(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
Ashton Shepherd should emerge as the country music story of the year. A 20-year-old wife and mom living in Leroy, Ala., who picks and sings and writes some good songs stands to become a major new country artist. She was “discovered” a few weeks ago at an Alabama fair at a Lorrie Morgan concert.
As I heard it, the opening act had to cancel, and so the promoter invited people in the audience to come up and sing. Shepherd did so and impressed Morgan’s sound engineer enough that he asked for a cassette of some songs. He sent that to BMI in Nashville. Shelby Kennedy there was very impressed and told the Universal Music Group about her. Shepherd was flown to Nashville, sang for UMG Nashville head Luke Lewis, and he signed her straightaway. She brought 40 original songs with her and cut 14 of them with veteran producer Buddy Cannon for her debut CD. The album’s done. It’ll be out probably next spring. Check her out on MySpace.
I went to see Shepherd earlier this week at a little showcase Universal held at Nashville’s Mercy Lounge. And she was pretty damned good. She’s a little bit Loretta Lynn in songwriting and attitude. Which is great. And vocally she brings to mind both Natalie Maines and Jennifer Nettles in power and range and timbre. A great set of pipes with a distinctive lower Alabama accent. But she seems very much her own woman and her own singer.
And she was charming and disarming in person, talking about how she divides her time between pickin’ peas and pickin’ guitar. She is totally country. Which I like. I mean, how can you get more country than writing a song about the beauty of the sound a beer cooler makes when it’s “slushin'” in the bed of a moving pickup truck? The song is “Sounds So Good.” And I can hear that cooler “slushin'” around right now. Roger Miller would be jealous. More on Shepherd in the future.
I also want to recommend Sonya Isaacs, the lead singer of the country-gospel group, the Isaacs. She is a truly gorgeous vocalist. I just watched her this afternoon singing with the bluegrass group Cadillac Sky on a heart-rending version of “Homesick Angel” for an upcoming segment of CMT’s Unplugged at Studio 330. Totally mesmerizing. On the Isaacs’ new CD, Big Sky, I especially like her lead vocal on “Barbie Bandaids,” an epic poem addressed to a little daughter who is coming of age. The chorus reads, “I know you’re ready to take a step/But I’m not ready for that yet/All I see is my little girl/In tears and curls/Watchin’ you grow before my eyes/Letting you go one Barbie bandaid at a time.”
Suzy Bogguss is one of the best singers Nashville has ever produced. What happened to her? Well, she was at Capitol Nashville when Garth Brooks sort of occupied all of that record label’s time and attention. Then she took a sabbatical to begin a family, and when she returned, she found a totally different country music landscape. But her upcoming CD, Sweet Danger, due Sept. 4, is pure Suzy. The title song, a Bogguss co-write, is pure Suzy, too: “Here’s my disclaimer,” she sings, “I’m throwing caution to the wind/Yeah, I’m falling in, sweet danger.”
A CD that has totally occupied my car’s CD player for the past week or so is from a New Zealand native. Jackie Bristow’s Crazy Love is a hypnotizing collection of her original songs that conjure up a seductive world of, well, crazy love and other ethereal things. Bristow is a true original and well worth your attention. Think Joni Mitchell crossed with Dusty Springfield. She writes all of her songs and they seem casual until you listen to them again and again. Not many writers in any musical genres give the attention and depth to lyrics that Bristow obviously does. Quoting her lyrics out of context is obviously unfair, but here’s a sample from “No Easy Way to Say Goodbye.” “And I know what it’s like to have my heart broken/You can leave a token/And I am missing you more than I ever dreamed I could/Words unspoken, feelings stolen/There’s no easy way to say goodbye/No easy way to say goodbye.”