The video starts with Ashley McBryde on stage alone, singing into the microphone. She’s wearing a Johnny Cash tee and a loose-fitting black vest, neither of which do much to cover her arm tattoos, of which there are lots. If I could guess, I’d say there’s a really good story behind each of them. “Don't waste your life behind that guitar,” she sings over serene, finger-plucked guitar notes. “You may get gone, but you won't get far.”
It’s the summer of 2017 and the Arkansas native is making her debut at the Grand Ole Opry, a pretty incredible place to stand and sing a song about all the people who said you’d never make it in country. On her second run through the chorus, she stops mid-couplet to let out a soft, loaded sigh. “That’s a hard line,” she says, looking down. The crowd responds with a goosebumps-inducing swell of hoots and hollers and hand-claps, and McBryde keeps going. “I hear the crowd / I look around / And I can’t find one empty chair,” she sings, smiling through tears. “Not bad for a girl goin’ nowhere.”
“Girl Goin’ Nowhere” is the title track off McBryde’s debut studio album, which is out today, about nine months after that tear-jerking Opry debut. The record is a proper introduction to a true-blue talent, one who is capable of injecting personality into all types of country songs, from a radio-ready ode for a beat-up jean jacket to a folksy ballad about loving someone so much it hurts. Here, the 34-year-old talks about spending years busting her ass in shitty dives, hitting it big with a little song about a bad day, and putting together the kind of record that’s bound to make even the bitterest non-believers swallow their tongues.
I recently watched the video of you at the Grand Ole Opry, where you're playing “Girl Goin' Nowhere.”
Oh yeah. And I cry.
Can you tell me a little bit about that moment?
Getting invited there is a big deal no matter who you are in country music, but it was a really big deal to me because I was a big fan of the Opry growing up. Everybody that saw me knew my name and thanked me for being there. They walked me around, let me look at everything, let me touch a plaque that had Barbara Mandrell's name on it. They said, "We're going to interview you in the Ryman circle. If you'll just stand in the circle we'll ask you some questions."
I was so wobbly by the time I got to the Ryman circle I just sat down. It's not an attractive angle for a camera. I was in a white T-shirt, which is like, the worst possible thing you could wear on camera. I didn't care because the gravity of the moment was way more important than, Is my glam perfect right now?
We had written that song: one, in spite of the naysayers, but two, to play it at the Opry. I'd written [the lyrics] and knew they were powerful words, but when I looked down at my old boots on that circle of oak and was about to sing the words "Step into the circle with a Gibson in my hand," that's when I knew I wasn't going to be able to hold it together. I thought, Your choices are resist that and show what a showman you are and that you can power through anything, or give into it. I thought, Why not really feel it the day you debut at the Opry, even if that means crying on stage?
What was going on in your life when you were actually writing that song?
The day Guy Clark passed away was the day we wrote “Girl Goin' Nowhere.” It was the first day I had met Jeremy Bussey, who I wrote the song with. I shouldn't have been on Instagram in the car, but I was, and someone had posted a picture of Guy that said, "Rest in peace, Mr. Clark." I thought, Oh, no. He's a hero of mine and it was on my bucket list to meet him and have a cigarette with him, or write with him if I could. I was upset.
I got to the publishing house. Of course my makeup was everywhere and Jeremy said, "Hi, I'm Jeremy. Don't worry about it. Go to the bathroom, wash your face. We'll talk you off the ledge when you get back in here." I walked in and we just started exchanging stories about what happened when he moved to Tennessee to write songs and what happened when I was younger and I told people that I was going to do that someday. He said, "Have you played the Opry yet?" It's about a year and a half before the Opry has ever heard my name, and I said, "No, but I will." He said, "I like the way you think. All we have to do is write what you want to say the very first time at the Opry. We'll just write it in such a way that Guy Clark wouldn't mind listening to it if he had to."
The song talks a bit about paying your dues with gigs in less glamorous spots. Can you talk a little about that period of your life?
Eleven years in dive bars and biker bars and trucker bars and any bar that is actually a restaurant and the title ends in “Burgers” or “Pizza.” And I wouldn't trade that for anything. It was an education, it was dues being paid, and it was me doing something I loved. I never thought about it like, How many dive bars do I have to play before I play a theater? It never crossed my mind. It was always, This is what I like to do, and if this is where I do it, that's where I do it.
It turns out, the bikers and the truckers and people in dive bars are the nicest people in the world. It was a really good way to hone my craft as a songwriter because there's nobody in a suit across a desk telling me if the song I wrote this week was good or not. If I could get people in a noisy bar to listen to it, then I was going in the right direction.
I did it alone for the most part. It was me and my dog Banjo in a Toyota Tundra. When I could, I would take the band, and then it was me, my dog Banjo, and my band in my Toyota Tundra. Even though we played some really silly stuff, we didn't care. We just wanted to make music together.
Were you surprised when “Little Dive Bar in Dahlonega” connected with people the way that it did?
Yeah. When we first picked it as a single, I was like, "Wow, I didn't realize that that song could do this. Then it started to grow legs and really resonate with people. I'm so happy we chose it as the very first single — we could've easily done “Radioland” or “American Scandal.” I think “Dahlonega” was the best introduction to this record.
I've read a little about the story behind that song, but can you tell me about it in your own words?
I had already had a bad morning. I'd already had everything bad happen that could happen by 10:00 or 11:00 a.m. Then, [co-writer Nicolette Hayford] got there and she was upset. She had her heart broken that morning after a long relationship. Then [co-writer Jesse Rice] came in an hour and a half late and either hadn't been to bed or had slept in his clothes. He said, "Y'all, I'm sorry. I dropped my phone in the toilet last night at The Tin Roof. I was not going after it." We all laughed. I said, "You know, it's just not in the air to write a song today. Let's get an 18-pack of Coors Light and sit here and drink them all and talk about our crap days together."
Then Jesse tells this story about his car breaking down outside of Atlanta. He took the Dahlonega, Georgia, exit because it was the next available off ramp for him. He went into [a bar]. He stayed and met a girl. Her name was Kendra — she's the “pretty little blonde thing” at the end of the song. They wound up getting married not long after that. All he did was stick it out on the worst day he had had, and all we did the day we wrote the song was stick it out on the worst day.
The word “Dahlonega” just sounds perfect, like, linguistically. It’s a really nice-sounding word.
Right — and nothing rhymes with Dahlonega. [laughs]. I was like, "Well, for sure it's got to be in the title of the song."
Was it kind of disorienting when people started knowing who you were?
Yeah. I just got recognized at the airport this morning. That was strange. It is disorienting. It makes my face turn red. I would say “I'll get used to it,” but I don't ever want to get used to it. But I do want to get familiar with it so that it's not so disorienting. I would hate for someone to think I was unapproachable just because I was embarrassed.
How did this specific collection of songs come together? You probably had a lot to choose from.
If you had an entire basket of puppies, two of those puppies are cuter than the other puppies. It's just genetic in those songs. We love them, but we're going to start choosing between them. If two things seemed like maybe they lived in the same household we had to put them together, like, in a celebrity death match. What's the more important message here, or what has the most clever hook? It was sometimes painful, but once you really did that, then the superior song made itself known. It would just shine like a new penny on a gravel road.
We rehearsed for three days and we cut the whole record in two nights. We went in at 6:00 PM each night and left around 4:00 AM. We did the things we would normally do in a bar. We would have a beer, or a glass of whiskey in my case. We could smoke cigarettes. It was such a laid-back thing that we were almost fooled into not feeling like we were making a record. We were all in the same room, the sanctuary of this church, facing each other.
“When I could, I would take the band. It was me, my dog Banjo, and my band in my Toyota Tundra.”
Are there some personal favorites that you really wish had made it on there?
Initially we had taken “The Jacket” off of the record in order to make room for “Home Sweet Highway.” Then, the actual jacket was stolen. I was like, "Yeah, it deserves to be back on the record."
Where did the jacket get stolen?
It was in my truck in East Nashville in a secured parking lot parked in front of the camera. He looked in every single vehicle in the parking lot before busting the windows out of mine. He didn't just steal the jacket, he stole everything out of the truck, but that was the only thing I cared about when they called to tell me my truck had been broken into. I screamed, "Is there a jacket in the backseat?" They said, "No." It’s heartbreaking. I'm kind of at peace with it now — it's either in a dumpster or it's on a hipster.
“Radioland” is interesting because it's sort of a tribute to the country and rock radio of yesteryear. Today, the politics of country radio, and terrestrial radio in general, are more contentious.
Oh, yeah. For sure. Things are so much different. When I was growing up radio DJs were celebrities, not just the people singing the songs. We didn't have cable or satellite or internet. We couldn’t find out what was on sale at the grocery story or what movies were showing at the Twin Cinema a few miles away. If it weren't for the oldies station that I listened to back then, which I thought was just a regular rock station, and the country station out of Missouri, I might not have decided to make music for a living.
Radio is still the same beautiful animal it was. It's a little heartbreaking to find out how things get done on the radio, but that's the nature of it now, and that's OK. We've adapted.
The album's pretty eclectic, going from singer-songwriter stuff to big-room country singalongs. Were you worried about being pigeonholed, or that people are only going to want one type of thing from you?
There's always going to be people that say you're a sellout — anyone who knew you back when or who wants to begrudge you for having success. That's OK. Their opinion of me, and the box they want to put me in, is just simply none of my business.
We had a release event last night. Warner threw a beautiful hang in a basement billiard hall for me. Things really sank in. Holy crap, we're releasing a major label record here. I called my friend. I said, "What do I do? What do I do? I'm starting to freak out." She said, "You do what you've always done. You go to that city and you do what you love for whoever's there, and you ignore all the rest. Be proud of yourself, and then move on from that thought and do what you've always done."
Who are some people that you admire in the industry — in terms of straight-up song-making, but also in terms of career-building?
Eric Church has kicked more doors down than he has opened. He is fierce about being honest and being authentic. That shows me that it's OK to do that. Miranda Lambert — she's as brilliant of a songwriter as I've ever sat down with. Luke Combs — we're out on the road with him right now. He is a regular dude with good songs.
It seems like there's this class of artists right now that are hellbent on making sure the stage isn't too tall. Just because I'm up here doing this and I have the microphone doesn't mean I'm more important than you. I got told a couple years ago by a record executive, "You need to change your look because when I see pictures of you at your shows with your fans I can't tell who's who. I can't tell who's the rock star and who's the listener." I'm like, "Right. I know. It's not a costume."
It's a little bit like your look is not having a look.
That might be a good way to say it. I've been in T-shirt and jeans my whole life because I grew up in a rural area. I grew up on a cattle farm. It worked fine then and it works OK now. Sometimes we do have to step it up a little bit to pay respect and be reverent of certain venues and certain events, which I'm totally fine with. But it's pretty common to see me in the same boots on the stage as I have on in the car right now.