Kassi Ashton is in line for Nashville domination, and she’ll do it her way — unapologetically.
Raised in the small town of California, Missouri, the rising country singer grew up as a down-home girl with big-city dreams.
Ashton began pursuing her passion for music as a young girl, then honed her craft at Belmont University. After graduating in December 2016, Ashton — who has the brassy gumption of Miranda Lambert as well as soulful pipes reminiscent of Adele — signed a joint record deal with UMG Nashville and Interscope in December 2017; she’s featured on the 2018 Keith Urban song "Drop Top"; and she’s currently opening for Maren Morris on the Grammy winner’s GIRL: The World Tour; and she’s giving listeners a taste of her genre-spanning sound with singles including "Violins" and "Field Party."
PEOPLE caught up with Ashton on a rainy September evening on her tour bus in New York City, just hours before she hit the stage at Radio City Music Hall, looking as comfortable as a veteran performer during her own electric set before she joined headliner Morris’ set for a cover of The Cardigans classic “Lovefool.”
Below, Ashton, 25, opens up about her early influences; how her Keith Urban collaboration almost never happened; and how a cancer battle changed her perspective on life.
She grew up hunting — and doing beauty pageants.
“My parents were never married — I’m a love child — so I grew up in two just distinctly different ways of life,” says Ashton, who was born to parents Terry & Pamela.
“At Dad’s, I grew up on a farm, I shot muzzle-loaders competitively for 10 years, we had a dirt bike track, and deer season is like the biggest family holiday we have,” she adds. “With Mom, I drove an hour away, six days a week for ballet and modern dance and dance competitions, beauty pageants, theater my whole life — she’s the one who taught me how to sew. It was just all art and beauty, all the time. The only reason I agreed to be in a beauty pageant was because she was like, ‘You get to sing,’ and I was like, ‘Sick! F— the rest of it: I just want to wear sparkly pants and do the song part. I have to wear swimsuits? That’s stupid. The other part is stupid. Just let me sing my song.'”
Ashton says she felt like an outsider in high school and faced some bullying.
“Growing up like that is hard in a tiny town because all kids want you to look the same as them, do the same things and believe the same things and wear jeans and a T-shirt every day,” she says. “I was wearing my Lady Gaga T-shirts and my combat boots and I would look at what Beyoncé was wearing and just copy her. I hated high school. But I was so happy it happened to me because I got really thick skin and believe that we’re all human, and I just want other people to know that they can be whoever the f— they want to be.”
In college, Ashton studied music as well as business.
“I didn’t want to go to school. My grandma, who didn’t even graduate high school, was like, ‘You have to go to college,’ and I was like, ‘For what? I want to be a singer, what the hell?'” Ashton recalls. “Luckily, I got a scholarship, because Belmont is too pricy for me, and went for commercial voice with a minor in music business.”
Ashton says she studied business because she wanted to be taken seriously in the industry.
“I wanted to do it because everyone automatically assumes that the artist — the singer — is the dumbest person in the room. And I think being a girl on top of that is: ‘Okay, dumb girl singer. She’s interested in being hot. That’s it,'” she says. “I didn’t want to do that because I’ve wanted to do this for so long. This is the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do my entire life.”
Her influences include everyone from Amy Winehouse and Adele to Aretha Franklin and Chris Stapleton.
Growing up, Ashton’s mother introduced her to the divas: “Mom only listened to only power females, but it was genre-less in a way. It was Loretta and Reba — but at the same time, Stevie Nicks and Aretha. These women who just completely owned their landscape and what they do.”
Then as a teen, Ashton discovered more contemporary soul singers.
“I remember Amy Winehouse and Adele came on the scene, and that was the whole mood, and I just fell hard for it — again, moody, big voices. I like, s—, that’s got meat in it: actual, real, bottom-ended sound. I like big, heavy moods,” she says. “I would sing Adele around the house, and my mom would go, ‘Sing that louder.’ And we discovered that I had this natural soul in my voice. I’d been singing country songs for so long that you don’t necessarily understand that you have that.”
Then, while studying at Belmont, Ashton had an epiphany while listening to then-unknown Chris Stapleton.
“I get to college and I found a video of Chris Stapleton before he blew up; he was nothing yet, and it was him singing this song called ‘What Are You Listening To’ in the back room of a radio station. It was soul, but it was country,” Ashton recalls. “I remember taking it to my voice coach and being like, ‘This. What is this? This is what I want to do.’ And he was like, ‘No one’s doing that.’ Cool! That’s a good thing! So to help me, we would take old country songs and put a soul twist on them, or we would take old soul songs and put a country twist on them.”
When Keith Urban reached out to work together, she almost deleted the email because she thought it was a prank.
“I hadn’t even signed my record deal officially yet, and I was on my way home for Thanksgiving, and I got an email from the weirdest email address, and the message was really cryptic. The subject was ‘Urban,’ and was like, ‘Hey, KA, I have this song I need swag on — somebody told me you’re the perfect person,’ and it was signed, ‘KU.’ I thought it was spam. I thought it was someone spamming me! So I almost deleted it,” Ashton recalls.
Ashton eventually heard from her label’s president that Urban was indeed trying to get in touch with her. However, getting in contact was tricky at first because Ashton was at her dad’s house “in the middle of nowhere,” with very limited cell service.
“He called me, but I didn’t get it. I was in my dad’s shop, which is a big, metal building, and he was like, ‘If you stand in that doorway, right there, and don’t move, you won’t drop the call.’ I was like, ‘I swear to God, if I hang up on Keith Urban, I’m going to kill you!'” Ashton remembers. “So I’m standing in this doorway, and Keith Urban is like, ‘So are you really on a farm?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, I’m lookin’ at a big-ass John Deere tractor right now. I’m standing in this doorway, if I drop this call, I’m so sorry!’ And he starts singing to me on the phone and I’m trying not to freak out or move so I don’t drop the call.”
Ashton went on to record “Drop Top” with Urban, which appeared on his 2018 album Graffiti U.
“The track came out and I just lost my mind because I hadn’t went to radio yet — I still haven’t — but at the time I was like, new, fresh, fresh, fresh, the ink was still drying on the record deal, basically,” she says. “He was just so amazing. That was just what you dream of.”
She battled thyroid cancer in 2014.
Ashton was diagnosed with thyroid cancer on February 2014 and, after undergoing treatment, was declared cancer-free in September 2014.
“Cancer for me was a Band-Aid you have to rip off. I didn’t cry; Everyone else seemed to cry, and I was just like: ‘This happened to me, and I just have to deal with it. Why am I gonna cry about it?'” Ashton says.
The singer says her battle changed her outlook on life.
“It did a lot for me as far as: Don’t live in fear; just do. Because something’s gonna hit you anyway. I didn’t do anything to get cancer, but it hit me, and I got over it,” Ashton says. “I can’t live in fear that something like that is going to happen because it just will. I’ve got a cool scar, and maybe I can help somebody who has it and is not dealing with it well.”