There is a room attached to Wild Bill’s Crown Lounge where white couches line the walls and red felt pool tables await the sharks of that sport. This is where I caught up with Ashley Walden after her hour-long set on the lounge’s stage for the club’s Georgia Country Night. After playing her set as the opener for another Covington native, Ty Chesley, she sat next to me, beaming. She was definitely pleased with her set.
She loves playing venues like this one in Duluth.
"The people in the larger venues just have a ton of fun," she says. "They’re really into the music in a place like this. And when they’re having fun, I can tell, and it means that I have more fun performing." The Crown Lounge, a smaller and more intimate room attached to the main room at Wild Bill’s, is ideal for Walden and her musical accompaniment, Ryan Shafer on acoustic guitar.
An hour earlier, a huge voice announced Walden’s set, and the crowd announced its excitement that the evening’s shows were beginning. The opening chords to Gretchen Wilson’s "Redneck Woman" were strummed by Shafer and the room’s noise swelled as Walden began to belt the first lines. Her voice came out certain and powerful.
Walden definitely appeared to be having fun from my spot near the foot of the stage. She bobbed and bounced to the music as she high-fived members of the crowd and then bantered briefly between songs.
The audience ate it up. Listeners were as into her original songs as they were her covers. Later, I talked to Ashley about her writing process. Like so many other songwriters, she talked about the journal that she’s kept—full of lyrics and poetry—for years. But then she talked about the specific set of life experiences that she believes will set her music apart from other musicians who may seem similar to her.
Ashley is a divorced mother of two young children, Kane and Alabama. She was an Army wife. She lived in Hawaii for a spell, where she won the Operation Rising Star singing competition in 2009. The songs she writes are informed and inspired by the things she has witnessed and lived through. Even though she sings and writes primarily contemporary country music, she bends genres in her performances. She can write songs like "Afraid of Loving You" that speak to the universal experiences of heartache and uncertainty, and then follow up with a modern country anthem like "The Ol GA." She possesses one of the biggest voices I’ve heard on the local stage, but it is not without control. She performs her music with the care and precision that one would expect of an artist.
"I think we want to keep a mostly acoustic sound," says Walden. "I think we may add a bass and drums to what we have. I don’t want the music to become too much, though."
"I really like the acoustic sound a lot," she continues. "I like the raw, emotional element that comes with the acoustic guitar, and I don’t want to lose that underneath a lot of noise." She makes it clear, though, that she wants Shafer involved with the band as it moves forward into its next incarnation. It speaks to the talents of both Walden and Shafer that they can hold a room’s attention the way they did at Wild Bill’s. It takes a particular kind of guts to perform the Sugarland ballad, "Stay"—which may be the epitome of stripped-down, raw, acoustic emotion.
Beyond playing the Crown Lounge at Wild Bill’s, Ashley Walden is booked for months in advance and will be headlining shows at Fuzions in Monroe and Kenny D’s in Monticello. Later, she will be playing at the Porterdale Fall Festival on Oct. 19. She is also making preparations for the huge outdoor concert, Party on the Farm 2013, where she will be sharing the stage with the likes of Jordan Rager, Highway 55, Taylor Marie, Drew Parker, and Craig Campbell. Party on the Farm will be Oct. 5 at Neely Farm, and tickets are available online at http://www.partyonthefarmgeorgia.com/ and at the gate. Vote for and listen to Ashley’s songs on 94.9 The Bull’s Backyard Country on Saturday evenings, and follow her Facebook page for updates and show information.