When Warner Music Nashville (WMN) released Ashley McBryde’s major-label debut on March 30, 2018, the album’s title, Girl Going Nowhere, set up plenty of stories about the raw singer-songwriter who was, in actuality, headed for great things.
That might not have been apparent by terrestrial radio’s reaction — “A Little Dive Bar in Dahlonega” peaked at No. 30 on Country Airplay; sophomore single “Radioland” failed to chart — but there were other indicators. McBryde was named best new artist when The Nashville Scene unveiled its 19th annual Country Music Critics’ Poll, she won the endorsement of high-profile rebels Eric Church and Miranda Lambert, and demand was so strong when McBryde played Nashville in the fall that the concert had to be moved to a larger venue.
“Girl Goin’ Nowhere” heralded yet another girl-headed-somewhere twist when it went to radioland via PlayMPE on Dec. 3. Four days later, Girl Going Nowhere landed among the five Grammy Award finalists for best country album, a ringing validation of McBryde’s tenacity and for a rich body of songs that acknowledges the dark realities of life’s hurdles but also manages to find a sliver of dogged hope.
“I still say the sentence every day, just to help it sink in, that ‘we’re nominated for a Grammy,’ ” notes McBryde. “It still feels strange.”
Whether or not she wins when the 61st annual awards are handed out on Feb. 10, the development changes the underdog dynamic in her career just a hair. McBryde sports a biker-chick level of tattoos, drops an F-bomb or two in a morning chat and didn’t secure the WMN deal until she was squarely in her 30s. Her path didn’t follow the standard, primped-up version of femininity that tends to succeed in country.
“Girl Goin’ Nowhere” opens McBryde’s album in appropriately unconventional fashion — it’s a thoughtful, stripped-down folk ballad rather than anthemic rockin’ country — that embraces that underdog role.
“I’m aware that I don’t have a leg up in this industry,” she says. “So ‘here we are, and this is what we sound like’ — I think it’s making a pretty cool statement overall starting the record that way.”
Girl Going Nowhere makes its statement with a real attention to craft. Whether documenting a complicated relationship in “Andy (I Can’t Live Without You),” creating a ghostly mystery in “Southern Babylon” or belting out a coming-of-age tragedy in “Livin’ Next to Leroy,” McBryde stocks her songs with a seasoned level of detail: She paints a handful of mental images, but listeners can still assign their own meanings to the material. It’s a kind of storytelling that suggests she has paid plenty of attention to John Prine, Guy Clark, Kris Kristofferson and Tom T. Hall. It’s also a level of expertise that takes years to attain.
“You don’t want to put so much furniture in there that you can’t walk around,” she says metaphorically of the lyrical imagery, “but you definitely need enough to look at and enough to use.”
McBryde made her first attempts at music in Arkansas, where she was practically fastened to her guitar and to a radio. She started writing songs before age 12. Then, as an adult, she moved to Memphis, where she worked as an operations manager at a Guitar Center, a job that didn’t dovetail as nicely with her nighttime club performances as it might appear.
“Customer service was not my strong suit at the time,” she says with a laugh.
“I got better at it,” she adds. “It turns out it wasn’t the job I was working. It was who I was working for.”
She moved on to Nashville, releasing her first independent EP in 2006 and honing those writing chops while the industry felt — as it does to every hungry artist or writer — like a cruel form of window shopping. She was close enough to the action that she could see all the successful folks; she just wasn’t able at the time to step through the door.
“The very first rule of Nashville is you must be present to win, so even though it’s hard and it’s scary, you’re not going to get anywhere if you’re not there to do it,” she says. “Second rule of Nashville is the guy that quit last is the one that won, so if you have to start out looking through the windows, that’s fine, because somebody’s going to come up and talk to you at writers nights. You just have to put your roots down and decide, ‘I’m going to do this.’ ”
She made some believers, earned a spot on the roster at WME and got a break when one of her agents mentioned her to Church’s manager, Q Prime South founder John Peets, who won her over at Nashville’s 3rd & Lindsley.
“At showcases, it’s like a bunch of used-car salesmen; they all come and try to sell you something in the green room,” she notes. “John Peets kind of parts the waters, walks up to me, shakes my hand and says, ‘I like what you do, I know what to do with it, and I’m looking forward to talking to you.’ And he turned around and walked off. It was like, ‘Follow that car. That’s my guy.’ ”
They pulled together the Girl Going Nowhere album with producer Jay Joyce (Church, LANCO), then got into a bidding war with labels that McBryde says was “awkward.” The meetings were necessary but uncomfortable. However, when she went to WMN, the staff was waiting on bar stools and actually applauded when she strolled into the room. She ended up high-fiving with the crew, and she has been getting a good amount of high-fives from the industry since the album’s release, making fans out of Lambert and Little Big Town, who booked McBryde to open for the band this year.
“She doesn’t need to change anything she’s doing,” says LBT’s Karen Fairchild. “The world needs to open up and be exposed to what she’s doing.”
Fortunately, McBryde seems to have figured that out herself. She spent much of January writing songs for the next album, which she expects to begin recording in May. Her co-writes included appointments with Lambert and Matraca Berg (“Strawberry Wine,” “You and Tequila”), one of her songwriting icons. McBryde was able to navigate those experiences without fangirling too much and without pressuring herself to land another Grammy nomination.
“That’s a really dangerous ledge to stand on if you think about it too much,” she reasons. “You’re drinking your own bathwater if you were to think like, ‘What would Ashley McBryde write?’ You’ve already shot yourself in the foot. I’m very, very excited about the Grammy nomination. [But] that is not allowed to come into the room with me in a write.”