Kassi Ashton started singing before she could read. When she was 3 or 4 years old she sang “Mary Had A Little Lamb” on stage at a karaoke contest at the Moniteau County Fair in her hometown of California, Missouri.
“All I’ve ever wanted to do is sing, and I was never shy,” said Ashton, 22, who has always been at home in the spotlight.
Her lyrics have gone way past nursery rhymes, and everything is finally coming together for the singer/songwriter who has been crafting her own voice and sound, which is country with some blues and soul thrown in to the mix.
Now a senior at Belmont University’s School of Music in Nashville, she took a much bigger stage at the Curb Event Center on campus and won the 2016 annual Country Music Showcase.
“Kassi just killed it live,” said Johnny Ellett of Ten Four Management and a Belmont alum. “She owned the stage, I mean owned that stage.”
“You can get a vocal coach to help an artist’s voice get better, but you can’t hire someone to teach an artist to be a true performer, to have that certain charisma it takes to be one of the greats,” said Ellett, a judge who was so impressed he signed on as Ashton’s manager.
“There is a lot of great music out there, but what helps one artist stand out from another is who they are on and off the stage,” he said.
Born Kassi Meissenhamer, her growing up years in the small town of California, west of Jefferson City, were equal parts tomboy and tutus.
Her parents split when she was born, so she loved spending time on the farm with her dad, Terry, who works at Burgers’ Smokehouse and listened to classic country like Hank Williams.
“I rode dirt bikes and horses and I also shot muzzle loaders competitively,” Ashton said.
Her mom, Pam Kiesling, who works at Unilever in Jefferson City, immersed her young daughter in country music and ballet and jazz classes.
“My mom used to sing Loretta Lynn and Reba songs in the kitchen using a broom handle as a microphone and wanted me to learn all the lyrics,” Ashton said. “She also took me to karaoke nights in Jefferson City. I remember sitting at tables coloring while waiting for my turn. I couldn’t read the prompter so she would stand behind me and whisper the words to me as they came on screen.”
In fourth grade, Ashton remembers auditioning for California Kids a capella and making Sounds of Joy, too. She was also active in theater and debate. Even being bullied by other female students, she said, only made her more determined.
During the summer of her junior year, she won both the talent and evening gown competitions of the Miss Moniteau County Queen contest and it was obvious even then that she had the talent, poise and confidence to go all the way.
“All I wanted to do was move to Nashville and pursue a career as a singer, and my mother always encouraged me to go after my dreams,” she said.
Her grandmother really wanted her to go to college, so Ashton checked out Belmont, an accredited music school in the music city.
“I liked the commercial voice program so I auditioned and I got in,” she said.
She’s studied voice, music history and all along she’s been writing songs, and performing with her ensemble while also working as a karaoke hostess at Lonnie’s. Finally on track, in early 2014 her life took a major detour.
“I went to the school clinic for a note excusing me from a science lab I had missed,” she recalled.
“The doctor felt my throat and asked ‘if I knew that I had this golf-ball size lump?’ He told me ‘not to worry that it should go away on its own.’ Two weeks later, it was still there so I went back in for tests.”
In mid February she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. Surgery was next, and her entire thyroid was removed, and then she had to undergo a radioactive iodine treatment. She had to be quarantined, so her mother was able to stay with her because she had two separate bathrooms in her apartment in East Nashville.
“She would make dinner, and then I would pull the tray over with a rope,” she said.
With the tests, surgery and treatments, by September of that year, she was cancer free. She dropped out of school for a semester and is still dealing with some after-affects.
“The thyroid is the thermometer of our body,” she said. “Before I was pretty laid back and even-keeled but now I take medication first thing in the morning to help with my moods.”
While she hasn’t let cancer define her, she did co-write a song (with Emily Landis and Hunter Leath) about the experience, aptly titled “Survivor.” An anthem that anyone who has had cancer will relate to, it’s also about hope and overcoming any obstacle. She performed it as part of the country showcase judging process.
After sending demos and applications to the industry judges, Ashton was one of the eight students chosen to advance to the live auditions, where they each performed two songs.
“Before she ever sang one note, she immediately caught my attention with her leather pants and her old Harley T-shirt,” Ellett said. “I thought to myself, ‘either this chick is one super self-confident bad-ass or is trying really hard to come off as one.’ Then she sang. It’s very rare to have an amazing full-body voice that is unique.”
After the live auditions, Ashton and the other students in the competition interacted with the judges.
“We don’t get impressed that easily, but Kassi had us all laughing with her stories, quick wit and charisma,” he said. “On top of that, she killed it live, which is extremely important to me. I got my start in the touring side and the live show is where fans are made or lost.”
Four students then moved on to perform at the showcase, which Ashton said is produced like a real concert, with sound checks, run-throughs, photo shoots and marketing and press.
“We even had a separate dressing room and a stage hand who knocks on your door to tell you when to go on stage,” she said.
She sang “Long Time Gone,” written by Darrell Scott and also covered successfully by The Dixie Chicks, one of Ashton’s favorite groups.
“When they announced my name as the winner, my family screamed louder than I did,” Ashton said. “They’ve always been my biggest fans.”
She’s currently interning at Carnival Music, a publishing company on Music Row, and recently had country star Miranda Lambert sitting across from her in the waiting room.
Heady stuff, but she’s still focused on doing her school work to graduate in December.
“Since winning the country showcase I have a manager, and I’ve had meetings with publishing companies and making more connections in the industry. It has been so exciting. I didn’t think it would happen so fast,” she said.
For Ellet, it’s not that surprising.
“Kassi is truly something different. I see it. Everyone she meets sees it. I’m just in a fortunate position to be her biggest cheerleader,” he said. “It takes hard work, dedication and a lot of it, which Kassi has. We have a long road ahead of us, but I believe this girl is unstoppable.”
One of the lyrics in “Survivor” includes the line “There’s not another mountain I can’t climb…I can do anything,” and that sums up her attitude. Ready to move on to the next chapter on her journey, she certainly has weathered storms in her young life but remains grounded by her family’s support and her belief in herself.
“My dad and I have this running joke that if I ever make it as a country music singer that he gets to drive my bus,” she said. “After I won the showcase, he told me recently that I’m going to need a bus driver.”