You wouldn't know it by listening to the well-written, introspective songs she co-wrote for debut album Travelin' Kind (out Sept 3 via Big Loud Records), but Ashland Craft isn't that far removed from setlists filled with rock and country covers. That's not a slight at performers reliant on covers-heavy sets, considering how Craft's past helped her pay necessary dues and develop her stage presence before telling original stories got added to her musical toolbox.
"Part of me always knew that I wanted to songwrite," Craft told Wide Open Country. "I knew I wasn't very good at it back in South Carolina because I knew what a song was supposed to sound like, but I didn't know how to even begin telling those stories in a way that was cohesive. To go from playing cover songs, which I felt like trained me so well in entertaining people, and then going into originals... It kind of felt like a familiar process just because I felt like I was hopefully writing music that was closest to the artists that I loved and admired so much growing up. It's a little difficult to gauge people's attention at first and make them want to care about a song they've never heard before, but that's the fun part and I love gauging that in live scenarios and really seeing what people are connecting with and what I can do better. Building the show, so to speak."
Craft sharpened her songwriting skills after moving to Nashville without abandoning a covers-informed sound influenced by acts ranging from Def Leppard to Chris Stapleton.
"The best thing about songwriting is you kind of find your way after a while," Craft said. "Once you discover who you really are, I feel like you can kind of vault into that. I knew there was a shift at some point after I started visiting Nashville and once I moved here and was around the people who had done it for so long and knew who they were and knew what they wanted to say. It was a blessing to me because they were the ones that said, 'How do you want to say this?' It wasn't a matter of we should sound just like this other person. It was always a matter of how would you say this and how do you want people to perceive this."
Craft co-wrote all but two songs on her semi-autobiographical debut, with the two outside writes being more like inside jobs. Travelin' Kind producer Jonathan Singleton co-wrote "Your Momma Still Does" with Jenna LeMaster, while Craft's bandmate Tori Allen penned "Day By Day" with a friend both women met in 2017 while auditioning for The Voice, Corey Wagar Grogan.
"I love how it has kind of a bluegrassy feel to it, and I feel like it kind of goes back to the music that I loved listening to, growing up in church and with my grandparents on the weekends," Craft adds about "Day By Day" which, like "Your Momma Still Does," puzzle-pieces into the album's broader narrative.
"Highway Like Me" stands out as well, in part because Jessi Alexander, the pen behind multiple Blake Shelton hits and one of the best all-around talents in Nashville, shares writing credits with Craft and Reid Isbell.
"Jessi Alexander, my goodness gracious. What a lady!," Craft exclaimed. "I did not even imagine that day when we walked in the room that we would write that song, and of course nobody ever does. When we left the room, I was like, 'This is my life. Oh my gosh. We nailed it.' It's such a delicate way of putting it, I think, the rock and rowdy life of country music. I think it's a delicate way of letting somebody know that yes, I'm so interested, but literally I just cannot. The road is calling me, and it's hard for me to focus on anything else but that right now."
Craft recorded "Highway Like Me" with Marcus King, a success story from back home and graduate of a rival high school.
'When he came in to record, we had actually never met before, but we got to catch up about our hometown and talk about life before Nashville and what it was like for him and I being in the same kind of music circuit back home," Craft said. "When I was still doing music back home, he's who everyone was talking about. He was from South Carolina, and for me, I was like, 'I want to be like Marcus King.' I can only hope we get to perform this song like a million times because it's going to blow people's minds."
The creative and emotional trek from tiny Piedmont, S.C. to the bright lights of Music City finds Craft in situations she never would've dreamed of while working back home at a bar called Wendells Dippin Branch. For example, she became the first country artist to sing "America the Beautiful" at WrestleMania back in April. She's the first because of the song, not the stage (Willie Nelson performed "God Bless America" at WrestleMania in 1991, and Reba McEntire entered the ring a year later for a rendition of the national anthem). To sweeten the deal, Craft wore a sequined jacket, Bobby "The Brain" Heenan-style.
"That experience is one that I can definitely say I wasn't expecting," Craft said. "I grew up with two brothers and all boy cousins, so I'm the only youngest girl, at least on my mom's side of the family. I remember watching WWE at the time growing up. My uncle had a 'Stone Cold' Steve Austin get-up with a mask. They were all-out fans. So now all the years later, to go back and get to honor our country on the coolest stage ever was pretty freaking cool. I didn't know what to expect, but honest to God when I walked in there, everybody from start to finish were the nicest people I think I've ever met in my life. I got to meet Hulk Hogan and Vince McMahon and all these legendary people that I had no clue I'd ever have the opportunity to meet. It was an all-around amazing experience and one that I can say I'll talk about for many, many years to come."
She's also found herself on tour with a group that's known for positioning up-and-coming acts to thrive, the Zac Brown Band.
"Them even giving me this opportunity, this little ole girl who just played dive bars and small theater shows... They trust me and believed in me enough to want to invite us on," Craft added. "They've been nothing but supportive and helpful in every single way. I got meet Zac the first night of the first show. He literally was still pouring sweat from the show. He shook my hand and told us, 'Thank y'all for being here.' He's a genuine guy, exactly like I expected him to be. And they put on a hell of a show, so I'm more excited every time we get to go out with them."
With Travelin' Kind, Craft offers us a sense of the professional highs that put her on the road to WrestleMania and on the same tour itinerary as another act with deep country and rock roots. She's also candid about the bumps along said road that come with seeing through big dreams in a creative field.
"I think I just knew that for [women] like me and guys that are in the same boat my age or around my age, I wanted to tell that story of you can still be very much in tune with your emotions but still very much love what you do enough to be willing to drop everything for a little while just to do that," Craft added. "I think it's important for people to know that. I think it's important for people to chase their dreams with no hesitation and no regret. I just think back now to working in the bar back in South Carolina for two years and [wondering] what I'd be doing years from then, and I definitely didn't think I'd be here, in the best way.
"I desperately want to urge people to embrace the traveling life," she continued. "Embrace seeing the world and seeing the people it has to offer and loving everybody and getting to know everybody and loving what you're doing in the moment, loving life. The album hopefully encompasses all of that, in some little way or shape or fashion."
Travelin' Kind Tracklist
1. "Travelin' Kind" (Ashland Craft, Erik Dylan)
2. "Your Momma Still Does" (Jenna LaMaster, Jonathan Singleton)
3. "Leavin' You Again" (Ashland Craft, Jenna LaMaster, Faren Rachels)
4. "Make It Past Georgia" (Ashland Craft, Reid Isbell, Willie Morrison)
5. "Last 20 Dollars" (Ashland Craft, Wyatt Beasley Durrette, III, Jonathan Singleton)
6. "Highway Like Me (feat. Marcus King)" (Ashland Craft, Jessi Alexander, Reid Isbell)
7. "Mimosas In The Morning" (Ashland Craft, Jessie Jo Dillon, Jonathan Singleton)
8. "Day By Day" (Tori Allen, Corey Grogan)
9. "Letcha Fly" (Ashland Craft, Willie Morrison, Lee Starr)
10. "Come Down" (Ashland Craft, Adam Hood, Rob Snyder)
11. "That's The Kinda Place" (Ashland Craft, Rodney Clawson, Jonathan Singleton)