12 year old Ashlyn Smith recognized for her flatpicking skills

Ashlyn Smith, a 12-year-old flatpicker from Louisville, KY, participated in a tribute to Tony Rice last month on the Woodsongs Old Time Radio Hour. The star-studded program featured such super pickers and singers such as Scott Vestal, John Cowan, Marty Raybon, and Tammy Rogers. The program live-streamed on the internet and will air on television in the near future.

The Woodsongs Old Time Radio Hour, created, produced, and hosted by folksinger Michael Johnathon, always includes a Woodsongs Kids section that features talented youth. This marked young Ashlyn’s sixth time to appear on the musical program, held in the Lyric Theatre in Lexington, KY. 

Johnathon explained in his introduction of Ashlyn, “We invited you special because Tony Rice was your guitar hero.”

“I’ve been a huge fan of Tony Rice ever since I started the guitar,” Ashlyn conveyed prior to her performance. “I was really disappointed that I never got to meet him. Even though he has passed away, he will continue to inspire me, and I’ll honor him. I have every one of his albums and I tried to steal his licks. I really get into it. I play for hours and hours.”

Not only did she solo flat-pick a couple of tunes in Tony Rice’s style, Big Mon and Black Mountain Rag, the pre-teen also recently became the youngest endorser of Bourgeois Guitars in Lewiston, ME. Ashlyn joins other impressive endorsers of these custom-built guitars, such as Ricky Skaggs and Trey Hensley.

“Ashlyn loves to pick with the best,” explained her paternal grandfather, Larry Smith. “She tries to match them. She always heads for the guitar booths at IBMA. She was picking with Andy Falco of the Infamous Stringdusters in the Bourgeois booth this fall. A gentleman handed her a t-shirt and said he’d like her to be part of the Bourgeois family. I thought how nice that she was getting a shirt; I had no idea that he was asking her to be an endorser. They let her pick out the style, the wood, and built a guitar to her specifications.”

Just one hour prior to her performance on Woodsongs, her specialized guitar (with Ashlyn’s initials inlayed on the neck) was delivered so she was able to play it for the first time during the broadcast.

Dana Bourgeois, founder and CEO of Bourgeois Guitars, shared, “We met Ashlyn at IBMA a few years ago when she came to our booth. It is the funnest guitar event that we go to. When she came into the booth this fall, I think she played every guitar that we had.”

Impressed with her talent, the luthier went to work. “We built her something special, a walnut, slope-shouldered dreadnought, and delivered it just in time.”

Bourgeois Artist Relations Manager, Andrew Olson, added, “We were super impressed with Ashlyn’s guitar skills. We watched her develop over the past several years. She selected the guitar she liked and we worked out the specs during IBMA. It was similar to one that we built for Trey Hensley. We wanted to build something like she fell in love with at the show (IBMA). I came home and designed the inlay (on the guitar’s neck) which is a pick with her initials inside.”

The young guitarist has been picking the six-string since she was five years old. When she was eight, Rhonda Vincent invited her to play on her show at the historic Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. Ashlyn has also played the Station Inn twice and been invited on stage by a host of A-listers including Trey Hensley & Rob Ickes, Ralph Stanley II, Kenny Smith, Josh Williams, and Molly Tuttle. She has her own band called Kentucky Borderline since members are from northern Kentucky and southern Indiana.

Smith provided a little history. “Her grandmother and I are old banjo players. We carried Ashlyn to a nearby venue. She seemed interested in the music so we got her a $10 plastic guitar. It came with a booklet. Ashlyn learned to play Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star on one string and played it on stage the next week. People clapped and she loved it.”

Smith taught his granddaughter what he knew on the instrument. At age seven, Ashlyn began guitar lessons with Jeff Guernsey, a former international touring musician. Her talented teacher has played with Vince Gill and Keith Whitley, and was Michael Cleveland’s first fiddle instructor.

The seventh grader went on to win many awards including Kentucky Farm Bureau’s city, county, and state talent contest, plus Louisville’s Got Talent with her banjoist, 15-year-old Brannock McCartan.

Following her Woodsongs performance, Ashlyn stressed, “I am so honored to be part of such a special show as Tony Rice is one of my biggest heroes. I am very glad to be included in the finale (I Saw the Light) with such a stage full of unbelievable talent, and happy to have made new friends.”

Her grandfather added, “We’re so grateful to Michael for thinking enough of her to include her on such a special show. It was really so much fun. We enjoyed getting to talk with everyone in the dressing rooms: Marty Raybon, John Cowan, and Scott Vestal. A lot of them know Ashlyn’s friend and guitar teacher, Jeff Guernsey.”

Johnathon praised his young special guest for her dedication to her craft. “I am so happy to see this 12-year-old pick up the mantle and carry it on.”

No doubt that Tony Rice would be pleased, too.

WoodSongs is a live audience celebration of grassroots music and the artists who make it. The musical variety show airs on 537 radio stations from Australia to Ireland, on American Forces Radio Network twice each weekend in 177 nations, every military base and US Naval ship in the world, and in millions of TV homes on PBS and RFD-TV.

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About the Author

Sandy Hatley

Sandy Chrisco Hatley is a free lance writer for several NC newspapers and Bluegrass Unlimited magazine. As a teenager, she picked banjo with an all girl band called the Happy Hollow String Band. Today, she plays dobro with her husband's band, the Hatley Family.