Ashton Shepherd landed one of the most desirable tour slots this year, opening shows for Sugarland’s Love on the Inside tour. Although she released her major-label debut album only a few months ago, she’s already completely comfortable working a stage because she’s been performing at fairs and festivals in her native Alabama since she was in high school. The only difference now seems to be the size of the venue.
“When I walk onto the stage, I always try to make my impression on the fans. Wave at them, smile at them and always try to look happy,” says Shepherd. “And I don’t have to try hard because I’m always happy when I’m on stage. I’m happy to be up there singing for people.”
Shepherd has already made an impression at country radio with her first two singles, “Takin’ Off This Pain” and “Sounds So Good.” In a recent interview with CMT.com, the twangy 22-year-old talks about her family’s overwhelming curiosity about life on the road, running into old friends who encouraged her dream and what Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush are really like.
CMT: How do you prepare for a big tour like this?
Shepherd: I think the best thing to do to prepare is just making sure, obviously, that your show is like you want it to be — that you’re comfortable with your players and comfortable with your set, and how you’re rolling in and out of songs. Things like that. Really, more importantly than feeling good about your own show, I really try to get in my own zone. Regardless of how thick you’re supposed to be with your band, I’m sort of a “in my own world” type of performer, and I just like to connect with the audience. That’s one of the most important things, to me, is being able to sing to them and connect.
What does your family think of your career?
I think a lot of them are shocked, even though they’ve been watching me sing from a little bitty thing. They expected me to make something of myself, but I don’t think anybody ever really thought that this could happen. I didn’t think it could happen. I wanted it to, but I didn’t know how. So they’re all really excited for me, shocked and, you know, checking on me every day and wanting to know all the details.
What did they say when you told them you got this tour with Sugarland?
They were just thrilled. They were like, “Really? Oh, my gosh!” You know, of course, there comes the questions again. I can’t even tell you how many questions they ask. My poor daddy will call and be like, “Well, how long is it from Carolina to Pennsylvania?” and “Where are y’all stopping at?” and “Who’s on the bus with you?” And I’m goin’, “Oh, lord, Daddy, I got so much on my mind right now, I just don’t want to answer all these little questions.” But they’re totally thrilled that I’m out with Sugarland.
How you would describe Jennifer and Kristian to someone who’s never met them?
I’ve heard a lot of people say this, I know it’s a simple phrase, but “down to earth.” I think the first time I ever met them was when they were opening up for Kenny Chesney, and Kristian gave me his number, I mean, right off the bat. Just, “Hey, if you ever need any help, if you ever need anything. … Because we know this is a tough run, and it’s hard, and there will be a lot of changes made, and you’ll be going through a lot of different things.” They were that helpful to start with, just laughing with you and talking with you. Every time I’ve ever been around them, they were that way.
How involved were you in preparing your tour merchandise?
I was real involved. Of course, I had a few ideas of my own that I brought up. And, of course, I’d say, “Hey, let’s see this in a different color and different designs” and whatnot. But I’ve gotta admit, I may be a songwriter and a singer, but I’m not very good with stuff like that — or decorating a house. The stuff girls are supposed to be good at, I’m not.
I know you made some recordings when you were a teenager, and I thought that was great because you already had merchandise with you at shows.
Oh, yeah, we did. Well, we just went so many shows with people saying, “Oh, man, do you have a tape or CD or something we can buy?” Of course, we were like … “No.” We went so many shows like this that eventually we went out — me and my parents — and had a little CD made. We would sell a ton of ’em at shows. And this was way before any record deal was ever in sight.
What was on that record?
It was 12 songs I had written. I was 15 years old when I made the CD. I went to Cook Studios in Fort Payne, Ala., and put 12 songs that I had written on a CD. We took all the pictures ourselves, me and my mama did.
Do you have people that still remember that album when they come to your shows?
Oh, yeah, especially around home. This is the funny part about it: I can remember specific times where friends of mine would come up and say, “I want you to sign this thing because I know you’re gonna be huge one day.” I remember a specific friend of mine that came up and told me that. I mean, he was so sure, like, “I know you’re gonna be a star one day.” I thought, “I hope I am,” you know? And there he is. I met him later after all this happened, and we see each other in the store, and he goes, “I told you.”