On her sophomore album Where Country Grows, 24-year-old Alabama native Ashton Shepherd follows in the tradition of strong-willed female country artists that defined recent generations. Through a collection of 10 songs – 8 of which Ashton wrote or co-wrote herself – this young singer/songwriter proves that she’s tough enough to hang with the boys – even when she’s moving delicately through a finely-crafted melody.
From the B-3 organ, electric and acoustic guitars of the album’s bass drum-driven first single, “Look It Up,” it’s clear the outlaw spirit is alive and well where country grows. This much is evident even before we hear Ashton’s no nonsense, deep Southern drawl come with the first line. “The word is ‘faithful,’ look it up,” she sings with enough attitude to kick a hole in the speaker. Add in a chorus that lays it all out very concisely with, “The word is over, look it up,” and it’s clear the songs of scorned women will be intense.
On the haunting “That All Leads To One Thing,” a song Ashton wrote solo, a beautiful and dark piano/guitar exchange leads to the tale of a woman leaving her cheating husband behind. Ashton’s voice sounds emotional, yet self-assured, under the weight of the subject. “Alibis and excuses for what you’re doin’/ Tell me who do you think you’re foolin’?” she sings with hard country fire before the chorus swells.
However, in contrast to the attitude and poignant assault of some of the album’s darker songs, the collection finds balance in tracks like the good time summer song “Beer On A Boat” (written by Rhett Akins, Dallas Davidson and Ben Hayslip – also known informally as the “Peach Pickers”). On the uptempo sing-a-long that would seem destined for a young male country artist, due to the theme and a line about girls in inner tubes, Ashton turns the tune into a laid back come one/come all warm weather anthem where she melodically navigates the chorus, “A few good friends just floatin’ away/ With some beer and a boat on a Saturday,” holding the last word just long enough for reminiscing as she looks forward to the next river trip.
On the piano-based ballad, “I’m Just A Woman,” which Ashton also wrote solo, she delicately acknowledges her feminine side through sweet melodies and a softer vocal delivery. Yet, even here, she rebukes stereotypical gender roles with subtle lines like, “When you’re a Mama and a wife, there ain’t many things you ain’t.” Ashton proves she’s able to craft honest songs that strike a balance between confident modern woman and loving nurturer.
Where Country Grows, which was produced by Buddy Cannon, is a well-constructed album that displays many sides of Ashton Shepherd. Whether it’s the playful pop of songs like the proud ode to her hometown “More Cows Than People,” the party girl who wants to make good in “Tryin’ To Go To Church” or the nostalgic “Rory’s Radio,” Ashton’s honest songwriting and captivating voice make for a compelling listen as we continue getting to know this complex country girl.