Kassi Ashton is a walking contradiction. Part retro beauty queen, part Harley-Davidson fanatic, the singer has developed an image that seamlessly blends the free-wheeling motorcycle culture of late 20th century America with the modern-day Nashville country scene. Along with being a vocal powerhouse, she is a talented seamstress, graphic designer, builder, stylist, and visual artist—all of which are skills that have allowed her to craft every element of her career in her own unique vision. And, she says, she owes all of it to her upbringing in rural California, Missouri.
Ashton grew up split between her mother and father’s houses, which she viewed as entirely separate worlds. Her mother is also a singer, as well as an all-round creative, so when Ashton was at her house, it was all beauty pageants, theater productions, dance recitals–anything that involved a stage. Ashton recalled, “If we were in the kitchen and mom passed you the broom to sing, if you got the words wrong to whatever song she chose, you were grounded.” As soon as she was old enough to understand the concept of a career, she was certain she wanted to carry on the matrilineal tradition and become a singer.
Meanwhile, at her father’s house, which was many miles out from the already-rural California, Missouri, Ashton shot guns and rode dirt bikes. An avid Harley-Davidson fan, Ashton’s father was more likely to pick his daughter up from school or her mother’s house on his bike than in a car. When Ashton first began riding, she was so small she had to sit in front of her father, up on the gas tank. These long motorcycle rides through the Missouri countryside became a cherished part of her routine. “It was always just like a deep breath. So I think I became attached then. […] It feels like freedom but also you’re a part of something at the same time.”
Not the type to be bound by societal expectations, when high school neared its end and Ashton’s grandma insisted she go to college, Ashton replied with, “For what? I wanna be a country singer. I’m just gonna move to Nashville.” A compromise came when Ashton’s mother suggested Belmont University—a school known for its impressive music program. When Ashton auditioned, not only did she bag an acceptance letter to the competitive school, but also a scholarship. Towards graduation, she participated in a university-wide showcase heavily attended by music industry executives. She won the showcase, as well as the attention of the executives, who promptly offered her a record deal.
Since then, she has released a steady stream of singles, all of which have a unique flair. Before my conversation with Ashton, the word I used to describe this flair was “edge.” However, that didn’t quite hit the nail on the head. There is a low but steady power to Ashton’s work that is instantly felt but not easily described. Ashton is aware of this “edge” and she knew exactly how to articulate it—it is like the rumble of a motorcycle.
She grew up listening to “women who sound like they were audibly waving an acrylic fingernail in your face. If there was power and energy and attitude, it was being pumped through the speakers. So marrying that with kind of the grittiness and the freedom that I felt on a motorcycle…it just was the general vibe of everything in both houses growing up.” These motorcycle-inspired sonics are evident throughout her discography, but they are perhaps most apparent on her recent single, “Black Motorcycle.” “Nothing lights my body up the way the sound of a motorcycle does. And realizing I could make my music do the same thing, that fed a lot of the creative decision in ‘Black Motorcycle.’ […] The giddiness and the freedom and the exhilaration that I feel—I wanted to give that to other people.”
During my conversation with Ashton, it became clear that freedom is a guiding principle for her. The sense of boundlessness and control she felt on the back of her father’s motorcycle has bled not only into her music, but into every facet of her career. “I’ve always—my entire life—if you get to have a creative choice in something, if you get to customize decisions within a process, I wanted to know how to do it.”
Her mother grew up very poor in Nashville and had to learn to sew so that she could tailor the clothes that were donated to her and make them fit properly. She put this skill to use when Ashton was young, sewing and tailoring costumes for Ashton’s many performances. Sometime in middle school, Ashton said to her mom, “Teach me how to do this. I want to have creative freedom.” She has maintained this attitude throughout life, hence her plethora of practical skills: “Painting came from that,” said Ashton, “Writing came from that. Graphic design came from that.”
Now, she uses these many skills to the advantage of her music career. As an up-and-coming artist, she simply doesn’t have the budget to hire people to make state-of-the-art stage props, costumes, and merch designs. So she does it all herself. Not only does this aid the overall quality of Ashton’s brand, it also helps her maintain autonomy over her own career. “Creative control is a really big deal because I can see where people have, you know, issues with a lot of people telling them who they are or what they’re gonna do or feeding them ideas. There’s a certain standard in my team where they’re like, ‘Oh, Kassi will know what she wants. Kassi will tell you. If she doesn’t know, then she will [tell you.] But just assume that she knows what she wants.’ […] My biggest thing is I want it to be authentic. I don’t want people to have to watch or buy into something that a boardroom of people created. You know that when you’re getting something from me, it came from my hands and from my brain.”
As a woman in the country music industry, you might think she’d have a hard time maintaining so much authority over her own work, but she entered the industry at a pivotal time. In 2015, radio consultant Keith Hill remarked to the publication Country Radio Aircheck, “If you want to make ratings in country radio, take females out. […] Trust me, I play great female records, and we’ve got some right now; they’re just not the lettuce in our salad. The lettuce is Luke Bryan and Blake Shelton, Keith Urban and artists like that. The tomatoes of our salad are the females.” This comment, now dubbed “tomato-gate,” sparked outrage from women across the country music industry—just as Ashton was signing her record deal.
“That was the number one problem being discussed and actively trying to be fixed,” Ashton explained. “There’s a ton of programs now […] I’ve been personally lucky to enter into the music industry when this topic is being so heavily discussed and there are real people trying to find real solutions and make real changes.”
However, it’s not all smooth sailing. “It is more difficult, just because, you know, country music is kind of the stereotype of beers and trucks and…beers and trucks [laughs]. Girls aren’t really beers and trucks. Trying to find your own lane within the demographic can be difficult.”
But generally speaking, she doesn’t see her womanhood as a particular barrier to making a name for herself as a country artist, nor being able to stand her ground. For this, she credits her “powerful, take-no-bullshit” mother. But still, she appreciates initiatives that seek to empower women musicians.
“I love when a festival does all-female. I love it because—I’ve done a couple now—and it affects the crowd, to be honest. […] These people come, and they don’t just think they’re gonna hear beers and trucks, you know what I’m saying? They’re like, I’m ready to hear all points of view within this genre that I love, that I’m a fan of.”
Despite the many deep-seated gender inequalities still present across the country music industry, Ashton is optimistic about its future. “It’s sort of the Wild West, where the women right now—the ones on the come-up, like Maren [Morris] and below—we can make our own rules and we can start setting the standards, whereas like I can’t imagine being a woman in the industry when this wasn’t being talked about. Praise to them.”
Hear Ashton in all her gritty glory on Friday night at Roots N Blues Festival in Stephens Lake Park in Columbia, MO. Get your passes here: https://rootsnbluesfestival.com/tickets/.