Ohio singer balances farming, country music careers

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Ashley Best, a farmer and country musicians, has noticed similarities between farming and music, one of them being the often uphill-battle people in both industries face. (Sarah Donkin photo)

CADIZ, Ohio — It was an early morning in the summer of 2006. Ashley Best sat on his porch. He was hung over. His wife, Beth, who he had two children with, had recently died from complications after a surgery.

The wind started blowing through a big maple tree in the yard. He started whistling a tune, then picked up the guitar he had on the porch with him.

Three minutes later, he finished writing one of the first songs he ever wrote. He titled it “Nothing Ever Seems To Do.”

Best, a country musician and farmer, started teaching himself to play guitar at 10, but he was not always a songwriter.

“When she passed away, there was a lot of anger and there was a lot of emotions,” Best said. “It [writing songs] was a way of inadvertently getting rid of it.”

For a few years, Best spent his time performing three-hour shows in local spots on top of working a separate job. At the time, he lived in Rayland, Ohio. He also made two trips to Nashville. After his wife’s death, he began turning to alcohol as a coping mechanism.

After his second trip to Nashville, he realized something had to change.

“If I would have continued on like that, I would have been dead,” Best said. “I came home to the farm … I had to change my whole entire environment.”

He moved from Rayland back to Cadiz to help on his father’s dairy farm. He also decided to take a break from music.

“I had to get myself better,” Best said. “I decided, let’s milk some cows, get back to the simpler way of life.”

Over 10 years later, Best stands behind a microphone at The Thirsty Squirrel in Wintersville July 27.

The audience claps when Best ends an upbeat, original song.

“I went a long time before anyone clapped at my songs,” Best said. “It just goes to show, you keep at it, they start clapping.”

Influences

Later, at The Thirsty Squirrel, he chats with members of his audience between songs. Some of them know him as Todd, but he has chosen to use his middle name, Ashley, for his music.

“I say it’s to keep my personality separated. When I’m at work or on the farm, I’m Todd, but when I’m singing, I’m Ashley,” Best explained.

Earlier that day, Best arrived at Tony’s Treasures, a local recording studio, in a small red pickup truck with hay bales sitting in the back. He wears the same work boots and worn jeans he dressed up later with a cowboy hat and button-down shirt for his live performance.

Best is far from a static performer. He moves around the small space at the front of the room he has claimed as his stage. He mixes covers of popular songs in with his own original music throughout the set.

“At my show, you will hear John Legend, Prince, old Hank Williams … but I put my own twist on it,” he told Farm and Dairy before the show.

Best calls his style “Appalachian melting pot,” citing Dwight Yoakam as one of his main influences.

Common themes

Best farms 12 beef cows and works at Jefferson Landmark, which sells feed and farm supplies, doing “a little bit of everything.”

“The common thing between [farming and music] is: it seems like you’re constantly beating your head against the wall and going nowhere,” he said.

Best got his start in farming at 14 when his father, who grew up milking dairy cows on a farm, decided to buy farmland and start milking cows again.

The farming journey has not been easy for him and his father. They sold the dairy herd in 2002 and tried raising beef cattle for a few years. Then, they sold the beef cattle and tried dairy again. Finally, in 2015, they sold the dairy herd. Best bought a small herd of beef cattle in 2017.

“I don’t think there’s enough people in this country or in this world that really truly understand where the food comes from and how hard it is to get it from the farm to the table,” Best said. “One of the things I always wanted to do with the music end of it is recognize the farmer … through each CD or album I make, I want to have something about that on there.”

Taking a break

Not long after he moved back to Cadiz to help on his father’s farm and get healthy, Best began dating Tennille, his second wife. She lived behind Jefferson Landmark and would often come in to the store.

“She was the girl next door,” Best said. “She kept coming over for two years, and we would always chit-chat.”

The two married in 2010 and now have two more children together. Best said they were both late to their own wedding because of work on the farm.

“Everybody was there except for us ‘cause we both had to milk the cows,” Best said. “They’re lucky we didn’t show up in our barn clothes.”

Best believes his writing has grown over the years.

“I can now write a song that’s not about me,” he said. “I’m getting better.”

Round two

In 2016, Best got into music for the second time. A friend of Best’s who was organizing a benefit wanted entertainment at the event and asked Best to perform.

“Once I was up there, I was like, yep, could see myself heading back into this,” Best said.

His children, who had heard him sing, encouraged him to try out for The Voice.

“I used to sing for the cows all the time,” Best said.

Best auditioned in Nashville. While the judge he auditioned for liked his sound, they did not have room for him to advance past the first audition. There were 5,000 performers auditioning that day, and according to Best, every one of them could sing. He decided he had a better chance of success on his own.

In his first round with music, Best recorded a CD in a basement with a man who could play the other instruments on the CD for him.

“It was cheap, and so was the recording,” Best said.

He performed a total of five times before deciding he had to record again.

Recording

Determined to record a higher-quality second CD, Best spent over a month listening to demos online from almost 200 studios in and around Nashville. He started getting suggestions online, and Tony’s Treasures came up. He listened to the studio’s demos and liked the sound better than any of the other studios he heard.

“Tony’s Treasures, where’s that? Oh, Cadiz, Ohio, seven miles from my farm. I was like … this is where I gotta record at,” said Best.

The studio helped him find professional local musicians to play the guitar, bass, drums, steel guitar and fiddle on his CD.

Now, Best performs locally and out of state. Touring is not easy as a farmer.

Which comes first? “I’ve asked myself the question — are you a farmer that sings, or are you a singer that farms? — ‘cause at some point, something has to come first,” said Best.

He has relied on local farmers, many of whom he knows from working at the feed store, to help him when farm life conflicts with music life.

Best has booked shows not only in Ohio, but also in other states including Texas, Oklahoma and Alabama. He also works with a radio promoter to get his songs played on radio stations across the country.

Best has had songs played on five Texas radio stations and performed one show in Texas, despite people who told him he would never get on the radio or the stage in that state.

“When you tell me I can’t, I will prove that I will,” Best said.

End goals

Back to that question he asks himself about farming and singing.

Best wants to make music his full-time job, but to him, that does not necessarily mean becoming a household name.

“To be a huge success, I really don’t care,” he said, if it was a venue with a few people or a couple thousand — as long as he was making a living.

He also hopes to have enough success to take time off to spend with family.

“I’ll always have my foot in the farm somewhere,” Best said.

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Reporter Sarah Donkin is a former 4-Her and a Mount Union graduate from Columbiana County, Ohio. She enjoys playing and writing music, cooking, and storytelling in many forms. She can be reached at 800-837-3419 or sarah@farmanddairy.com.

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