With her 2008 debut, Sounds So Good, Ashton Shepherd proved to be a little trickier to peg than Miranda Lambert, the fiery singer/songwriter who may be her closest mainstream competition. Shepherd’s music has deeper roots than Lambert’s -- there’s a sense that it extends all the way back to the classic country of the ‘50s -- and she has a dark, smoky undertow to her voice that gives her an unpredictable soulfulness. These are aspects that give Shepherd considerable character but they make her a bit harder to market, which may be why her 2011 sophomore set, Where Country Grows, makes considerable effort to brighten and broaden her sound, to bring in listeners who may not have been seduced by the late-night vibes of Sounds So Good. To Shepherd’s considerable credit, her paeans to “Where Country Grows,” drinking “Beer on a Boat,” living in a place where there are “More Cows Than People,” and “Tryin’ to Go to Church” don’t play as panders; they’re infused with the same heart as the rest of the record and are crafted with the same sense of skill. Shepherd had a hand in writing the bulk of the record -- two of the most commercial cuts were penned by outside songsmiths, while Toby Keith alumni Bobby Pinson collaborated on two of Ashton’s best poppier tunes, “Where Country Grows” and “More Cows Than People” -- and she has a knack for tracing the arc of a relationship or looking back without wallowing in nostalgia, as on the grace note of a closer, “Rory’s Radio.” Shepherd is such a powerhouse singer that there’s never a relaxed moment on the record, not even when she eases into a ballad or a sunny pop tune like “I’m Good.” She’s the rarest of things in modern country: a singer who can’t help but be compelling no matter what she sings. Fortunately enough, she’s as good as a writer as she is a singer, which is what makes the slight smoothness and concessions to commerciality on Where Country Grows easy to accept: if that’s what it takes for Shepherd to establish herself, so be it -- the rewards are more than worthwhile.
AllMusic Review by Stephen Thomas Erlewine