Kassi Ashton has left the starry night skies of California, Missouri, for the bright lights of Nashville, Tennessee, but the country singer still carries a little of its gravel in her boots.
Ashton — locally known as Meisenheimer, a 2012 graduate of California R-1 High School — hearkens back to home in her debut single, "California, Missouri," through Universal Music Group NASHVILLE and Interscope Records.
Although she grew up the misunderstood child in homemade dresses, she still has a sweet spot for the farming community that helped shape her future, as she sings in the song: "I was born in the wrong place in the wrong time, but sometimes the wrong way makes you the right kind."
Ashton said she wanted to write this song her entire life.
"It's kind of an intro into everything I am, and I want this to be the first piece that people find out about me," she said in promotional materials.
The single is part soulful lament, part unrequited love song for the community in which she was raised. Ashton broke into the country music industry with a ballad that weighs this dichotomy with somber sobriety and melancholy nostalgia.
The chorus, "I don't know if I'm running away. I don't know if I'm running toward you. I guess that's what you get when you're born and stuck in California — California, Missouri," represents her drive to succeed on new, bigger stages while being drawn back to the comfort of home and the gooseneck trailers on which she started performing.
The second verse's opening — "I just really hope one day that you are going to love me" — shows while the trials of her childhood drive her onward, she still wants to love and be loved by the people in California.
"Growing up, I always knew I wanted to write a song about my hometown," she said in the promotional materials. "I want people that live (in California) to hear it and know that I love them, but also I want them to know how bad it hurt. I also want them to realize that the hurt and the beauty is what made me who I am, completely."
Ashton was raised between unmarried parents and split her time between their two worlds. Her mother was a singer who entered her into dance and beauty pageants, while her father was a farmer who taught her how to ride dirt bikes. With Mom she designed and sewed her own dresses; while back on the farm, Grandpa showed her how to shoot black powder rifles.
Although she was a standout singer, poet and public speaker throughout high school, Ashton did not feel like she fit in with her classmates. "California, Missouri" opens with the lyrics: "I graduated with 86 sheep. I was the black one. If there was a reputation to be had in this town, I had the bad one."
She told Taste of Country she wore combat boots to school rather than cowboy boots because she didn't want to dress like the girls who were mean to her. Antagonism between some of her classmates became so serious, she said, counselors recommended the family consider homeschool.
Ashton began converting her poetry into lyrics in high school. She used the natural soulfulness of her voice to blend classic country with the doleful qualities of inspirations like Adele and Amy Winehouse.
"California, Missouri" is also a rebuke of the classic hometown country song, which stereotypically looks at small-town America through rose-colored glasses. Ashton recorded this song for country fans who have more complicated relationships with their hometowns, maybe even those in California.
"Most of the hometown songs in country music are really glorifying and romanticizing the hometown, which is great," Ashton said in the promotional materials. "If your hometown is really your haven, I think that's beautiful. But mine was a little different, and I really wanted to get perspective, because I know a lot of kids in small towns feel the same way that I did."
Previous coverage in HER magazine: Small town, big talent: Kassi Ashton