My new album Leaving Is Believing features songs that are related to my journey as an artist. I’ve spent 23 years on the road performing bluegrass, country and roots music, and I’m a huge history, food and geography nerd, so I’ve gained a unique perspective on both the culture in which I grew up and the cultures I’ve been fortunate enough to experience around the world throughout my travels. On this mixtape are some of my favorite songs that feel relevant to my life on the road, as well as some newer tunes that represent what’s moving me these days. — Ashby Frank
Blue Highway — “Message From the Wind”
Everyone has had that “urge to go” at one time or another, and I don’t know of another song that describes that feeling as well as this song does. It was perfectly written and sung by the great Shawn Lane, and I’d venture to guess that I’ve listened to it at least 10,000 times.
Rodney Crowell — “Earthbound”
The line “One man’s lust for life brings world renown, and the next guy can’t get two feet off the ground” always jumps out at me when I listen to this track. The same Rodney Crowell that wrote the classic “Song for the Life” that was recorded by bluegrass legends The Seldom Scene and Alison Krauss also wrote this song, and it’s one of my favorites. Lots of existential questions that we all have are masterfully referenced in “Earthbound,” but it also has such a catchy melody and production that the listener can choose to dive as deep into the lyrics as they want to. So perfect.
Mary Chapin Carpenter — “Down at the Twist and Shout”
Mary Chapin Carpenter is a songwriter’s songwriter. I’ve read that she wrote this song about a venue in Bethesda, Maryland, but the picture she paints with the words, melody, and backing musicians transports you so deep into Louisiana that you can almost smell the gumbo. It’s such a great song from such a great talent, and every time I hear it, I want to be in the scene she’s describing. What more could you ask for from a song?
Dale Ann Bradley — “Falling Down”
I wrote this song quite a few years back while I was stuck in an ice storm waiting for an accident to clear on I-40 coming back from a show at the old Pyramid in Memphis. The words came to me in less than 10 minutes, and I wrote the melody with a guitar as soon as I got back home. Everyone has doubts, insecurities, and anxiety, and I think for artists and creators, it’s amplified. This song is about those all too familiar feelings, which might be something you don’t hear a lot about in bluegrass music.
“Falling Down” was originally recorded by my buddy Will Southern when he was a student at Belmont, and the great Dale Ann Bradley came in to sing the harmony vocals. Luckily, she remembered the song and recorded it on her album The Things She Couldn’t Get Over some 15 years later and invited me to sing harmony and play mandolin on it. She did such a wonderful job and poured her heart into it.
Tim Wilson — “First Baptist Bar and Grill”
I grew up in rural west-central North Carolina and heard country comedians like Ray Stevens, Lewis Grizzard, Jerry Clower, Jeff Foxworthy, and Tim Wilson at my childhood home and at my grandparents’ home constantly. I think that the hokeyness that surrounds this sub-genre prevents a lot of people from realizing how brilliant and well-written a lot of the material is. These folks obviously greatly influenced my writing, and I’m really proud of that. This particular song is a masterpiece by the late great Tim Wilson.
Ashby Frank — “Arkansas Island”
This is one of three songs that I wrote on the new album, and all three of them come from a span of a few years in my life when I was living and working on cruise ships in the Caribbean. One day, I was stuck onboard in Cozumel because of a safety precaution known as “port manning” where the ship has to have a minimum number of employees onboard, and I wrote this song looking out my cabin window. The scene I witnessed looked very much like what you’d see at a marina or lakefront beach in rural America, and I thought that was amusing, so I wrote about it. The subtle Caribbean vibes that Scott Vestal added on the banjo and my Mountain Heart bandmate Josh Shilling added on organ really made this track fit the lyrics, and I couldn’t be more pleased with the end result.
The Wonderful Nobodies — “The Wire”
Lacy Green of The Wonderful Nobodies is one of my favorite singers and writers in Nashville. This song tells a different kind of story about performing and the highs and lows that go with it, creating tension and putting you on the edge of your seat.
Amanda Cook — “Point of No Return”
This is another song I wrote, and it’s about being a free spirit and going where you’ve never been before. There are many “normal life” sacrifices that are made when you pursue your dreams and try to make a living out of the art that you’re passionate about. But the rush that you get from a great performance where you connect with the audience, or from discovering a new town, venue, artist, song, or even a beautiful landscape is always something special and can be addicting. That’s what I wrote this song about, and Amanda, her band, and her producer Aaron Ramsey did a perfect job of presenting it.
Sean McConnell — “What the Hell Is Wrong with Me”
Sean McConnell’s 2021 album A Horrible Beautiful Dream is in my opinion one of the most masterfully written, produced, and performed collections of songs in recent American music. This song stands out to be included on this mixtape because it asks a lot of the questions that any sane professional musician would ask.
Sam Bush — “Same Ol’ River”
This song was masterfully written by the great Jeff Black, and to me the lyrics demonstrate the overwhelming feelings that free spirits often encounter when they think about the world around them and the myriad of possibilities in life and directions they could go. I first heard Sam sing this one at MerleFest when I was a teenager, and it’s still my favorite song that he performs.
Robbie Fulks — “Where There’s a Road”
Robbie Fulks has such a way with words, and this song is a road warrior’s anthem. So many of the lyrics to this one are relatable for any traveling musician, so it’s no surprise that there are also two great cover versions of this song by my friends Blue Moon Rising and the great Sam Bush.
Brandon Ratcliff — “Tale of Two Towns”
“Are you more brave for leaving or sticking around? It’s one dot on a map but a tale of two towns.” Whoa. Brandon Ratcliff is kind of new on the scene. He’s the son of roots music royalty (his mom is Suzanne Cox of the legendary Cox Family) and the writing on his new project has impressed me so much. This song really struck me and is very relatable to anyone that grew up in a small town.
Photo Credit: Melissa DuPuy