With most of Nashville sheltered in place due to coronavirus, Ashley McBryde has been doing the same thing as many Americans: watching the hit Netflix show Tiger King.
“I think I lost IQ points from watching that,” she says with a laugh, calling from her home in Nashville.
McBryde had already completed several shows on her headlining One Night Standards Tour, which launched in January, when venues began closing due the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus, forcing artists to come off the road and shelter in place in their homes. But McBryde has also been using the time at home to listen deeply to new music, such as the latest releases from her fellow singer-songwriters Brandy Clark and Kelsea Ballerini.
“If I were touring right now, I wouldn’t have had the time to listen to those albums the way a record should be listened to,” she says. “We forget sometimes because we are in a singles-minded world, that an album is put together in a certain order for a reason. There’s an art and a story that you discover if you can sit there in one sitting and listen to it front to back.”
Music fans looking to do this kind of deep listening would do well to add Never Will, McBryde’s latest Warner Music Nashville album to the mix. The album released Friday (April 3).
The album abounds with top-shelf songwriting, each track a snapshot torn from or inspired by real life scenarios of betrayal, struggle, hope, defiance, and dreams fulfilled, sounding more like confessional successors to the works of Merle Haggard’s plainspoken, clear-eyed songs or Loretta Lynn’s homespun, autobiographical lyrics.
McBryde’s 2018 Warner Music Nashville debut album featured what became her signature track “Girl Goin’ Nowhere,” a deeply autobiographical (and 2x Grammy-nominated) song about listening to your heart instead of the small-town naysayers. The song gets a reprise of sorts on the new album, with the defiant lyrics and acoustic-rock of “Never Will.” The song’s spacious production paired with McBryde’s frank wisdom recalls the works of Mary Chapin Carpenter’s early hits. She doubles down on her fiery self-belief, offering a siren call for those intent on achieving their dreams on their own terms.
The album launches with a shot of hard-earned optimism in the anthem “Hang In There, Girl,” inspired by a teenage girl McBryde saw while taking a drive down a remote highway near her home.
“When I saw that girl that day on Highway 267, she was out by the mailbox and she was just kicking the dirt and looked frustrated at the world. She was probably about 15. I really did want to stop and tell her, ‘I grew up really similarly to you and this is what you turn into. You are an adult, you have a job, you have a car, and I know it sucks right now, but you are going to be OK. I know it feels like the world is teeny-tiny, but I promise you it’s big, and you get to find out.’ We looked at starting the record with ‘One Night Standards’ and [McBryde’s manager] John Peets and I, we would each listen to the record in different orders. We put ‘Hang In There, Girl’ first, because we deal with themes of death and hurt and betrayal on the album, so we wanted it to start with a message of hope and perseverance.”
Never Will takes on classic country themes throughout, but with each, she offers an unexpected perspective. In “Voodoo Doll,” a betrayed woman feels each of her lover’s affairs as if they were happening to her. In the rocking revenge murder track “Martha Divine,” the protagonist in the song is a daughter getting revenge on her father’s mistress. “Sparrow” ruminates on the tug-of-war familiar to many a dreamer, caught between the call of freedom and longing to return home to familiar faces. Her current single, “One Night Standards,” which has entered the Top 30 on the country radio charts, is a classic turn-of-a-phrase country song, which finds her embracing a one-night stand with no illusions.
McBryde and her band arranged all the songs on the album together, embracing a more diverse palette of sounds.
“Even before we started making this record we started noticing with who we have in the band now, we are a rock band in a country world, so we leaned into that. Whatever sound a song needed, I wanted to do it on purpose and I wanted to do it louder. If it’s going to be bluegrass, I want it to be all the way bluegrass. If it’s going to be rock and roll, I want that all the way. Jay is the perfect person to hear you and keep you from making a mistake with one of those choices. When I was a young girl, I sounded a bit more on the Patty Loveless, Terri Clark, Lee Ann Womack side, and that part of me will always exist but with the rock influences, on this record it was fun to just open up that whole bag of tricks and use them.”
McBryde and her band go full-tilt into airy bluegrass harmonies on “Velvet Red,” piecing together a story of the results of young, forbidden love. The song features lush harmonies from Chris Harris, Dan Smalley, Blue Foley and Trick Savage.
“I like to have people stop by when we are recording and I don’t necessarily like for them to announce when they are stopping by. While we recorded this, Trick Savage and Dan Smalley, who I wrote the song with, and Blue Foley had popped in and it so happened that was the song we were doing.”
A pair of songs on the album–“Shut Up Sheila” and “Stone”—explore the intricacies of processing death. Perhaps the album’s most stark, open song is “Stone,” which McBryde and Nicollette Hayford penned not long after McBryde’s older brother, William Clayton McBryde, died in 2018 from suicide at age 53.
“I was madder than a hornet the day we wrote that song,” she recalls. “My knee-jerk reaction is to go to anger first and if we weren’t going to write it from an anger standpoint then as we wrote those verses I thought, ‘It is about losing my brother, but it’s also about finding out that I didn’t lose all of him.’”
Several of the lyrics detail the mannerisms she shares with her late brother on lines like I sway like you/When I get nervous/I’m shy like you, but most folks couldn’t tell/I get the same shade of red as you did when I’m angry.
“He has one son, Bradley, who is 26 now,” McBryde recalls. “Bradley just got married several weeks ago and I was at the wedding. Clay had this very peculiar way he would say Brad’s name. And I’ll say it the same way and my brother Daniel will say it that way a lot, just to kind of hear Clay’s voice again. So I was glad we got to capture the fact that even though he’s gone, there is still a bit of him hanging around.”
She credits another Nashville songwriter’s 2011 album for helping to bolster her confidence to write from such a personal space.
“I’ve always believed that you should be honest and that’s part of the appeal of country music, so I’ve never been scared of being pretty honest. Four or five years ago I heard Travis Meadows’ album Killin’ Uncle Buzzy. A friend of mine played the song “Minefield.” I had never heard Travis before, but I heard these lyrics that were written by a recovering alcoholic who is now going back into the world that caused his illness and he’s got to do it without help. That was the kind of honesty I discovered that day. This guy is naked in his lyrics, so I had to change my thought from that record forward. Can I be more honest? Is there anything else there, can you rip your chest open? Because if you’re willing to do that, that gets to help somebody else.”
“Shut Up Shelia,” one of the few songs on the album McBryde didn’t have a hand in writing, also harnesses the anger and pain a death can bring, but this time, that anger is channeled at others who object to way a family processes a loss.
“When they wrote that song, it was on the heels of an actual encounter she had had in her family. There really is a Shelia and she’s going to hear the record, and there’s a line in the song that says This is a family thing/and ain’t nobody bought you a ring, well fast forward, they did buy her a ring and she is officially in their family,” she says with a nervous laugh, “I’ve thought, ‘She’s gonna be so mad,’ but I love the honesty in the song. Usually around holidays, there’s some family member that you just want to say that to and not everybody gets to and not everybody has the balls to write a song like that. I thought, ‘If she’s got the balls to write it, I’ve got the balls to sing it, for sure.
“Because not everybody deals with things in the same way, and it’s alright to deal with it however you deal with it.”
The same could be said for fame and success, topics she tackles in the album’s title track “Never Will.” McBryde has been releasing music since 2006, issuing two independent projects before releasing her debut major label project Girl Going Nowhere in 2018. Since then, she’s graduated from playing tiny clubs to headlining bigger venues and opening for artists including Eric Church and Luke Combs. She is the ACM’s reigning New Female Vocalist of the Year and the CMA’s New Artist of the Year. Success may mean reworking her shows for larger stages and allowing for more time spent experimenting in the studio, but McBryde takes issue with those who think success means she’s not the same person and she confronts it directly on “Never Will.”
Money and fame it’ll go to your head if you get it/They never did understand the reasons we did it/I can call out the names and the faces of the people who said it/Oh, but honestly, I don’t want to give any credit, she sings.
“A couple of days ago I had some friends come over—responsibly—and leave me some corn hole boards on my front porch because I’m bored out of my mind at home, and I was in sweatpants and cowboy boots and a T-shirt and that’s just how I am and if you don’t like it, don’t look. Things like that never change, even on tour. If we go to the beach or go to the lake, I’ll keep my boots on. People are like ‘Damn it, Ashley!’ but this is how I’ve always been, these are the shoes I own,” she laughs, before growing more serious.
“The same people who said I was never going to get to do this, or that I was never going to go anywhere, those are the same people that now say, ‘Oh, well now you’re probably an asshole. Now you’re probably just a bad person,’” McBride says. “You just have to block out the noise.
“Also I think if you stop keeping people around you who aren’t afraid to piss you off, that’s dangerous. I think ‘yes men’ are dangerous. One of the guys in my band that I trust so much is Quinn Hill. When I have an issue with something in the band I’ll go to him and say, ‘Just argue with me.’ Because he won’t back down. If I’m wrong, I’ll see that I’m wrong and if he’s wrong, he’ll see that he’s wrong. I think it’s important to not be afraid to piss each other off, if it’s about honesty.”
The songs on Never Will have plenty of nuance and depth on their own, but McBryde took it to another level by dreaming up a series of videos for “One Night Standards,” “Martha Divine” and “Hang In There Girl,” complete with recurring characters. McBryde also tries her hand at acting in the videos.
“It’s fun because if you listen to those songs and haven’t seen the videos, you’ll get the message we intended, but if you do watch, it’s a whole different way to interpret them. I was on the bus and beverages were involved, and I was listening to the album. I keep a sketchpad in my room on the bus and I wrote all the characters down on one side and wrote song titles on the other side and tried to link characters to songs that weren’t theirs. Sure Martha will appear in “Martha Divine” but she’ll also be in “One Night Standards.” And what role will she play? There may have been somebody in the background that you won’t even realize is Shelia until later when we do the ‘Shut Up Shelia’ video,” she hints.
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