The current hot-button debate among many country music writers—particularly among those put-off by the way that the mainstream critical establishment quite sensibly embraced Miranda Lambert last year—concerns the importance of “authenticity” and whether or not a singer-songwriter needs to have lived with a certain set of experiences in order to bring something of value to their work. It’s a silly, dead-end debate that attempts to claim that it’s about preserving the legacies of genre legends like Loretta Lynn and Merle Haggard, who wrote songs that drew heavily from their compelling life experiences, when in reality it’s about trying to develop some weird us-versus-them inner sanctum among a handful of writers who assume that they’re the only ones with the authority to declare what’s important and worthy in country music and using some arbitrary standard to make those judgments.
Enter Ashton Shepherd, a young woman from rural Alabama with a marriage and a kid before her 21st birthday, who happens to write songs about troubled marriages, rural living in a modern world, and balancing adult responsibilities with youthful, age-appropriate impulses. That Shepherd has already lived an awfully full life doesn’t, in and of itself, give her a leg up on would-be country songwriters who hail from outside the working-class South. The fact that Shepherd uses those experiences to express a remarkably self-assured, unique point of view, however, does make her a more compelling writer than many of her contemporaries. And it immediately ranks her first record, Sounds So Good, among the most significant debuts Nashville has produced this decade.
That she sings about performing music in “The Pickin’ Shed” in her backyard or loving the sound of ice sloshing in a cooler on a truck bed on the title track has far less to do with authenticity than it does with believability. There’s a difference between singing about being a “Redneck Woman” as an end unto itself and singing like a redneck woman as a means to a greater end, and Shepherd does the latter. It doesn’t matter whether or not these things are true to Shepherd’s life, just that she’s able to sell them as part of a greater whole. As with any good fiction novel, it’s about either using first-hand knowledge or doing enough hard-digging research to be able to bring details to a story in a way that makes it both believable and interesting. And that’s precisely what Shepherd does well on her album’s best songs. On “I Ain’t Dead Yet,” she laments the differences between what she’s obligated to do for her family and what she’d like to be able to do on her own, and she outlines that internal conflict with the kind of conviction and insight that make for a simply great country song.
Also working in Shepherd’s favor is that she knows how to write a memorable hook. Lead single “Takin’ Off This Pain” isn’t the strongest song on the record, but it’s elevated by a punchy delivery during the chorus. Producer Buddy Cannon, who typically over-produces Kenny Chesney’s records into pure goo, deserves quite a bit of credit here for matching a polished take on traditional country—much of the record is dominated by fiddles and steel guitars—that’s a perfect match for both Shepherd’s mainstream ambitions and her mile-thick, deep Southern drawl. On the handful of weaker cuts, the production ably carries the album.
Beyond the ridiculous street-cred arguments, it’s easy to see why Shepherd’s debut has met with such anticipation and enthusiasm within country circles. Sounds So Good is an unapologetically country country album. She isn’t likely to appeal to the exact demo who dig Lambert’s fearless cut-a-bitch take on the genre, and if the comments made by Taylor Swift’s fan club on the free iTunes download page for “Takin’ Off This Pain” are any indication, the ponies-and-stickers-and-MySpace-dot-com pop-country fans won’t know where to begin with her. But Shepherd’s is undoubtedly an important, vital new voice in country music because it is definitively, believably her own.