Ashley McBryde: Girl Going Places

Country-rock singer/songwriter Ashley McBryde was born in 1983 in Arkansas and raised near Saddle and Mammoth Spring, Arkansas. With a population of less than 1000 persons, Mammoth Spring is nearly the same distance – about 140 miles – from Springfield, Missouri; Memphis, Tennessee and Little Rock, Arkansas. The nearest Interstate highway is some 75 miles to its southeast. Located just down the road from Mammoth Spring, unincorporated Saddle is so tiny that census figures aren’t even available.

In other words, Ashley McBryde comes from rural America. And the heartfelt, street-level lyrics of her original songs reflect that unalloyed background. She’s less slick than many of her Nashville contemporaries; that is likely one of the secrets to her success as both a concert draw and a recording artist. She doesn’t steer completely clear of cliché; doing that would place her outside the framework of today’s country music scene. But there’s a welcome authenticity to her music, one that makes listening a rewarding experience.

McBryde self-released her self-titled debut long-player in 2006, not long after attending Arkansas State University. Shortly after its release, she took a path followed by many ambitious and aspiring country artists: she moved to Nashville. By 2009 McBryde had taken first place in the fiercely competitive Country Showdown two years in a row. With the wind at her back, she recorded a second self-released album, Elsebound. Turning her focus to live performance, she hit the road, sharpening her craft. Not long after self-releasing a third set (2016’s Jalopies and Expensive Guitars EP), McBryde attracted major label attention, and signed with Warner Music Nashville.

In light of her hard work, determination and creativity, the title of McBryde’s major label debut would seem more than a bit ironic. Released in 2017, Girl Going Nowhere found her co-writing with Nashville colleagues across 11 tracks. A highlight of the disc is “A Little Dive Bar in Dahlonega,” named among the best songs of the year by both The New York Times and Rolling Stone. Released as a single, the tune rose to #30 on Billboard’s country charts.

In his glowing, four-star review of Girl Going Nowhere for, critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine praised McBryde’s “subtle songwriting,” adding that “the production, along with her powerhouse voice, demand attention. Once McBryde has that, she gives you plenty of reasons to return to this exceptional record again and again.”

Those sentiments were echoed by many other reviewers. Covering the album for Sounds Like Nashville, Annie Reuter characterized it as “just a taste what’s to come from McBryde.” She also noted that praise for the Arkansas native came from such high profile fellow artists as Garth Brooks, Miranda Lambert and Eric Church. The latter invited McBryde onstage at one of his concerts, giving the Arkansas native a boost. But she was already on her way up.

Girl Going Nowhere was nominated at the 61st Annual Grammy Awards for Best Country Album; the award went to Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour. But McBryde was nominated twice at that year’s Academy of Country Music (ACM) Awards: Female Artist of the Year and New Female Artist of the Year. She took home the trophy for the latter. That same year McBryde won New Artist of the Year at the Country Music Association (CMA) Awards.

The history of popular music is littered with tales of the so-called “sophomore slump.” The thinking goes like this: an artist has his or her entire life to come up with good songs for their debut album on a major label. If it’s at all successful and they get an opportunity to make a second record, they usually have but a few months to create new material. And against the backdrop of a touring schedule in promotion of their first record, that challenge is only increased.

But when she returned in 2020 with Never Will, McBryde went against that trend. Achieving widespread critical acclaim, the record – featuring 11 songs, all but one of which was co-written by McBryde – was named among the year’s best by Billboard, Rolling Stone, Spin, Stereogum and music trade publication Variety. Yet McBryde didn’t need those accolades to boost her confidence; she hit the road in support of the album on her One Night Standards Tour in January of that year, more than two months before the album even hit the shelves.

The tour was named after the lead-off single from Never Will. Released the previous September, “One Night Standards” showcases McBryde’s wit and sassy style; it’s the tale of a woman in a hotel room with a man, with her laying out the ground rules for a one-night stand. The single soared to the #11 spot on Billboard’s country airplay chart, and climbed all the way to the #1 position on Canada’s country chart.

Never Will’s second single was released in October 2020, by which time most concert tours had been curtailed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. But even from their armchairs, the critics and public alike showered praise upon “Martha Divine,” a tale of a young woman upset upon realizing that her mother’s boyfriend is being unfaithful. In her first-person approach to the lyrics, McBryde makes it clear that she’s not prepared to be a passive bystander, and sets out to right the egregious wrong.

That forced absence from the touring circuit led McBryde to record and rush-release an EP (extended play) titled Never Will: Live from a Distance. Recorded live, albeit without an audience, McBryde and her band – guitarists Chris Harris and Mark Helmkamp, Christian Sancho on bass and drumemr Quinn Hill – run through six of the second album’s songs, presenting them in the arrangements concertgoers would have witnessed had the tour been allowed to continue. To promote the May 2021 EP release, McBryde and her band premiered a live concert on her YouTube channel.

In every single year after her debut release, McBryde has been honored by multiple nominations and/or rewards in recognition of her artistry. Between 2020 and 2023, McBryde scored a staggering 26 nominations, variously from the ACM, CMA and The Recording Academy (Grammys). She earned five trophies from among that lot; her most recent and prestigious award came in February 2023 when “Never Wanted to Be That Girl,” a duet with Carly Pearce, won the Grammy Award for Best Country Duo/Group Performance. The pair beat out the illustrious duo of Robert Plant and Alison Kraus, frequent nominees Brothers Osborne and even country icons Dolly Parton and Reba McEntire.

And McBryde’s creative ambitions are seemingly without bounds. With well-earned critical and commercial momentum, she had quietly been working on not one, but two new albums. She delivered both to her label at the same time, and Lindeville was released in September 2022. Leading a six-person songwriting team that included fellow critics’ darling Brandy Clark, McBryde crafted a work of the sort more commonly associated with the world of rock: a concept album.

The record’s 13 songs are an interwoven collection of wry vignettes and character studies, suffused with wit and humor. Exploring the spectrum of human emotions, Lindeville represents the latest in an unbroken string of creative triumphs from the young woman from Arkansas. And with another album already completed and waiting in the wings, the future looks brighter than ever for Ashley McBryde.