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Ashton Shepherd

Where Country Grows – 2011 (MCA Nashville)

Reviewed by Karlie Justus

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CDs by Ashton Shepherd

A voice as robust and nuanced as Ashton Shepherd's brings to mind the old she could sing the phone book joke - only in this case, it would have to be a listing for a small town down a country road, with entries for Southern staples such as Jones' General Store and Billy Bob's Honky Tonk. Those rural places and faces are exactly what Shepherd's new album "Where Country Grows" is built around, its songs every bit as down to earth as its title suggests.

Both her honest, honed-in songwriting about motherhood and love and the unapologetic brassiness of her great big voice are evident on the collection's brightest spots: Lead track Look It Up - written by Angaleena Presley, one-third of Miranda Lambert's new girl group Pistol Annies - is a no-nonsense twist on the country kiss-offs of yore, while I'm Good is as catchy as it is honest. Shepherd is in the pocket penning and singing these realistic confessions of love, also showcased on the Stand By Your Man-inspired I'm Just a Woman.

And while they sound perfectly natural rolling off her twangy tongue, these parts fail to add up to the sum of her debut album "Sounds So Good," which received critical praise but saw minimal mainstream play. That shouldn't be a problem this go-round, as Shepherd shares the heavy-lifting with a bevy of popular Nashville co-writers, but it comes at a cost of more generic, pandering songs in the vein of Jason Aldean and Justin Moore.

That slicker, more commercial sheen on "Where Country Grows" threatens to dim the entire album, crowding her blunt takes on pain and heartache with generic product placement of the countrier-than-thou trend du jour. But even with a more radio-friendly brand of her signature Alabama spunk, it's impossible not to recognize Shepherd's talent.