NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Country singers often joke that they're a "10-year-overnight success" because no one really makes it in this business overnight, right?
That's generally true — but some have a faster route to success than others.
About two years ago, Ashton Shepherd was a young housewife and mother from south Alabama who wrote songs and sang them in her backyard shed.
The extent of her professional experience was playing bars in a makeshift band with her husband, Roland, and brother-in-law, Adam Cunningham; Shepherd and Roland both played guitar, while Adam played bass.
She won a talent contest and recorded a three-song demo that by fluke landed her an audition with Luke Lewis, chairman of Universal Music Group Nashville, in January 2007.
Lewis liked what he heard, signed her to MCA Nashville and poof: Her first single "Takin' Off This Pain" is now a top 30 hit on the Billboard country chart and her debut CD "Sounds So Good" was just released.
"It's really something because this is the way I wanted it to happen. This is the way I dreamed it would happen," says Shepherd, a pretty 21-year-old brunette from Coffeeville, Ala., a cottonpatch of a town on the Tombigbee River about 70 miles north of Mobile.
Not that she's lived a fairytale life, though. Her husband worked construction. She picked peas and sold them from the back of a truck. She lost a brother in a car wreck when she was only 13.
She'd been writing songs and singing since she was a little kid, but mostly for friends and family around town.
"I remember when Garth Brooks' 'Shameless' was out and I'd sing it with feeling and squint my eyes and my brothers would make fun of me. I remember mama calling daddy over and saying 'Donnie, listen to her. She knows every word.'"
She says that when she was a girl she'd tell her teachers she wanted to be a country singer and they'd smile and say something like, "No, honey, you don't want to do that. You want to go to college."
"It was stirring around in me all the time," she recalls. "But I also had scared feelings. What would it be like for my family? How are we going to do this? Is my daddy going to quit his job and go to Nashville? It's not that I didn't want it to happen, I was afraid to make a big step."
She got the shove she needed by winning a talent contest in June 2006 and with it the chance to open for Grand Ole Opry star Lorrie Morgan. An industry insider saw her perform and urged her to record a demo.
By that time she already had about 200 tunes she'd written and figured she needed advice from a contract attorney in Nashville before signing anything.
She called the first place she came across on the Internet and a woman answered. "This lady out of nowhere helped me. She gave me her home number and told me what to do and what not to do. She said it would take a minimum of five years."
The woman was not a lawyer but worked in the attorney's office and knew a lot about the industry and thought Shepherd had a lot of promise. The two became friends and, through a series of contacts, she got the demo to executives at Universal.
"We signed her immediately and sent her in the studio with Buddy Cannon (producer) before she could become affected by Nashville or any of the trappings of the business," said Lewis, the label chairman. "She had plenty of material so we didn't have to hunt for songs."
Of the 11 tracks, Shepherd wrote seven of them by herself and co-wrote three with her brother-in-law, Adam Cunningham.
"There are a lot of people who learn to write songs, but she was born to write songs," remarked Cannon, who's worked with Kenny Chesney and Reba McEntire. "We didn't change anything about her songs. She didn't come to town and start co-writing with people. She was a breath of fresh air."
Her voice is thick and twangy, and her sound is bedrock country. There are tunes about bad relationships ("Takin' Off This Pain"), remorse ("Old Memory," "Regular Joe"), good times ("Sounds So Good," "The Pickin' Shed") and domestic life ("I Ain't Dead Yet").
The mother of a 2-year-old son, she echoes Loretta Lynn in "I Ain't Dead Yet" when she sings over steel guitar, "I do the laundry, I cook and clean. It's my responsibility and I'm usually in the bed by nine. But I still like a cold beer and a long dirt road, and listenin' to some Keith Whitley on the radio."
Not exactly the kind of thing reigning country sweethearts Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood are singing about.
"They come from a different place and that's just fine," Shepherd says. "I feel like everybody is filling their places perfectly. They're all in their element. But I think there is a void where my element is right now."
And so does Lewis. He says what Shepherd may lack in seasoning she more than makes up for in talent and authenticity.
"Many people have a preconceived idea of what it's like to live in the rural South and raise a family at 21. Ashton's songs tell how it really is."