Makin’ Tracks: Kassi Ashton Threads Small-Town Tropes Over Big-City Chords in ‘Dates in Pickup Trucks’

Makin’ Tracks: Kassi Ashton Threads Small-Town Tropes Over Big-City Chords in ‘Dates in Pickup Trucks’

How the heck did Erykah Badu end up on a country single?

OK, so the neo-soul “On & On” singer hasn’t really reemerged in a surprise context, but Kassi Ashton’s first radio single, “Dates in Pickup Trucks,” bears some resemblance to Badu. Chalk it up to Ashton’s slinky, behind-the-beat phrasing; the recording’s syncopated drum programming; and her demand at the end of the opening verse — “You know just right where my phone is/ Call it” — which unintentionally recalls Badu’s dismissive command, “You better ca-all Tyrone.”

Ashton was raised on country music in California, Mo., a rural community southwest of Columbia. But she was not genre-exclusive.

“I naturally sing behind the beat just based off what I grew up listening to,” Ashton says. “Because not only did we play classic country in my house, but we also played soul music. Really, I classify it as power females — like if a female sounded like she would smack the shit out of you. That’s what we were listening to.”

“Dates in Pickup Trucks” is a much gentler storyline than that history might imply, a plot inspired by Ashton’s grandparents, Carl and Juanita Meisenheimer. Juanita, giggling gleefully, had told Ashton in a phone call that she had packed a dinner and gone on a romantically nostalgic ride with Carl, driving down the back roads of central Missouri in their truck. It was a cheap night out in a town with few entertainment options, and it was an experience that Ashton knew firsthand.

But she also knew “Dates in Pickup Trucks” needed some out-of-the-tailgate thinking, so she saved the title until a writing appointment with Luke Laird (“AA,” “Tequila Little Time”) and David Garcia (“Meant To Be,” “Drinking Alone”) at Garcia’s studio in Nashville’s Berry Hill neighborhood. “I had the title, and I knew that they would be the people to write it with that didn’t make it sound like ‘My tractor is green, and my cow goes moo,’” she says with a laugh. “I knew that they would be the people who could make it sound fresh.”

She also expected they would resist that title, though they did their best to hide their doubts when she floated it. “For the last five years, anytime somebody says, ‘Pickup truck,’ in a co-write, everybody kind of just rolls their eyes,” says Laird. “But the way that she did it, I was like, ‘This sounds great. I don’t care.’ We just started talking about where she grew up, and I mean, it’s very similar to how I grew up in Pennsylvania.”

They fitted her idea to a counterintuitive musical foundation. Garcia had a hip-hop-leaning percussion track, and Laird used a 1963 nylon-string Martin guitar to fashion a progression full of major-seventh and minor-seventh harmonics, essentially pairing the small-town tale with big-city chords. “If you break it down, it sounds more jazz to me,” Ashton says. “It ain’t just G-A-D, G-A-D.”

In fact, it defies music-theory standards by never settling into the root chord of the key signature. The progression dances around that tonic, but in skipping past it, creates a tension that never fully resolves. “I’m a huge Babyface fan,” says Laird. “It just feels like it could fit that world.”

They took a fairly classic approach, building conversational verses that emphasized the boredom and lack of opportunity in a one-stoplight town. They created contrast with a more optimistic, singalong chorus that embraced small forms of good-time escapism, including a “little sumpin’, sumpin’ in a Sonic cup,” yet another instance of “Pickup Trucks” putting a fresh spin on an otherwise cliché image.

“It’s a true thing. That’s what she did,” Laird says. “Actually, my wife [Creative Nation co-founder/CEO Beth Laird], my understanding is she used to do that, too, down in Winchester, Tenn. — pour a little somethin’, somethin’ in a Sonic cup.’ So if you pull into a Sonic on a Friday night and the kids are in there, [they’re] not just drinking strawberry limeades.”

Meanwhile, that “You know just right where my phone is/Call it” line helped Ashton achieve a tip she picked from watching Cardi B judge a talent competition. “Someone was rapping, [and] she goes, ‘Where are your quotables?’ ” remembers Ashton. “She’s like, ‘Girls want quotables for Instagram captions.’ And I was like, ‘Ooooooh, s–t.’ You have to think like that.”

Garcia oversaw the foundational music as they worked up the demo that day, mostly applying programmed elements around Laird’s original nylon-string guitar. “One thing David did that I just absolutely loved is the bassline in this song,” Laird says. “It’s not just the typical 808 bass that a lot of songs have now. It’s like a synth bass, like something that could have been on a Michael Jackson record.”

Before it was finished, all three writers chipped in a harmony-rich “all ri-ight, all ri-ight” background hook that remained on the final recording, along with some of Garcia’s programming and the nylon-string guitar. They sent the tracks to other Nashville musicians who added parts on their own, including Derek Wells’ electric guitar solo and additional Bryan Sutton acoustic material. Ashton also requested steel guitar to provide an atmospheric sonic blanket and offset the track’s R&B tendencies.

Ashton sang it on tour opening for Maren Morris in 2019 and Jordan Davis in 2020, and it very clearly stood out in the set. “My DMs would fill up every night, [asking], ‘What’s the “pickup truck” song?’ ” she recalls.

Originally, Interscope/MCA Nashville planned to issue her first radio single in early 2020, but with COVID-19 complicating her ability to support it in person, the label tabled plans for a single until “Pickup Trucks” was finally released to country radio via PlayMPE on Feb. 4. Universal Music Group president/CEO Mike Dungan asked Laird if there were any changes he thought they could make to help it win over programmers, and they remixed it without the guitar solo.

“So far on [my] radio tour, when I tell them the song is two minutes and 45 seconds long, they’re exuberant,” says Ashton. “And I like how it kind of rolls through because you don’t get a break to think. It stops playing, and you go, ‘Oh, I have to play that again.’ ”

Ashton reinstates the guitar solo when she plays it live, and she keeps that whole Badu-ish, behind-the-beat phrasing, too, posing a challenge to the band.  “My guitar player knows: Keep the rhythm exact. Be as stubborn with the tempo as possible,” she says. “You hold strong and let me just dance.”

Makin’ Tracks: Kassi Ashton Threads Small-Town Tropes Over Big-City Chords in ‘Dates in Pickup Trucks’ How the heck did Erykah Badu end up on a country single? OK, so the neo-soul “On & On” singer hasn’t really reemerged in a surprise context, but Kassi Ashton’s first radio single, “Dates in Pickup Trucks,” bears some resemblance to…