(Photo: Larry McCormack / The Tennessean)
NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Ashley McBryde’s knees hit the Ryman stage in Nashville, Tennessee, with a thunk.
She’d just made her debut at the historic venue during Marty Stuart’s annual Late Night Jam, and her autobiographical ballad “Girl Goin’ Nowhere” earned a standing ovation. Overwhelmed, her legs crumpled, and she was left kneeling like a supplicant before legendary country singer Connie Smith. “Connie patted me on the back of the head as if to say, ‘Bless this child with country music,’ ” McBryde remembered. “Or, ‘Get up; you’re an idiot.’ ”
In the nine months since that sweltering June night at the Mother Church, McBryde’s career has taken off in a way that influential NPR music critic Ann Powers described as “one of the most remarkable things I’ve witnessed since I moved (to Nashville) a couple years ago.”
McBryde has seen her single “A Little Dive Bar in Dahlonega” hit the charts, opened arena shows for Miranda Lambert and Luke Combs, played her first overseas shows and performed on “Late Night with Seth Meyers.”
Ashley McBryde bows down before Country Music Hall of Famer, Connie Smith, during Marty Stuart’s annual Late Night Jam on June 7 at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee.
(Photo: Larry McCormack / The Tennessean)
She’s captured thousands of new fans with forthright songwriting on topics ranging from addiction (“Livin’ Next to Leroy”) to life on the road (“Home Sweet Highway”), and her voice, which contains hints of Reba McEntire and Susan Tedeschi.
Some of those fans have half-century careers under their belts. “It’s just so refreshing to hear her and watch her,” said the Grand Ole Opry’s grande dame, Jeannie Seely. “She’s just very real, and doesn’t have a polished persona where she looks, sounds and acts like everybody else. I think she’s something the industry needs right now: a dose of reality.”
On March 30, McBryde will release her major label debut album, the country-rock gem “Girl Going Nowhere,” on Warner Music Nashville. These days, she’s living an entirely different life than the one she walked away from 11 years ago.
‘I have to go to Nashville’
McBryde, 34, grew up in Saddle, Arkansas, a no-stoplight town in the Ozarks. Its main attraction was the canoe rental joint, with its “Come Paddle at Saddle” slogan. There wasn’t much to do. But there were musical instruments at home, and she learned how to make noise on all of them.
As a kid, she was drawn to the high lonesome harmonies and precise picking of bluegrass music. By 12, she’d written her first song, and her dream of being a singer-songwriter was born.
But it didn’t take long before her dream was deflated.
In high school, her algebra teacher asked what she wanted to do for a living. McBryde replied that she wanted to write songs in Nashville.
“She looked at me in front of the whole class and said, ‘That’s stupid. That won’t happen, and you better have a really good backup plan,’ ” McBryde remembered. “I carried that for a lot of years.”
Country singer Ashley McBryde wrote her first song at the age of 12.
McBryde studied French horn at Arkansas State University and planned to be a band director after graduation because “that’s what you do,” but before too long, she was regularly making the 70-mile drive into Memphis to play music at any place that would let her, fighting to be heard over clinking bottles and conversations. Her folk-tinged sound became grittier and louder as Memphis’ rich music history seeped into her bones.
During the commute between dive bars and classrooms, one thought kept returning: “If I want to find out if I’m any good at this or not, I have to go to Nashville.”
One day in 2007, her French horn instructor stopped mid-lesson and said, “I think you need to just drop out of school and go.”
“So I did,” McBryde said. “That day.”
Girl going somewhere
For a decade, McBryde lived the life of countless singer-songwriters who come to Music City with big dreams and empty pockets.
She crashed at a friend’s apartment, worked a series of jobs and spent nights driving from gig to gig with either her beagle, Banjo, riding shotgun, or her band Deadhorse — the name is a salute to all the cover songs they’ve beaten to death over the years.
Her career started picking up in early 2017 when she signed with Q Prime management. Last April, country star Eric Church, who has the same management, invited her to see a show in Chicago and then brought her onstage to sing her song “Bible and a .44.”
“I’d never sung in an arena, never had in-ear monitors in my ears before, and I didn’t even play my own guitar,” McBryde said. “It was a trial by fire and I loved it.”
When she started work on the album that would become “Girl Going Nowhere,” she went into the studio with Jay Joyce, who has produced Church’s albums as well as releases by Emmylou Harris, Brandy Clark and Little Big Town.
Recording the album, the first McBryde has made with Deadhorse, wasn’t that different from a typical night on the road, she said. “We rehearsed for three days. Then we went in on the fourth day … and basically played a bar show all night. We left at 4 a.m. The next day, we did it again.”
The album made its way to Cris Lacy, senior vice president of A&R at Warner Music Nashville, who remembered that McBryde first caught her eye about two years ago during a show at 3rd and Lindsley: “She was so captivating onstage. Her personality was just otherworldly. She was funny and self-deprecating and honest and ballsy. … She said all the things that women think but don’t necessarily get a platform to say.”
However, Lacy said, with a few exceptions, McBryde’s music didn’t quite match “how authentic her personality was.” It felt like she was trying too hard to write what she thought would be a hit. “So,” said Lacy, “we just watched for a while.
“Then she made this record with Jay Joyce. There was so much depth, so much heart and so much truth in the lyrics. … It all came together for me.”
In September, McBryde, wearing her holey “Girl Goin’ Nowhere” T-shirt, signed a contract with the record label.
“Girl Going Nowhere” is a refreshingly unfussy album. McBryde eschews frills offstage, too. The night of her Grand Ole Opry debut in June, she entered her dressing room to find a brightly colored bouquet of … Duluth Trading Co.’s utilitarian underwear, carefully rolled and placed on rose stems by her friends. “That’s the best bouquet,” McBryde enthuses. “They don’t die (and) you can use them over and over.”
Tattoos — her latest one, a pair of aviator sunglasses and a tube of lipstick inked on her forearm, is a nod to her song “American Scandal” — snake down her arms, and before a photo shoot, she gingerly pokes at her false eyelashes as if confronting a large spider.
She’s not quite sure what to do with her hands when they’re not holding her guitar, which she’s named Dinah, and she refuses to trade her lifelong uniform of T-shirts and battered boots for Music Row glam: “I’ve been in T-shirts and jeans since I was a kid. It worked then; it works now. I don’t have to show you a bunch of my skin for you to listen to my songs. You’ll listen, or you won’t.”
People are listening. “Girl Goin’ Nowhere,” the ballad inspired by her algebra teacher, has become an anthem. Every night, she sings, “The lights come up and I hear the band/ And where they said I’d never be is exactly where I am/ I hear the crowd, I look around and I can’t find one empty chair/ Not bad for a girl goin’ nowhere.” And the audience sings along.
“I feel like I should thank her,” said McBryde of her old teacher. “Because nothing lights a fire under you like somebody saying, ‘You’re not going to be able to do it.’ ”
5 things to know about Ashley McBryde
•The Arkansas native wrote her first song when she was 12 years old.
•In college, she studied classical music and played the French horn.
•McBryde has toured with Luke Combs and Miranda Lambert.
•Her major label debut, “Girl Going Nowhere,” will be released March 30.
•It is the first album McBryde has made with her road band, Deadhorse.