merely “good.” CM is really the first reviewer to express the flaws I felt brought the whole project down a notch.

  7. Leeann Ward
    July 13, 2011 at 11:46 am

    I have the album, but I’ve yet to listen to it. I gave her first album 3.5 stars based on a great voice, wonderful production, but some weak songs. It sounds like this album will be similar. The only song from the debut that I still really enjoy is “Sounds so Good.”

  8. CMW
    July 13, 2011 at 12:03 pm

    Brady:
    Well, that always seems to be the debate with these types of songs. To me, identifying all these desirable (and by no means exclusive) behaviors and characteristics as “where country grows” inherently sets up an opposition. Otherwise, if holding doors and praying at night aren’t being suggested as meaningful points of difference (if they’re not unique to country living versus other types of living), why mention them at all? There’s nothing noteworthy about those qualities – and thus no reason to extol them as virtues of country living – if they’re common everywhere.

  9. Razor X
    July 13, 2011 at 3:06 pm

    I like this album better than the first one. Like Sam, I really wanted to like the first one. It wasn’t bad but definitely not as good as I’d hoped. This one is much better.

  10. Jon
    July 13, 2011 at 3:40 pm

    There’s nothing noteworthy about those qualities – and thus no reason to extol them as virtues of country living – if they’re common everywhere.

    Well, I’m sorry, but that’s just plain wrong.

    For another view on Shepherd’s album (not mine, BTW): http://ow.ly/5DRqu

  11. Scooter
    July 13, 2011 at 6:11 pm

    I think you guys are being a little too critical here with all the country pride stuff. These songs are written by a relatively young person. They tried to filter her writing through some other writers on this album, and it is a little more polished and radio oriented. Personally, I like unfiltered Ashton better, even if it is a little raw. I wore out the first album because it was just fun to listen to.

  12. Rick
    July 13, 2011 at 8:07 pm

    Nice review CM. Maybe I won’t make it to Best Buy this week after all. I really don’t need any more 3 and a half star country CDs as I’ve got hundreds lying around collecting dust already. Oh well…

  13. Thomas
    July 14, 2011 at 4:13 am

    …most interesting points of view, cm. love her debut-album. now, i’m all the more curious about this one.

    so glad, i don’t have to click on “the 9513″ anymore to check out, whether god would finally have some mercy on my country soul. and the president is probably also relieved to find out that rick’s still alive and his own good self.

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