With a little bit of rock, a hell of a lot of soul, and a throwback R&B groove, Kassi Ashton has crash landed on country radio. "Dates In Pickup Trucks," her irresistible debut radio single dropped in February, on the eve of her own 28th birthday. "It feels powerful," she says of the moment's alignment. Speaking about the song's playfulness, she adds, "I want it to show that there are many sides to me."
The release marks the critical next step for the buzzy young singer. Named to Ones to Watch lists by publications like Huffington Post and The Tennessean as well as juggernaut radio personality Bobby Bones, Ashton spent 2019 as one of the openers on Maren Morris's GIRL World Tour. In 2018, she was featured on Keith Urban's CMA Album of the Year-nominated LP, Graffiti U.
The simmering new song, it turns out, has a surprising origin story: an uncharacteristically giddy phone call between Ashton and her grandmother. One of nine children and known for her take-no-prisoners attitude, the singer was shocked when, one day, her elder fell into a fit of giggles on the other end of the line. "She's like, 'Me and your grandpa went on a date last night,'" Ashton recalls. "'I made dinner, we packed it up in the truck, and we drove around all the roads we hadn't seen in a long time.'"
Ashton got to thinking about the nights she stepped out under the stars in her own pickup, back in her one-stoplight hometown of California, Missouri. ("You can gravel road for hours, where I come from" she quips.) Ashton brought the idea into a co-writing session with Luke Laird, who, while having served as the pen behind massive hits by Thomas Rhett, Eric Church, and Carrie Underwood, is also, as Ashton explains affectionately, the "other half of my creative brain," and David Garcia. Initially, her collaborators both balked at what they considered a kitschy title. "They're like, 'This is not the girl I know!'" Ashton says, laughing.
But together they leaned into a ripped-from-the-90s vibe, channeling a hypnotic, rubber band beat. They adorned it with dobro, steel guitar, and Ashton's Winehousian vocal. And within the day, the three had twisted a simple memory shared between generations into something they couldn't turn off. "We were joking about how if Martha Stewart and Snoop Dogg got high in a Chevy pickup truck and rode around, this is what they would listen to," says Ashton.
That the song resists the cliché its own title may suggest -- what with it hitting all the major format airwave buzzwords of late -- is in part why Ashton loves it. "If I were to see a song called 'Dates in Pickup Trucks,' I would go, ugh," she jokes. "But this is how I grew up, and we used the idea in way that felt fresh." She took something well worn, refracted it through her own musical identity -- something that formed in her Missouri kitchen singing Etta, Aretha, and Reba into a broom handle with her mom and sister -- to create the sound of the future.
"I've lived real life," Ashton explains. "I've had shit happen to me." Raised between two homes. Bullying in school. Cancer. "I'm telling the truth." It's become the thread that ties each of her releases, which dance between modern and classic influences, together. "There's a gritty, soulful bottom end to my music," she says.
Ashton debuted the cut live not two days later at a showcase in Nashville and felt the room react immediately. It wasn't a fluke. The same thing happened each night on the GIRL tour later that year. After every show, her DMs would fill with fans telling her they loved "the truck song" or, more frequently, that they were desperate for the cut to release. It's been a welcome reminder for the singer that the purest moments of creation just happen: "We had fun, and the fun transferred into the song."
Thinking about the song's release, Ashton says she can't wait to hear the cut piping through car stereos everywhere. "It sounds like something you want to listen to while driving," she says, more than once. Nostalgic. Free. "I used to think my debut single had to showcase everything I can do." But, ever the worthy teacher, time has corrected that notion. "One song doesn't have to, and can't, be fully me." Instead, it's the clear-eyed vision that remains consistent: "I want people to hear something from me and think, the only person who could pull this off is her."
Now, Ashton files music -- hers and that of others -- into two camps, regardless of their genre or mood. "I think about bing-bing music and boom-boom music," she says. The latter has weight. Eric Church. Rihanna. Adele. They all register, deep in your core. Or, as Ashton says, "They make your gut pulse." "Dates In Pickup Trucks," with its visceral imagery, sweet-as-summer melody, and intoxicating rhythm certainly goes boom.