Twelve years ago, Ashley McBryde moved to Nashville, hoping to supplement her meager income from playing in bars with a publishing deal. “Playing Tuesday nights, 6 to 8, only paid half-price beer. And my truck doesn’t run on beer,” she jokes.
On the phone today from Des Moines, Iowa, she’s fresh off a gig of a very different kind: opening for Miranda Lambert as a special guest at her Wells Fargo Center arena show. Since McBryde’s days scrounging for gas money, country’s mainstream has become increasingly open-minded (see Florida Georgia Line’s forays into EDM) and brawny (see Chris Stapleton’s homages to vintage Bob Seger) — leaving the door open for the tattooed, leather-jacket-wearing 34-year-old who, unlike Nashville’s current crop of pop-leaning young women, says that while “there’s nothing wrong with music that’s really easy to listen to and catchy, I shouldn’t be writing those songs.”
Since May 2017, when she was first singled out on SiriusXM’s The Highway, a channel known for its forward-thinking vision in breaking new artists, McBryde has been bowling over listeners with a sound that she describes as “Bonnie Raitt and Loretta Lynn getting into a fight at a Waffle House.” Back in the 1970s, “this would have been considered rock. But the country format is so wide now,” says McBryde. “Stapleton was a big door-opener for people like me. Eric Church knocks down doors everywhere he goes.” (Church, in fact, invited her onstage with him in 2017.) Her debut album, Girl Going Nowhere, out March 30, juxtaposes her bluesy delivery — reminiscent of Susan Tedeschi’s and Patty Griffin’s — and her band’s muscular riffs with traditional country tropes: honky-tonk basslines, odes to rural life, cheating songs. “You know how unladylike it is for me to write a song inviting someone to cheat on their spouse?” says McBryde. “I’m so down. It’s happening all the time, and nobody’s talking about it!”
McBryde wasn’t always this forthright. Growing up on a cattle farm in the Arkansas Ozarks, she was “cripplingly shy” and as a teen had to force herself to join bluegrass jam sessions. “If I wanted to learn,” she says, “I needed to stand there with those old guys and ask them, ‘What is that chord, and how do I play it?’”
After dropping out of college in 2006 to move to Nashville — and working a series of odd jobs, including Guitar Center manager and “terrible server” — McBryde landed a publishing deal with Song Factory, though she now thinks that her early songs “catered too much to radio.” By 2014, when she failed to attract label interest in her own EP, she decided, “Screw it: I’m just going to do what I do, and people will like it or they won’t.”
Q Prime South founder John Peets, who manages Church and The Black Keys, enjoyed what he heard in a video of McBryde performing one of her EP cuts in (where else?) a bar. “I liked the swagger of it,” he recalls. “You could tell she overpowered the people there.” He connected her with Jay Joyce, the rock guitarist-turned-production savant who has made a career injecting ’70s radio magic into country albums — whether it’s the touch of AC/DC in Church’s The Outsiders or the Fleetwood Mac references all over Little Big Town’s Pain Killer. Together with McBryde and her band, he cut Girl Going Nowhere in just two-and-a-half days. At a subsequent live showcase, labels clamored to sign her. (Warner Music Nashville won out.)
“It takes a stance for the underdog, but as the underdog,” says McBryde, who’s touring with Luke Combs through April and on her own through the summer, of the album. Lead single “A Little Dive Bar in Dahlonega” — currently holding at No. 33 on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart — is a lighters-up ballad, but the rest of the album ranges from John Mellencamp homage (the “Jack and Diane”-esque “Radioland”) to Southern soul (“Home Sweet Highway”). As McBryde sees it, mainstream country has opened up not only to a wider variety of sounds and styles but also to female artists like herself after years when they could barely get airtime. “I was lucky to grow up in the ’90s, when we had just as many strong female artists as male artists,” she says. “That’s a world I would like to live in again. There’s this whole new class of chicks on their way that are just powerhouses. We’re pulling up extra seats at the table, and if you don’t want to sit by me — move down.”