Album Review: Ashton Shepherd — Where Country Grows
Like 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.
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