I struggled a bit pinning down an interview with Ashley Heath. Catching the same virus, we spit, sputtered and coughed our way through our fourth attempt to get together so that I could submit this feather. But a prolonged chest cold couldn’t stop this rock-influenced ingénue from keeping all her gigs in May and June! Maybe some of the reason is because last March she quit her job as Barista and Food Manager at a Battery Park coffee house to immerse and dedicate herself to her true trade: working, professional female troubadour. She calls it “terrifying and awesome at the same time” making this transition. Her sights were set to “record an album and just play music.”
And that she did and that she is doing. Fresh from said record’s release, “A Different Stream,” and with boundless excitement, this hip chick gushed while revisiting that night at Asheville Music Hall. “I was pumped, man! The Heathens (her newly formed three-piece backing band), just tore it up! I could not have been more ready to finally have a product to get out there!” Guitarist Casey Cramer, his brother Elijah Cramer on bass and Patrick Thomas on drums, make up this band of Heathen shredders.
I first met Ashley at a singer/songwriter showcase I produced in Weaverville. I had invited Caine McDonald (Raising Caine) to play. Ashley and her dad had come to the event in support of him. She’s gone on to become Caine’s backup singer and these days does on average two shows per month with his stellar Countryfied band. But we’re just scratching the surface.
She was born in Brevard and raised in Marshall where she graduated from Madison High School. With a bachelor’s degree from Appalachian State University in Anthropology she now shares a home in downtown Asheville.
Her singer/songwriter grandmother, Francis Baldwin, lived in Nashville where she played guitar and sang. “She passed away my senior year in high school. She was the musical influence of my family. She heavily influenced my dad who heavily influenced me.” And “heavily” is the operative word of that sentence, as Ashley grew up listening to the likes of Mega Death and Metalica and continues to draw inspiration from the heavy metal genre and proclaims “Metalica is my jam! I had their posters on my wall and at one point I thought I was gonna marry James Hetfield.”
As a self-proclaimed “daddy’s girl” her father, Travis Baldwin’s, instrument and guitar collection gave her easy access to experiment on an array of musical tools to satisfy her growing desires. She joined junior high and high school marching bands playing flute, then alto sax. Sophomore year, she joined a community jazz band in Madison county playing sax. Learning Jazz standards helped ignite the notion to sing. The Madison County Community Jazz band, made up of juvenile to adult horn players, played Shopping Malls and area school events. A Madison High School agriculture teacher was in attendance during one of these functions and invited her to join a Future Farmers of America Rock/Gospel/Bluegrass/Country band. That band played in regional and national competitions.
Around this time, she decided to pick up the acoustic guitar and teach herself to play it. She attended her first open-mic nights, which allowed her to test her own stuff on an audience of other songwriters. “I learned to play guitar well enough to support my vocals.” And though she got her first electric guitar at twelve, she didn’t pick it up seriously until recently. “I’ve been taking my first guitar lessons from Mike Barnes and everyone knows how he can shred! He’s teaching me electric Blues because I want to be able to actually know how to play my instrument. I want to be able to go to a jam and know how to play with other instrumentalists.”
Case in point, she summoned the nerve to sign up for the Wednesday night Blues and Soul jam at Tressa’s a few months ago, where she met The Voice television competition show’s finalist, and sometimes host of the jam, Patrick Dodd. The instant chemistry between these two like-minded, Bluesified Rockers, was too much for either to ignore. Trading riffs and solos as well as their similar gravel-tinged approach to vocals and phrasing steered them to co-writing and private sessions. New and true-blue friends, Patrick and Caine McDonald were both openers at her CD release show back in May.
Bad to the Bone is a catch phrase she uses a few times in our conversation, which aptly describes Ashley’s fierce diligence, sacrifice and passion to improve her already premium skills as vocalist, songwriter and musician. The dichotomy is that while her first concert was Rat, Def Leopard, Quiet Riot, Firehouse and Cinderella, she pens poignant, thoughtful songs in more of an Americana, Folk Rock, Funky scaled-down manner. “Inside my soul I’m a rager,” and I finish that sentence by saying, “and on the outside you’re a whole, big fat sunflower!”
Her best friend growing up in Madison County, Jason, joined the Army and passed away; his family gifted to her a sum of money the Army had given them. It took her a few months to accept the gift but in the end she knew it would give her the breathing room necessary to honor Jason’s memory by pursuing her musical aspirations, as he and his parents always hoped she would. It’s a record dedicated to Jason that, in part, encourages the listener to keep going, even if you don’t know quite yet where you’re headed. “Jason’s parents believed in me so much, that it enabled me to believe in me.”
“One thing I’ve come to terms with over the last year is figuring out ways to manage stress while navigating in this popularity rat race. I’ve learned in this process that there are a lot of talented people out there but success in this town comes from networking and building relationships. Being involved in benefits and fundraisers helps. Touring can be challenging because of the difficulty in selling yourself outside the Asheville market. Now that I have my album, I’ve been trying to set up my first tour.” We spend some time philosophizing and strategizing about the challenges and the realization that the business and branding side of music is just as big as the love of creating and playing.
At this point in her journey, she retains a childlike exuberance about being on stage, playing to thousands or just a few, landing festival slots, whether as a front woman or in support of other artists. While the older players she supports or hires can tease her a bit about being a newbie, she’s bridging that gap of experience in very short order and I have no doubt will soon be telling them a thing or two!
I’ve taken three-quarters of this feature to tell you about Ashley, the person, so let me just say before we end that her album will carry you away down that stream, make you think and help you understand more about yourself and your own journey. It’s a freshman effort that sounds like five efforts in. This young and precious gift to our music family, Ashley Heath will continue to do what she will do, and I sense quite dramatically that she will never lose her childlike exuberance.
Her soul rages, her imagination is keen and free and her bravery and passion in pursuing aspects of herself through music is limitless.
Peggy Ratusz is a vocal coach, writer and performer, advocate of Women in Blues History. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.reverbnation.com/peggyratusz