Before Jamey Johnson’s ascension, there was another Alabaman slated as a new savior of old country music. Born and raised in Coffeeville—a place best described as way the hell down south—Ashton Shepherd emerged with a thick backwoods drawl and a sassy swagger that stood in startling contrast to her silky voiced contemporaries.
On the heels of her first single, “Takin’ Off This Pain,” her debut album (Sounds So Good) was greatly hyped and anxiously awaited by critics, many of whom cited her as one of the key players in a coming revitalization of a ‘traditional’ country sound.
But the twangy single sputtered at radio, and outside of the critical sphere, the album landed quietly and quickly faded out of sight. She released an even twangier follow up (“Sounds So Good”), which had just enough juice to make up to #21. And that, as the saying goes, was that; there was no shower of accolades, nor a coronation—just obscurity and the hope of another chance to live up to both potential and expectation.
It was quite an abrupt departure for such a highly-touted talent, especially one who managed to crank out two Top 20 hits—a relatively impressive feat for a new female in today’s radio environment.
Now, two years later, Shepherd has that second chance. “Look It Up” is a spunky little kiss-off track that busts out of the gate with a wicked groove and convincing attitude, although those of us who remember her from way back when should instantly notice that something’s missing.
Shepherd’s signature twang has been ratcheted down this time around, leaving her sounding like a less washed-out Gretchen Wilson. She skewers her unfaithful lover with just the right level or scorn, but that raw, unbridled and unwieldy drawl that gave her voice such character and such satisfying color has been largely stripped away.
Here, her tone is clearer and her enunciation is sharper, but the result is a song that’s bland and boring in comparison to the fare found on her first record.
On “Look It Up,” Shepherd’s voice is more welcoming and accessible than ever before—it’s a polished, shinier Shepherd. Indeed, she sounds like a more refined singer.
Maybe that’s a good thing, and maybe it’s not—time will judge whether or not country fans embrace this less grating incarnation.
Either way, though, the price was high. With this release, Shepherd’s gone from someone in a position to shift the the center to someone who is merely chasing it.
And, as Jamey Johnson has proved, sometimes fitting into the center ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.