The Voice winner Chevel Shepherd stands poised to become Generation Z’s newest country music star.
The seven-piece country band onstage is rehearsing a mix of covers and originals during their sound check this afternoon at the 700-seat auditorium in Las Vegas, New Mexico. They kick off with Loretta Lynn’s “You’re Lookin’ at Country,” followed by Patsy Montana’s “I Want to Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart.”
Right up front at the microphone, calling out the tunes, is the band’s main attraction. She stands just 4-foot-11 without boots, with a head of long, dark ringlets and piercing blue eyes. Clad in a gray Hollister pullover, black cut-off shorts, and sneakers, The Voice’s 2018 winner Chevel Shepherd is the night’s headliner. She’s got a classic honky-tonk sound with a strong, raspy voice that projects. And she’s not holding back, even though this is just a rehearsal. “Let’s do your song,” she tells lead guitarist Garrett Young. They launch into an original country-rocker called “Get Gone.”
The energy level is pumped up now, and a longhaired fellow boogies through the empty auditorium. When the song ends, he yells, “AC/DC!” The guy’s just kidding — he’s Robert Shepherd, Chevel’s dad. Everyone here knows Chevel’s mom, Julie Shepherd, is the country music aficionado whom Chevel takes after. Robert restores hot rods and motorcycles for a living, and Julie used to work for the Department of Motor Vehicles. They settled in outdoors-oriented Farmington, New Mexico — while also running a speedboat business in Florida on the side — and raised five kids. Chevel is their youngest, named after the classic muscle car the Chevrolet Chevelle.
Shepherd, who turned 17 on June 18, began singing at age 2 and was on the radio at 8. She came to national fame in late 2018 when, coached by Kelly Clarkson, she won Season 15 of the television singing competition The Voice. It was Shepherd’s second attempt at making the show. She had tried out two years earlier and was rejected. After the setback, she reminded herself she was still young and had time to improve as a singer. “I worked really, really hard,” she says. “And then I went back and won the whole show, which is insane.”
Her rendition of the Band Perry’s “If I Die Young” at the blind auditions convinced three of the coaches to turn their chairs for her. With just minutes to choose among them, she says, “Something inside my heart and my gut told me to go with Kelly.”
Cue kismet. Clarkson guided Shepherd through the rest of the competition. “She has always told me to be myself. To have fun. To not worry about what people think of my performance. She said, ‘Don’t hold your voice back. Show people who you are.’ She worked with me on each song. She said, ‘Don’t worry if you’re going to go home or stay on the show. Just have fun and do your best,’ ” Shepherd says.
Clarkson brought Shepherd the original ballad “Broken Hearts,” which Clarkson had previously considered recording herself. “She helped me let the emotion take over,” Shepherd says. Any pointers for hitting the big high notes? “She said if I pointed up or bent my knees a little bit and took a big breath, I’d hit the note.”
It was Clarkson who dubbed her protégée the “Country Tinkerbell,” while Blake Shelton called Shepherd “Sis,” and Adam Levine was still calling Shepherd months later.
Counting Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, and Carrie Underwood as her biggest influences, Shepherd’s goal now is to bring back “the older type of country music: classic country.” She’s planning a debut album, with Clarkson helping on song selection.
Before The Voice, Shepherd’s life consisted of rising at 5:30 a.m. to feed her family’s horses, dogs, and cats; attending high school; barrel racing; singing at weddings, funerals, and radio stations; fixing hot rods with her dad; and working as a tour guide at the family’s Florida speedboat business.
Since The Voice, she’s performed for thousands at an Arizona arena with Clarkson; walked the red carpet with Clarkson at the Academy of Country Music Awards in an Alexander McQueen floral gown that Clarkson’s stylist secured for her; attended Loretta Lynn’s birthday bash in Nashville; hired the Garrett Young Collective as her backup band and memorized 80 songs with them; attracted 119,000 followers on Instagram and another 32,000 on Twitter; and is prepping to open for Little Big Town, while also considering starring in a Christian movie.
Right now, with the sound check finished, everyone’s diving into platters of fruit and Subway sandwiches backstage, but Shepherd’s not eating yet. First she’s autographing posters. Then she has a set list to write for the night. And next?
“I want a tour bus or a big van pulling a trailer with our equipment and merch and stuff,” she says. “I want to tour the U.S. I want to show people why I love country music and spread the love I have for it. I grew up with country. Country music tells a story, and it can get you through everything — when you’re sad, when you’re heartbroken. It always tells a story you can relate to.”
The first songs I sang were: “Before He Cheats” by Carrie Underwood and “Last Dollar (Fly Away)” by Tim McGraw.
My current playlist consists of: “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’” by Loretta Lynn, “Slow Burn” by Kacey Musgraves, “Forever and Ever Amen” by Randy Travis, “Amarillo by Morning” by George Strait, “Crazy” by Patsy Cline, “9 to 5” by Dolly Parton.
What I play loud to psych myself up: “Boot Scootin’ Boogie” by Brooks & Dunn and “Redneck Woman” by Gretchen Wilson.
My dream duet would be: “Coal Miner’s Daughter” with Loretta Lynn!
My favorite pets are: Horses! I love Friesians and Morgans. We used to have eight horses and I would barrel race. I ride Western and bareback. Now we have four dogs — two border collies named Pepper and Cash, a mini Australian shepherd named Gracie, and a Doberman named Shadow — and four cats.
My hangouts in Farmington, New Mexico, are: Animas Valley Mall, Boot Barn, Buckle, Texas Roadhouse, Starbucks, and Durango Joes Coffee.
My Albuquerque hangout is: The Wild Rose for their Double D Ranch clothes. I could spend my whole life in that store!
In Santa Fe, I go to: Back at the Ranch for the boots I designed.
When I tour, I’m going to: Nashville because that’s the country city and I love that place!
When I get my tour bus: It will have enough room for my band and me, and I want my name on the side. [Look for that bus — featuring the photo on page 124 — during her tour with Little Big Town.]
I usually perform in: Prom dresses from Sherri Hill paired with cowboy boots.
Kelly Clarkson is: Easy to be yourself around. She’s funny, she’s relatable. She’s just herself and so easy to get along with. We text each other. She likes the red heart emoticon. I like the emoji with the star eyes.
People are surprised that: I am so little!
My guilty pleasure is: Milkshakes and ice cream. But dairy gets to me because I’m a singer.
The TV shows I lose myself in are: Friends and Riverdale.
I spent my $100,000 prize money from The Voice on: I didn’t. I’m saving it.
The best advice I’ve ever gotten is: To be myself.
Photography and styling: Michael & Shelle Neese/Studio Seven Productions
From the August/September 2019 issue.