Writing papers, staying up late to study for tests and forcing your friends to binge-watch Netflix with you in an attempt to procrastinate. For most students, these are the staples of college life. But for Tiffany Ashton, a junior at UNC Charlotte studying economics, history and management information systems, it all works a little differently. One day, she’s running to classes and taking tests. The next, she’s recording music and attending the Grammy Awards as a member of the Academy.
Ashton has the difficult job of balancing college with her career as a rapidly rising country artist. She won “Country Artist of the Year” at the Hollywood Music in Media Awards in 2015 (and has since been nominated for the award again in 2016 and 2017). More recently, she won Nashville Universe’s “Rising Star” award in 2018 and the Carolina Music Awards’ “Best Female Country Artist” in 2017. She credits a long list of musical influences; artists like Ashley McBryde, Alison Kraus, Brad Paisley, Miranda Lambert and Garth Brooks are all important to her. She places special emphasis on the respect she has for Taylor Swift, who she admires for writing her own songs (even on co-written tracks) and making them personal. There is a clear parallel here, as Ashton also writes her own songs and aims to keep her life as open as possible for her fans.
Ashton was born in Georgia but her family moved to Winston-Salem, North Carolina when she was six years old to obtain better healthcare for her brother. She always had creative talents. As a kid, she liked to dress up and perform shows around the house for her family. She also had a passion for reading, storytelling and writing. Looking back on it now, she views songwriting and performance as a natural evolution of such interests. It just makes sense.
She first learned to play the guitar at age 12. Her parents would drive her to the Mount Airy area to learn from Ralph McGee, a man with a background in bluegrass. While she experimented with opera and other styles, country music is where she found her home. “Country music, what drew me to that, is just the storytelling. The everyday storytelling. Country music is ‘Listen, I had a bad week at work right now. I just got off and I really need a pick-me-up.’ That is what country music is and country music is telling your story,” she says. “There’s a lot of debates about country music…all sorts of like ‘Oh, that’s too hip-hop sounding, that’s too country-pop sounding.’ But really at the end of the day, the one thing that makes it country music is telling the story of the people.”
The first place Ashton debuted her music was a Florida marina owned by a family friend. At one of these performances, she was overheard by radio DJ Brian Hardman. He offered to allow her to record a small demo in his own studio. In a small shed in his backyard, surrounded by lawnmower equipment and forced to turn off the air conditioning to reduce background noise, Ashton recorded her very first tracks. She recounted, “I was singing and recording my first demo. It was 99 degrees outside in Southern Florida and it was sweltering. And I loved every second of it.”
That was all it took for Ashton to know that music was for her. She began performing everywhere that was interested in having her, from coffee shops to small fairs to bars. Even though she was performing in bars as a young teen, she was largely unfazed by the experience. However, she abstains from drinking based on having to be around it so often at performances back then. “I was the person that at the end of the night that had to interact with all of the people who had been drinking till 2 a.m. and you just seem to realize, you know, it just didn’t appeal to me by the time I was offered a drink,” she said. At age 14, Ashton would go on to record the EPs “Southern Sweetheart” and “Adrenaline Crush” with Blackcat Studios, a recording studio owned by Jason Hoard in Atlanta. She also worked with Jan Smith Studios, a producer whose client list has included Justin Bieber and The Band Perry. Eventually, she would make the move to the country music capital: Nashville, TN.
Though Ashton has lived in North Carolina since she was six years old, there is a special place in her heart for Nashville. For the past couple of years, it has largely been the base of operations for her music career. She’s recorded music there in collaboration with Erik Halbig out of The 515 Studio and Kim Shrum of Dream Music Group. She frequently plays concerts there, including a recent performance at the legendary Gaylord Opryland. Ashton also recognizes the role it has played in producing and popularizing country music. Despite this love for Nashville, as Ashton moves forward with her career, she feels pulled to try and split her time there with Los Angeles. In that music hub, she collaborates with Del Oro music, including David Longoria and Robert Eibach, as well as Oceanview Record Company.
How does she balance earning an undergraduate degree with a career in the fast-paced and competitive music industry? A deeply-planned class schedule. Ashton schedules all of her classes to occur within two days, which sometimes means she has class from early in the morning to late at night with only a small lunch break. She tries to leave one day in between and one day after to complete all her homework and study for tests. After that, she is free to use the weekend to travel to Nashville or Los Angeles. There, she records music, conducts business meetings, attends awards shows or performs concerts for her fans. Longer tours are typically reserved for the summer when she won’t have any classes to worry about (and when the weather is better).
It isn’t easy. Ashton actually entered UNC Charlotte in the College of Engineering. She came from a STEM-focused high school and considered engineering to be her hobby. In fact, she was a member of her high school’s rocketry team, which won second place in national competition. However, she found that she needed more flexible attendance policies from her professors to make her career and education fit together, as she needed to be able to miss class and make assignments up more frequently to attend award shows or other functions. Similarly, in the one music class Ashton completed at UNC Charlotte, her grade took a dip for attending an award show. Ashton began searching for an area of study that would be more compatible with her career.
She found that in the Belk College of Business. Ashton seems overwhelmingly happy when she talks about it, stating that they’ve been incredibly supportive and accommodating. “Economics was so willing to work with me and my music schedule, so willing to let me travel and understand that I’m out for business and that this is what I’m doing for my livelihood now,” she says. “I am so glad for where I am now.” She also finds it more complementary to her musical talent. The music scene is an industry and Ashton believes that her business background will be incredibly helpful as she tries to navigate it. While she has her parents’ support, Ashton does not have an agent and is learning to move through the industry on her own.
However, her education isn’t the only thing she has to balance. Social relationships and friendships can also be hard to maintain when one is only on campus two days a week. Ashton has to work hard to make time for friends and to stay in contact while on the road. However, that also goes in the opposite direction. Luckily, she doesn’t get entirely lonely on the road since her parents travel with her.
Ashton is incredibly excited about 2019 and what it might have in store for her career. Granted, it started out pretty strong. As a member of the Recording Academy, Ashton attended the Grammy Awards for the first time in February. She stated, “Just being there at the Grammy Award show was an incredible experience – the talent both on and off stage is the best in the world.” Her favorite part was the Dolly Parton tribute, as she “admire[s] Dolly as a businesswoman and as one of the pioneers of the ladies in country music.”
Beyond the Grammys, Ashton hints at a number of projects in the works. The biggest of these is new music, the first of which is slated to release in March 2019. Music videos and commercials are also on the table. Beyond music, Ashton is now looking into the world of acting and movies. “I think in a way, it is an extension of that storytelling…I mean really, a lot of times you are acting on stage because what comes out in the form of songs is often a lot more extreme of a feeling than what you were feeling at that moment.”
Ashton plans to graduate from UNC Charlotte in 2020, armed with a knowledge of the business world and the many years of music experience under her belt. When asked what makes a good performance, she says, “It takes being confident in yourself and knowing that you do have that story to tell and that whenever you walk out on stage, number one, you are there for the people out in the audience. You are telling your story but you are telling your story for somebody else.” Ashton also isn’t shy about pursuing music and plans to chase it relentlessly post-graduation. “There are some people who are just born to dance and born to sing. And I feel like I was born to sing,” she says.