Ashton Shepherd's debut album was a favorite of music critics. The Washington Post called 'Sounds So Good' one of the best albums of 2008, and a dozen or so other major publications praised her songwriting and vocal styles. As releases 'Where Country Grows' today, July 12, Shepherd would be justified in being anxious about critical and fan reaction. Thankfully, the new collection of 10 songs -- including eight she helped write -- is a step forward in the evolution of the best country singer nobody's talking about.

Shepherd is still a small town girl. When not recording or touring she escapes to her hometown of Leroy, Ala. to live a quiet life with her husband and 5-year-old son (and another baby is due this fall). She writes in 'The Pickin' Shed' out back, and sells vegetables from the back of her pickup truck. As one listens through the album it's easy to wonder how she came upon so many unique experiences living in rural Alabama. The reality is her experiences aren't unique at all. They are everyman stories that Shepherd has translated into sharp, emotional memories. Is there a better definition of "country music" than that?

'Where Country Grows' isn't without flat spots. 'Beer on a Boat' doesn't dance like it could. 'I'm Just a Woman' is her attempt at a big Patsy Cline-like ballad that comes off as an attempt at a big Patsy Cline-like ballad. It's possible that both songs suffer from poor track sequencing, as they're sandwiched between the instantly memorable title track, the humorously titled come-back-home rocker 'More Cows Than People,' and the poignant 'While It Ain't Raining.' Each of these three are high points, and the rules of gravity dictate that what goes up, must come down.

Shepherd is best when she's sassy ('Look It Up,' 'Tryin' to Go to Church') but she does hit a home run with the vulnerable 'I'm Good.' It's still a song about redemption, but she leaves behind all the anger. Most of the songs on 'Where Country Grows' match up favorably with those on her debut 'Sounds So Good,' but 'I'm Good' is 'Where Ashton Grows.'

4.5 Stars

Watch the Ashton Shepherd 'Look It Up' Video

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