Artist to Watch: Hard-Nosed Country Standout Ashton Shepherd

‘You definitely know it when you hear it,’ she says of her native Alabama’s sound

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Click here to listen to Ashton Shepherd's "Where Country Grows"

Who: Thick-drawlin' 24-year-old singer-songwriter from Alabama with a precocious command of pop hooks and trad-country songforms – and one of the biggest, brassiest singing voices on either side of the Mason-Dixon. Her 2009 debut was called Sounds So Good, and it did. Her new album, Where Country Grows (out July 12th on MCA Nashville), is better still: 10 smart, soulful songs about small towns, big heartaches, and guzzling beer on power boats. It's a record that invites comparisons to legends like Tammy Wynette and Loretta Lynn, yet sounds right at home on modern country radio.

Sweet Home: Shepherd grew up in tiny Coffeeville, Alabama (population: 340), not far from the southern border of that most Deep South of states, which has bred country greats from Hank Williams to Jamey Johnson. You can hear Shepherd's 'Bama roots in her hard-bitten lyrics and her molasses-thick drawl. (And you get a pretty clear picture of Coffeeville on Where Country Grows, in songs like "More Cows Than People.") "Alabama definitely has its own sound, its own feel," she says. "It's a little more prideful, I guess. You definitely know it when you hear it."

Highest Form of Flattery: She's been singing as long as she's been walking. "My parents noticed there was something there," she says. "When I was four, five years old, they'd have me sing for people. 'Let's hear a song, Ashton. Sing 'Amazing Grace' for 'em.'" But it was the radio that made her want to be musician. "Growing up in the Nineties, Alan Jackson was super-present on the radio. To me, more real country music was present at that time. Patti Loveless was still on the radio. And Reba. Just these great voices. I can remember learning their songs and singing them with karaoke music. Even when Shania came out, I would try to sound like Shania. I think that's what made my voice: imitation!"

Write What You Know: Where Country Grows crams a bit of everything into its 32 minutes: backwoods anthems ("Where Country Grows"), sassy put-downs ("Look It Up"), lost love ballads ("I'm Good"). Shepherd gets a writing credit on nine of the 10 songs, but she's especially fond of the two she wrote by herself. "I'm Just A Woman" is a big, pedal-steel swathed weeper that nods to the mother of all country gender-relations treatises, "Stand By Your Man." "When I was trying to figure out how to tie the hook-line back around in the chorus, I got really excited when I wrote, 'And I know that after all you're just a man' – that line from 'Stand By Your Man,'" she says. "I thought 'I've got to get that in there!'" Then there's "Rory's Radio," a nostalgic ballad about teenage hijinks: night-fishing, drag racing, and listening to Hank Williams Jr. on a pickup truck radio. The song was inspired by Shepherd's older brother Jeff, who was killed in a car accident 11 years ago at age 23. "He lived a big life, and he made an impact on my life," says Shepherd. "It was a way of keeping him alive, of bringing him into a song, without writing a typical losing-someone-song. The song just takes me back there."

Family Values: Shepherd played some shows recently as the warm-up act for another hard-nosed country gal, Miranda Lambert. But she's unlikely to get out on the road again soon: she's expecting her second child in September. The pleasures and hardships of family life are a big theme of Shepherd's songs. "When you're a mama and a wife/ There ain't many things you ain't," she sings in "I'm Just A Woman." She plans to hunker down with her new child for a while but then – hopefully – reemerge in time for country's biggest awards show. "At least I want to be walking the red carpet," she says. "That'll be after baby comes, which will be kinda neat: everybody will see me try to get back in shape!"

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