Ashley McBryde Takes Nashville, No Gimmicks Required


The defiant but coolly controlled “Girl Goin’ Nowhere,” which opens the album, captures the sting of being told you’ll never make it, inspired by a cruel high school math teacher. Her father gave her the coat she sings about in “The Jacket”: “This thing is 2,000 bonfires, hitchhike to Boulder/It’s kept a million raindrops off your mother’s shoulders.”

The album was produced by Jay Joyce, who has worked with Eric Church and Little Big Town, and Ms. McBryde’s music carries an eclecticism honed in the Memphis bars she used to play: A song about rural meth addiction, “Livin’ Next to Leroy,” is infused with Lynyrd Skynyrd, and there are hints of Springsteen on “El Dorado.”

Born in Waldron, Ark., Ms. McBryde was raised on a 400-acre cattle farm on the other side of the state, in Mammoth Spring. As a child, she traveled with her mother to bluegrass festivals, where she found an early mentor in the musician Carl Jackson. She attended Arkansas State University in Jonesboro to play French horn and study to be a band director.

After getting comfortable playing in Memphis, she’d begun taking weekend trips to Nashville, leading one of her college instructors, seeing her divided loyalties between her studies and her ambitions, to offer some unsolicited, uncomfortable advice. “He said, ‘You’re skinny, you’re pretty, and I think things will happen for you, and in five years you’ll be fat and nobody’ll care,’” Ms. McBryde recalled. “That’s a weird way to say ‘I give you my blessing.’” She dropped out that day.

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Ms. McBryde writes songs with a keen eye for little details. “There’s a few people that I write with that we don’t stop until one of us cries,” she said.

Credit
Eric Ryan Anderson for The New York Times

Like most sharp songwriters, Ms. McBryde has a keen sense of whom she is writing for. “Fat and Famous,” an uproarious song from her 2016 EP, was written for her 10th high school reunion and targeted the mean girls. An old loosie, “Burning Down Chicago,” was partly inspired by a woman who, in the middle of one of Ms. McBryde’s bar performances, pulled a photo out of her wallet, laid it in an ashtray and set it ablaze.

“There’s a few people that I write with that we don’t stop until one of us cries,” she said.

But in Nashville especially, there is a chasm between songwriter and performer, and Ms. McBryde is still smarting at the fact that her songwriting career never took flight. (She’s had a publishing deal for three years.) In a two-hour conversation, she only blanched once, at the fact that until the end of last year no one had recorded one of her songs. “Wow, I wish we could smoke in here,” she said.

But perhaps if Ms. McBryde had found songwriting lucrative, she would have missed out on becoming the artist she is today. (Before “Girl Going Nowhere,” she self-released two albums and an EP; the first of those albums is largely gone from the internet, the victim of “natural selection,” she joked.) In that slow-moving country radio way, “Dahlonega,” which initially came out ten months ago, is only just now gaining traction; it’s currently at No. 33 on the Billboard country airplay chart.

In the past year, she’s sung with Eric Church, performed at the Ryman and recently toured as an opening act for Miranda Lambert. “She’s got brass balls,” Ms. McBryde said of Ms. Lambert. “She is a strong-personality female and chose to let a strong-personality female open the show.”

But she is still living on the stipend from her publishing contract, and she has yet to pay herself for a concert. She resides in Watertown, a city of about 1,500 an hour east of Nashville, in a cabin on a 27-acre lot that also includes a horse barn. She’s craving a new bed, and wants to replace the ceiling fan that kicks out a spark every time it turns on. But when she goes to the local bar — the one where no one knew she was a professional singer before she recorded the “Dahlonega” video there — she orders a double Jim Beam and ginger ale and the Texas Pete hot wings, and doesn’t have to worry about being anyone but herself.

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