Kassi Ashton believes one should never trust a Harley Davidson-riding hippie with poor spelling to name a newborn child. But her father was that hog-riding free spirit when Ashton made her world debut, and that’s why her first name is spelled with a “K” instead of a “C.”
“He picked my name, and I love him, but c’mon,” she said during a recent radio interview. “I can’t get a keychain in my name.”
Make a cross over the state of Missouri, and the place where the two lines intersect is California, Mo., Ashton’s hometown. With a population of 4,421 people, the small town is the inspiration behind her lead single of the same name.
She is an alum of Nashville’s Belmont University, a songwriting ace, a cancer survivor, a member of CMT’s Next Women of Country program and the “18 for 2018” Listen Up campaign. But taking words and arranging them into insightful lyrics isn’t her only expertise. Growing up, she was into everything – theater, beauty pageants, dance, dirt bikes, shooting muzzleloaders competitively — you name it – if she wanted to do it, she just did it. And she hasn’t had a day off since. Her major label debut album is in the works.
My mom pounded it into my head, “Be who you are.” I grew up being the different kid, and I was bullied just because I did what I wanted and didn’t care if I fit in with others around me. That’s how I became comfortable in my own skin. If I thought it was cool, and it wasn’t hurting anyone else, I was full steam ahead.
Growing up, I thought I wanted to sing just classic country because that’s what both of my parents listen to. But when Adele and Amy Winehouse came on the scene, I would sing along, and my mom would turn the volume down and say, “Sing that again.” I have a natural soul to my voice you necessarily wouldn’t hear if I sang Tammy Wynette.
I shot guns competitively for 10 years, and deer season was bigger than Christmas back home in Missouri. I grew up on a cattle farm. At mom’s, I was in dance six days a week, beauty pageants, any stage that she could put me on, I wanted to be there. So that makes me a very weird individual. Sometimes when people see my frilly side with metallic gold lipstick, they think, “There’s no way that you hunt. There’s no way you ride dirt bikes.” But then when they see me in camo coveralls with my hair on top of my head, they think, “There’s no way you own metallic gold lipstick.” That’s one of my main goals is to empower people to be whatever they want to be, no matter what end of the spectrum they’re on.
“California, Missouri” is the only song in my entire life I knew I wanted to write. I wrote it with Shane McAnally and Luke Laird. In country music, a lot of songs heavily romanticize hometowns, and I think that’s beautiful. But mine was a little different. It’s a double-edged sword in that I love it, but I love to leave it. I was as honest and as real to my phrasing and my opinions as possible. I want kids who had the same experience as I did in a small town to have a song for them and to have someone they can connect with. I want the people there to know I love them, but I also want them to know it was not the easiest thing growing up there and being different.
I try to write songs that are as honest to who I am as I possibly can. Even if there is a great line that a writer in the room suggests, if I have not lived that or been through it, I don’t want to write it. How can I sing it and try to sell it to people and make them feel connected to me, if I never went through it?
Natalie Hemby is my sister from another mister. The first time I met her, I walked upstairs to Luke’s studio, and I don’t know what made me do it, but I slapped her on her butt right when I said hi to her. And she still tells people that’s why she loves me it’s because I slapped her on the butt when I first met her. Two weeks later, we wrote a song called “Third Eye” with Nicolle Galyon. We just connect. Our wavelengths of weird align. Besides being an incredible writer and an incredible mentor who’s been in the industry for a long time, she’s the person that you call when you need to talk to someone.