If you didn’t know better, you might think Ashley McBryde was an overnight success. Girl Going Nowhere, her 2018 major label debut, received the sort of accolades and awards that many musicians only dream of. In addition to scoring McBryde a Grammy nomination for Best Country Album in 2019, it was championed by Rolling Stone, NPR, and The New York Times (among others). Perhaps most impressively, it helped her win the New Artist of the Year award at last year’s CMAs.
But McBryde’s success story was far from overnight. She released her first album nearly 15 years ago! That first, eponymous effort was released independently at the start of 2006. A year later, she moved to Nashville from small town Arkansas to pursue a career in music. For the next decade, McBryde released new music only sporadically but toured relentlessly, mainly playing clubs and biker bars all over the South. In 2017, her hard work finally paid off. Her song “A Little Dive Bar in Dahlonega” got a mention in the New York Times, and country megastar Eric Church invited her onstage at one of his concerts. People were starting to take notice of McBryde in a big way. And with the release of Girl Going Nowhere the following year, she arrived in earnest.
Now, McBryde is back with her official sophomore set. Never Will, which arrived in April, proves that her previous album was no fluke. Once again working with producer Jay Joyce (and a stellar band), McBryde delivers an excellent album that splits the difference between rock and roll and traditional country. The wonderfully titled “One Night Standards” (which was the disc’s first single) should, in fact, be a standard: it’s a no-holds-barred look at casual sex from a woman’s point of view. The title track is a rocking, autobiographical statement of purpose that would make Melissa Etheridge proud. But elsewhere on the album, McBryde takes on more serious subjects. “Shut Up Sheila” and “Stone” are both moving ballads that deal with death — albeit in very different ways. Never Will has no bad songs and should make McBryde’s star ascend even higher.
I’ll start by asking about the new album, Never Will. I was wondering how it was different, and how it was similar, making this album versus Girl Going Nowhere. I know you worked with the same producer, Jay Joyce.
I get to use my guys — my band who tours [with me] all the time. Not every artist gets to do that; they don’t always get to use their guys on their record. So the two records were similar in that in both cases, it was my guys. Working with Jay is insane! He is crazy in the best possible way. He’ll take chances with you and he’ll ask you to take chances that might make you uncomfortable at first. Like, he may go to the bass player and say, “I wish you would try playing it like this” — and he’ll make a strange metaphor but you know what he means. He has the ability to pull things out of you [that] you didn’t even know you could do.
And they’re different in that we really tried to stick more to the country side of things on the first record. We had to make an important statement. You know, we’re a country band and here we are and here’s a snapshot of us. But we really have a lot of rock and roll tendencies. So with the second record, we kind of leaned into that [more]. If you’re gonna do it, don’t kinda do it: do it all the way. Turn it up loud.
I want you to take me back to Arkansas — both to find out a little about what it was like growing up there. And also [because] I have a couple of friends from Arkansas here in New York City.
I grew up in a little cattle farm in the Ozark mountains. We actually lived between two towns. But my address said Mammoth Spring — which is absolutely beautiful. Mammoth Spring State Park in Arkansas is this gigantic spring, and it pumps millions of gallons per hour! This thing is huge! The water is so deep and it gets that kind of really dark turquoise color. It’s breathtaking!
Really, really small town. There wasn’t a stoplight! There was one restaurant in Mammoth Spring, called Fred’s Fish House. I still stop there! if I have the chance, every time I get [near] Mammoth Spring, I’ll stop and eat hushpuppies at Fred’s Fish House. You know, our driveway — from our house to the highway, was two and a half miles of red dirt. And at the end of our little dirt road, before the highway, was a little church. That’s where we went to church. It sounds kinda backwards and sheltered, but it was a really nice, insulated way to grow up… I didn’t have anything to distract me from my love of music.
I’ll circle back to the album. A couple of songs stood out to me. I wanted to ask you about the title track, which feels like an anthem. Tell me a little about “Never Will.”
That song is unique on the record in that it’s got — what, six cowriters? Blue Foley and Chris Harris and myself were writing one day. We’d already completed one song and then our lead guitar player, Matt [Helmkamp], sent us a little voice memo on his phone. He was like, “Hey, man, I came up with this cool riff.” We were like, “Okay. It seems repetitive. It’s gotta be the same thing over and over.” And then we finally figured out that itwasn’t the same thing over and over: it was I didn’t, I don’t and I never will. And we thought, “Well, that’s a really cool statement — but I never will what?” (laughter)
We really had to dig deep… We didn’t mean to write a sequel to “Girl Going Nowhere” but that’s kind of what happened. Because in “Girl Going Nowhere,” you had these people that were telling you, “You’re never gonna be able to do this.” And then in “Never Will,” you’ve got that same cast of characters — the same naysayers that you always had. They said you were never gonna do it, and then you started playing in bars. Then they go, “Yeah, but you’re just playing in bars.” Then you have a little bit of success with that. Then they go, “Right. You’re doin’ okay but you’re probably an asshole now.” So you can’t win.
Then you have a little more success and they’re like, “All of this is gonna go to your head and change you fundamentally as a person.” And you’re like, “For the love of God! Is there anything I can do to not have naysayers?” [But] that’s never gonna happen. So what we promised each other as a band, the day we recorded it, [is] that we don’t read the comments. And we don’t pay attention to anything but making cool music together.
Tell me a little about “One Night Standards.” It’s interesting, even now, to hear that sentiment expressed by a woman.
Yeah, I think it’s been awhile since we had a song like that. It [was just] Miss Loretta’s birthday. She was the kind of woman who would say something like that. When we got done writing it, I said, “Man, I really like this song but I don’t know if anybody’s gonna let me cut it.” And Shane [McAnally] said, “You have to cut it! You’re the only person in this town with balls big enough.” And I was like, “Oh!”
It was so much fun to write that song. The phrase “One Night Standards” just happened in conversation, while we were writing the song. Initially, we were writing it to be about an airport hotel. And we couldn’t figure out why the hook wasn’t hitting the way we wanted it to hit. It should be like a gut punch. And I said, “There’s a reason, when you’re in a hotel, there’s two beds and one night stand. Because they’re one night standards.” And Shane said, “You said ‘standards!’ It was like a big lightbulb went off in the room, and the rest of the song came together.
People have said, “Are you totally comfortable with this song and its message?” I’m like, “Yeah!” If guys can sing about hooking up on tailgates with girls, why can’t I be honest about it? It’s not that big a deal.
One of the songs that’s completely different on the record — and kind of sad — is “Stone.” I wasn’t really sure who that one was written for.
Right. Most of the time, you’ll hear Nicolette Hayford’s name next to mine; we write together a whole bunch. I wrote “One Night Standards” and I wrote “Stone” with her. And we are both members — this is gonna sound really cold and crass — but we’re both members of the Dead Brothers Club. Her brother died about four years ago, mine died a year and a half ago. They died in very different ways [but] they were both army veterans.
I wanted to write a song about my brother Clay because I was like, “I don’t know how else to deal with this! It doesn’t have to be a good song but we need to write something. We gotta write this off my chest.” I was really, really angry at the time. Nicolette said, “I’m not gonna let you write an angry song about your brother.” And she got me laughing. When I laughed, I sounded like my brother — and it made me cry! I just heard Clay’s voice when I was laughing. And she said, “Oh my God. You didn’t pay attention to how alike you two were until he was gone. That’s why you’re so angry, so that’s where we should start. What other things do you do that are like him?” When I get nervous, I kind of sweat inside or I’ll pace back and forth in the room — and that’s a Clay posture as well.
I’m 36 and he was 53, so quite a big age gap [between] the oldest and the youngest kids [in my family]. But it was really helpful to write that song. It was Nicolette’s idea to talk about our brothers as being the person who taught us what rocks do what. There’s throwing ones and rolling ones — and gettin’ us to open up was like gettin’ blood from one. So it was like, “Wow, what a cool way to frame our brothers.” You know, most songs that are about a loss like that are “I’m so devastated. This is a loss I will never recover from. The end.” And what we tried to do — it doesn’t matter who you lost. Whether it was a sibling, or a [lover] or a friend. [But] when you can kind of recognize things that you do — I mean, you [probably] have mannerisms that are a lot like some of your friends. And [they’ll] go, “Oh! I just did a Dave thing. Or I just held my hands exactly the way my mother does.” Whatever. Instead of just being completely devastated at the loss, it’s nice to go, “I lost my brother but I didn’t lose all of him.” So even though he’s gone, that gives [me] a nice way to keep part of him with me.
It’s lovely. I didn’t know that and I’m sorry for your loss.
That’s okay. I’m very open about it. I think if I wasn’t, it would probably eat me up.
Tell me about some of the women who have influenced you over the years — either musically or in general.
I’m glad you said “or in general.” Because a lot of times, people ask me who influences are. They wanna hear me say Dolly Parton [and] of course she was an influence in my life. A big one. But Carol Burnett was a giant influence in my life! I used to watch Mama’s House and The Carol Burnett Show. A lot of my stage banter and presence is from watching those improv skit shows that she would do. She taught me everything I know about improv. The first rule is “never say no.” You know, it can be very intimidating to be in an arena full of 23,000 people. What do you say to ’em? Well, you say whatever you want!
Dolly is another one that taught me. I had this live record of hers. And I would listen to it — all the banter in between the tracks. There was no “How y’all doing?” [or] “Thank you, Cincinnati!” and all that. She might say, “You know, I broke a nail opening the fridge yesterday. And I cursed out loud!” She would just say whatever the hell was on her mind! So both of those women helped me in that way.
Of course, my mother is a shoo-in. She’s the strongest, kindest, most amazing person in the world. She taught me from a really young age that you can measure a person’s strength by the size of their kindness. You can measure the strength of a man by how gently he holds a child. That kind of thing.
Tricia Yearwood, Patty Loveless, Lee Ann Womack… These were women that were just powerhouses when I was growing up. I’m so glad that I was a teenager in the ‘90s. [I was] really sinking my teeth into country music and there were so many women to choose from.
One [last] thing… Another writer said something [about how] you worked for years and years on your music and then became an overnight success. I’m sure the years of paying dues were hard. But was there an upside to having it happen a little later?
Oh, absolutely! I had the benefit of knowing who I was and what I sounded like. Not even just as an artist — who I was as a woman. What things I want, what things I don’t want. When you play in biker bars and trucker bars for over a decade — I’ve gotten in some pretty sticky situations. But I also got myself out of them. There’s a kind of thickness of the skin that you develop doing that. I wasn’t playing bar shows because if I play one thousand bar shows, I could have a record deal; I was playing because I like playing! And I was gonna play anywhere they didn’t throw me out. When you do that for over a decade, that’s better than a college education. No one can ever take that away from you. And when I’m standing in the Ryman Circle of the Grand Ole Opry, I can stand there confidently, knowing that I earned it. It’s not an arrogance; it’s just a stillness.
Top video via YouTube / Ashley McBryde
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Dave Steinfeld has written about women in popular music more than any male journalist in America. In addition to BUST, he has contributed to Curve, Bitch, Rockrgrl, Essence and all the major radio networks. He grew up in Connecticut and is currently based in New York City.