Country music singer/songwriter, college student to play three shows in the Triad
Tiffany Ashton knows what she’d be doing if she weren’t pursuing a career in music. Ashton grew up in King, attended public schools in Winston-Salem, and is now enrolled as an undergrad at the University of North Carolina Charlotte. She is a singer and songwriter making her way into the country-music machine of Nashville. (She’s opening for the Oak Ridge Boys later this month.)
The 20-year-old has been making music since she was a child. She’s been singing and performing since she was 6, but she’s not necessarily one of those musicians who can’t imagine a life that didn’t involve recording studios and spotlit stages.
“I’d probably be doing engineering,” Ashton said when asked what career she’d be in if music weren’t happening for her.
Ashton graduated from Atkins High School, a magnet school for science, technology, engineering and math students in Winston-Salem, in 2016 as valedictorian. She was also a part of competitive rocketry teams throughout middle and high school.
Even her way of talking about songwriting had a sort of scientific twist to it.
“Songwriting is like an invention,” Ashton said. “You have a lot of different parts and a lot of different pieces of knowledge. It may be melodic knowledge; it may be lyrical knowledge.”
As it happens, on the day I spoke to her, Ashton had been doing “co-writes.” Co-writes involves getting two or more songwriters together to do some rapid-fire brainstorming, kicking around ideas for lyrics, melodies, chord changes, or song structure in hopes of jump-starting the sometimes elusive mystery of the creative process.
“If all goes well, it melts together into a beautiful piece of work,” Ashton said. “You want it to bring the story to life for the audience.”
Some singer/songwriters find the process of writing to be so personal and intimate— dredging up emotions, telling stories drawn from their experience and testing hooks and lyrical ideas—that they don’t feel comfortable jumping into it with a stranger, or with anyone else around.
But for every seemingly solitary songwriting genius — for every Willie Nelson, Hank Williams, Kris Kristofferson (all of whom co-wrote songs as well) — there are songwriters like Dean Dillon, (who’s written hits for George Strait, Toby Keith and Kenny Chesney). Also numerous big stars in country music today, like Lee Brice and Luke Bryan, got their start writing before making it as a solo act.
If you view a song as a kind of creative technology that spurs certain responses in some listeners, then the process of cobbling together a story, adjusting the phrasing, getting the lyrics just right, pushing the melody in certain spots, all of that can take on a trial-and-error, laboratory aspect.
“Most of the time, two heads are better than one,” Ashton said.
Writers often talk about learning to “kill your darlings,” a saying that sometimes suggests one has to discard the parts of a piece one is most fond of to make it most effective. Working without a collaborator or an editor can make that part of the process difficult. But having a trusted voice to tell you that something you love doesn’t work, or that something you were unsure of is worth fleshing out — that can be the most valuable part of a creative collaboration.
“Coming to that compromise — even the ability to see another perspective on your idea, it’s priceless,” Ashton said.
Ashton’s music is informed by what she listened to growing up: Brad Paisley, Toby Keith, Shania and Taylor Swift.
But it wasn’t like her playlists were exclusively country.
“I also listened to pop music,” she said. “I was a big Avril Lavigne fan.”
She also liked Broadway, R&B, rap, classic country, Christian music and Appalachian folk music.
“I think that the more musical diversity you have, the more well-rounded your knowledge will be,” she said.
She has already released a couple E.P.’s that reflect that.
Ashton’s music might occasionally have a crunchy guitar tone, a snapping backbeat or some retro ‘80s keyboard, but the sentiments and the sounds are still familiar to country listeners: finding freedom and finding romance in a small-town setting.
Trucks, jeans and boots make appearances. In songs like “Home to Me,” Ashton sings about the idea that, after seeing the world, life and relationships out in the quiet country are as satisfying as anything one might find in the bustle of the city. She sings with clarity and enunciation. There’s not a ton of grit, growl or bluesy swoops to Ashton’s vocal approach, but there’s a soft, pure-voiced control that sometimes rises to a gentle coo.
With a few new songs she’s preparing to release to radio, and the school year around the bend, Ashton is looking at a tightly scheduled semester, with lots of weekend shows, and trips to Nashville for more co-writing.
“It can be quite a juggle, but when you do what you’re passionate about, even things that seem like work don’t actually feel like work,” Ashton said. “Sometimes it means not a lot of sleep.”
John Adamian lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.
See Tiffany Ashton at Muddy Creek Music Hall, on August 20, and at the Blind Tiger in Greensboro, August 25, with Lo Cash. Ashton plays Winston-Salem again on Aug. 26 with the Oak Ridge Boys at the Winston-Salem Fairgrounds.