Alabama-born singer-songwriter Ashton Shepherd recently released her debut album Sounds So Good. The 21-year-old visited CMT to tape songs for Unplugged at Studio 330 and sat for an interview. Portions of that appear here.
CMT: With your songwriting, do you walk around with pieces of songs and maybe not realize it’s in your mind until it comes together?
Ashton Shepherd: Sometimes. Sometimes I walk around with pieces in my mind, and sometimes I come up with an idea and I walk around with it for a few days. I’ve written songs pulling my little boy in his wagon around the house, just humming something or coming up with it out of the blue. And sometimes I come up with stuff in the shower. Like with the song “I Ain’t Dead Yet,” I just sat down and wrote it from front to finish, and then I’ve just got my song. But I do it all different ways.
How do you work? Do you keep just one song notebook?
I actually have a blue notebook to keep my songs in that I started keeping back in about the year 2000 because I thought about that. I needed somewhere to be keeping them all. A lot of times, I’ll just be able to remember them in my head and forget to write them down right then, and then I’ll go back later maybe and write them down. But now I’ve got me a green composition notebook I’ve been doing the same thing in. Once I filled the blue one up, I got the green one and started with it.
Do you keep it under lock and key?
I do. Actually it’s not under lock and key, but it’s under one of our big sheds outside that’s real protected with a big tin roof and all. I’m just always scared about something happening to my home — if it was to burn down or something. I think what would happen, how terrible that would be. So I’ve got it all out under the shed in some Rubbermaid boxes. I need to get a safe or something, but we’ll do that when we can afford it.
You’re writing lyrics for sort of tough-minded Southern women. Is that a conscious thing?
Well, I think it is. I believe that. I think it will be good for anybody. … I get a lot of e-mails, like on my MySpace and stuff, about it [the song "Takin' Off This Pain"] being something that uplifts somebody that is in a real bad situation. They hear it and say, “This song makes me want to feel better” or “It makes me want to move on rather than being sad about something,” which I’m glad for. I don’t want anybody to do the wrong thing because of the song, but I am glad to hear that it uplifts people.
What kind of lessons did your mother instill in you?
Well, my mama taught me just to be myself, because she was always herself and she was always really a rock for our family. When her mother passed away, she asked me to hold the family together, so my house was where everybody came for holidays and for everything. You know, I grew up watching my mama being such a mother hen to everybody. And, really, it rubbed off on me because I’m that way now. So she taught us a lot of things, not necessarily just beating something in our heads but just by being a loving, kind mama. She taught us a lot of things, and she sang to us all the time. She asked me the other day, she said, “You don’t remember, Ashton. I used to record myself singing and play it for you and Tara [Ashton's sister]. I’d put, like, 20 or 30 minutes of me singing on a tape, and I’d put it in the room with ya’ll to get ya’ll to sleep.” And I didn’t remember that specifically, but I remember her singing to us, and that’s the kind of little stuff she done to show she cared. She always loved music, and she played guitar when she was pregnant with me. That’s when she first started trying to play. She still tries to piddle with it, but like mamas do, she didn’t ever put herself first. So she never got to exceed with it as I’ve got to do, but she’s really proud of everything.
Tell me about what Patsy Cline means to you.
“Sweet Dreams” by Patsy Cline means a lot to me because I grew up singing basically nothing but Patsy. I sang “I Fall to Pieces,” “Walking After Midnight” and “Crazy” and a song my brother always loved that I think was covered by somebody else first, “You Belong to Me.” Just something about her voice. I mean, it just was so deep and true sounding and honest, and that’s what I grew up singing. The very first competition I ever entered, I sang Patsy Cline, so it really does mean a lot to me ’cause she’s been such an influence.
What else did you listen to?
Growing up, I only pretty much listened to country music. Even going to school, everybody at school would make fun of me a little bit, like, “You need to listen to this or that.” And I did venture out and, believe it or not, I even ventured out and listened to some rap, because everybody at school was listening to it. Of course, I liked some of it –and some of it I didn’t. The older I got, the more I started asking myself, “Why am I listening to this? Because I don’t really like it that much. I’m just listening to it because everybody else is.” But I just always loved country music. I used to promote it to everybody at school that didn’t listen to it. Because, to me, it was like, how can you not like it? And as a matter of fact my mama’s got a tape of me singing “There’s a Tear in My Beer,” when I was 3 years old, so I just grew up listening to country music.
There are a lot of people in the country music business who have talked about the concept of being “too country.” What does that mean to you?
If somebody was to say that I am too country, I don’t really think you can be too country. I mean, I think that if you’re just being yourself, anybody that’s being real can’t be too much of something. Because when they’re just real about what they are and who they are, I don’t really feel like you can be too country. I guess that goes back to loving it so much.
When did you first realize that you could sing, or was it a gradual thing?
I don’t ever really remember just realizing it all of a sudden because it was so slow and gradual and I had done it for so long. Like I say, my brothers used to make me sing when I was 3 and 4 years old on tapes and stuff, and then I sang in church. And it was just like the grownups were asking me to be in the choir when I was 5 and 6, and I didn’t know why. I thought, “I feel silly up here with all these grownups.” But it was just like everybody saw it as something special, and it made me believe it might be something special. So I’ve just been doing it since I was about 3 and 4 years old.
When did you realize you could write even part of a song or a whole song?
I’ve got notebooks where I would make up stuff, like about my brother going to war or something, and I would just make it up. Like make-believe books or something. I’ve got stuff that I wrote when I was 6 and 7 and 8 years old. I almost don’t remember because I was so little. I don’t really remember where it came from, it just came. And that’s what I always tell people: I know it’s got to be God-given because I don’t know how to tell people how I write or how I sing or anything because it just has always been there for so long.
What was the first time you sang in public for people?
The very first time I sang in public was the showdown that I told you about. I sang “Crazy” and “Walkin’ After Midnight” when I was 8 years old … just nervous as I could be. And I didn’t move. My brothers were out there — just holding the camera. … And my brothers are going, “Look at us, girl. Look at us. We can’t see you!” … I held my hand beside me and just held that microphone, and I didn’t even look at the audience. I just was so nervous, but luckily I started at that age. Because if I wouldn’t have, I would probably be that way now on stage. I’d be nervous and everything, but that was my very first performance.
What kind of reaction did you get from the audience?
It was very, very surprising. They loved “Walkin’ After Midnight.” I played it with the backup band behind me. And I had told the band during practice that I didn’t want — I told them I wasn’t being ugly — but that I didn’t want them to play “Crazy” with me. I wanted to do it by myself. And so I sang “Crazy” with no music, and the audience didn’t let me finish. When I got to the “crazy for thinking that my love could hold you” and when I said “I’m crazy for crying,” some woman just screamed. You can hear it on the camera, and then the whole audience just started screaming, and my brothers were just having a heart attack because the audience just loved it. I ended up winning second place. They told me they didn’t let me win because I was too little. I was only 8 years old, and they let an older gentleman who had entered win it. But the audience loved it, and I remember that night I got asked to start singing at the Greensboro, Ala., catfish festival and stuff. That’s where it started to grow — where people started to go, “Hey, can you come sing this for us or play this place for us?” And then the more places I went, the more places I got to go.
Describe your first day in Nashville.
It felt like I was just dreaming to be walking the streets. I remember our hotel room number was 204 at the Comfort Inn on Demonbreun, and I was just looking out over the city and thinking, “How is this going to happen for me?” But we were trying. We thought if we could just get this demo cut, and we walked the streets and went to a couple of little bars and looked at them and, you know, the historical parts. I got to go to the Country Music Hall of Fame. I was just enjoying to even get to be in Nashville and to even get to walk the streets. So we just lived it up and enjoyed it.
Are you going to continue living in Alabama?
We still live in Alabama — Leroy, Ala. And when we come up [to Nashville], we just stay at hotels right now. Eventually, we want to try to get us a place up here to come and stay, but I just I think we’re going to always stay there at home in Leroy ’cause, that is home. I love Nashville. It’s a fun place, and I respect so much all the history and everything. But you know how that is: Home’s home, and I think we’ll always stay home.
Some people who move to Nashville too soon get ruined. They really get chewed up. I’m sure you’ve seen that.
Well, I’ve watched a lot. I’ve heard about people … bad things happening from moving to Nashville too quick. I’ve watched a lot of biographies and a lot of stuff like that growing up, [CMT's] Inside Fame, because I was always curious about what people do and how do they make it, and I imagine I would probably be the same way. It probably makes you bitter after so long of being somewhere and trying for so long and nobody really believing in you like you believe in yourself. I imagine even once you do make it, you feel a chip on your shoulder, so to speak. And I feel very blessed that things have happened so quick for me. I never had a chance to feel that way, and I’m proud of that, I’m proud that I didn’t have to feel that way.