It's always time for whiskey in country music, but even 9:00 a.m. is too early for a seasoned pro like Ashley McBryde – an artist who knows her hooch so well she once was called a "whiskey drinking badass" onstage by none other than Eric Church. But here at the Blue Bar in Nashville, home to one of the many open mic nights where McBryde got her start, she wasn't planning on doing any drinking – and things were strictly coffee-centric, until Patty Griffin's "Up to the Mountain," came up. The mere mention of the song is enough to make McBryde instantly choke up and, therefore, very urgently require a drink.
"I need a shot!" McBryde calls out, fanning her eyes as they well up, which summons Chuck, the illustrious bartender and general guru of the place, from around the corner.
"What are you ready for?" he asks.
"I think I'm gonna have some Woodford," McBryde says. "We can rocks it." She takes a generous inhale, then an exhale. "I don't even care if I do cry. I love that song. Good grief."
Another pause, a few blinks. McBryde shifts in her seat, straightens out her Bud Light T-shirt and rests her tattooed arms on the bar.
A few minutes with McBryde – or her music – will quickly prove that this is one particular badass who is not afraid to shed a tear. She'll even admit it herself: "For a bunch of badasses, we sure do cry a lot," she says. This morning, Griffin, and the resulting emotional onslaught, has come up in a conversation about songs that have saved her – something her breakthrough single, "A Little Dive Bar in Dahlonega," is all about. Working in Nashville for over a decade, music has been salvation for McBryde many times before, when she was working a day job at Guitar Center and frequenting open mic nights. She used to play Wednesdays here at Blue Bar, along with Mondays at Dan McGuiness and Tuesdays at the Rusty Nail, "just singing for my supper." She'd play if there was an audience or not, lugging her guitar around to wherever she could steal a few minutes onstage.
Things changed for McBryde in April, when Church – already in on the secret of her songwriting strengths through her EP, Jalopies & Expensive Guitars – asked her to join him for one night of his Holdin' My Own Tour. Not only did she sing, but Church requested that they perform one of her own songs, "Bible and a .44." The video went viral, and things took off from there. Soon, "A Little Dive Bar in Dahlonega" was beating out Paramore on the iTunes trending chart and McBryde went from barstools at Blue Bar to tours with Brothers Osborne, and from open mics to record label bidding wars (it was Warner Nashville who finally snagged her). For McBryde, it was all very welcome if not a little weird – she didn't feel new. She'd been in this town trying to make waves and write music for years, and had the scars to prove it. Hell, those scars had already healed into lyrics.
"Being called a new artist doesn't bother me at all," she says. "Even though I have been doing this for 11 years, I'm new to most people. But I am adjusting to being called a 'baby act.'" Still, McBryde knows that too much worrying about what people call her is a dangerous pursuit anyway. "As soon as you start thinking about it, that's a photograph of a photograph," she says. "You look like someone trying to be you."
McBryde looks, writes and sings like herself alone – and her rise speaks miles about the bizarre landscape of country music in 2017: the same climate that's only seen two female artists at the top of the Billboard Country Airplay chart, but has also seen women like Miranda Lambert, Maren Morris and Margo Price gain massive critical acclaim. It's also a genre where its biggest-selling star, Chris Stapleton, can barely register a song on country radio. There's a disconnect, but still a hunger for honest songwriting. For a song to do some saving; for a lyric to be honest and relatable, in a world of fake news and bloated egos. That's where McBryde comes in.
"There's a reason why every label in town wanted to sign Ashley, and why the early buzz is so loud," says John Esposito, CEO and President of Warner Music Nashville. "It's because she's that good. She's a powerful Southern vocalist and amazing songwriter where no word or phrase written is disposable. This is a format that is built on, and has had some of its finest moments, because of artists that are able to change the world, one song at a time. Ashley is one of those artists in the way she beautifully tells a story. A story that's real and true to her life in every way."
"A Little Dive Bar in Dahlonega" accomplished that feeling in spades. Set to some tasteful production by Jay Joyce, who also helmed her forthcoming LP, its core message is rather simple – open your heart to love, and music, when the world is otherwise grim – but decked in illustrative metaphors and painstaking detail. It's one of those songs that's about everyone's personal story while being about everyone at once.
That impact was apparent this past summer when McBryde played a showcase at Nashville's the Basement East – at 6:00 p.m., on the day of the NHL hockey playoffs with the Nashville Predators in the hunt. The club was packed to the walls and sweaty, with groups of people chanting along to "Dahlonega" and "Girl Goin' Nowhere," her response to a teacher who once replied to McBryde's schoolgirl dreams of stardom with nothing but disdain. She wrote "Girl Goin' Nowhere" with visions of playing it at the Opry, and since then, she's graced that stage several times. The Opry, the tours, it's all been an adjustment: she's journaling everything, and signing every last autograph at meet and greets, even when it's pouring outside and the result is an "entire box of ruined Sharpies." Those Sharpies are expensive when you're still plugging every dollar back into your tour and borrowing a login for satellite radio.
"Your fame and your success moves much more rapidly than your ability to fund it," she says, chuckling. "We still drink reasonably priced whiskey and stay in Motel 6's. But I'm not letting any little detail of it pass me by. We're paying attention to every second."
Church found out about McBryde about two years ago through his manager, John Peets, who now represents them both. When she joined him onstage in April, she preformed pretty much exactly as she looks now – jeans and T-shirt with nothing more complicated than the strings of her acoustic guitar. McBryde recalls how Church had her do a sound check in an empty arena and she "looked like a newborn giraffe."
But Church knew that McBryde, a girl from Mammoth Springs, Arkansas, deserved to be on that stage. Strumming her father's guitar since her toddler years, she loved musicals and Dead Poets Society, and found herself as a songwriter in the perfect imperfections of Lucinda Williams. At Arkansas State, she played in the marching band, and moved Nashville in 2007 where one of her first apartments was in a storage building.
"Ashley is raw," says John Osborne of Brothers Osborne. "Honest. Bold. And fearless. All wrapped up in an undeniable ability to deliver great damn songs. She's everything our genre needs right now." CMT's Next Women of Country agreed, signing her up for this year's class. At their showcase in Nashville last month, McBryde's rendition of "Girl Goin' Nowhere," sandwiched between stellar performances from Carly Pearce, Jillian Jacqueline and Danielle Bradbery, was the only one to garner a standing ovation.
"Every female artist in the audience was crying and I was straight-up sobbing," says Kalie Shorr, one of her fellow Next Women of Country classmates. "Her success is so deserved and to watch her sing such a powerful song about her long road to success to an all-industry crowd was so vulnerable and beautiful. I think the most special thing about Ashley is her uncanny ability to be so raw and unfiltered but still have her delivery be so polished. It makes sense though – she's been working for this moment in her career her whole life."
Of course, after 11 years, it's easy to ask "Why now" or "What took so long?" But McByrde's not too focused on that. She's a moment person, not a hindsight person. "I think it's the perfect timing, and there's no way we could have arranged that," she says. "The only thing I can liken it to is TV shows on Netflix that aren’t going to be played on regular TV. So you find something cool, and you just seek it out. It's gotta be this perfect, or imperfect storm, of where we are as listeners. And they're ready for it."
If she's right, 2018 could be the year of Ashley McBryde. She, her band and Joyce made a record showcasing that penchant for guttural honesty, flaws and all. They worked through the night and sometimes Joyce would try to keep things light by showing up to the studio in a gorilla costume "so nobody got too serious." It helped them to remember to keep things humorous – and, therefore, human. "Sometimes choosing to leave a mistake on a track is way cooler than going back and nailing it," McBryde explains. "Travis Meadows once said, 'I'm here to tell you, perfection is just fear in fancy shoes.'"
Meadows is one of McBryde's favorite songwriters, and the admiration is mutual. “Whatever it is that separates the good from the unforgettable, Ashley has it. It shines like a neon sign on an otherwise unlit boring street. That kind of light that can lead us all home," he says.
"Dahlonega" came from relying on music to illuminate one of those dark and dreary streets. Or, in her case, an especially depressing day. "We made a point to call out not just other people's problems, but the problems we were having," she says about the song written with Jesse Rice and Nicolette Hayford. "One of us was a bag-packed first-love leaver. One of us was a double-down dreamer and one of us was homesick. That's real and you can't fake it, and if we felt that way, someone else did too. And everybody loves a dive bar, right?"
Since then, she's heard from people all across the world who claim the song helped them heal from their own lost loves or disappointments. "I'm getting Snapchats that say, 'You kept me from answering a phone call from an abusive ex,'" she says. "Or, 'You just became the song from the band that saved me.'" She polishes off the last drop of whiskey as the reality of all that creeps up into her throat. The clock ticks past 10:30 a.m. – it's happy hour somewhere, and it's never too early for McBryde. Or, more appropriately, never too late.
In all that time on Snapchat and social media – McBryde loves to interact with fans there – she's only come across one negative tweet so far, that claimed "Dahlonega" was "completely manufactured." It didn't bother her personally – after years trying to prove that "Girl Goin' Nowhere" wrong, she's accustomed to taking the good with the bad. Instead, it made her sad for the tweeter themselves.
"I was like, 'Man, I'm sad you don't have a dive bar that you love. Or a song from a band that saved you. That sucks for you. Find yourself a dive bar,'" she says, adding, as a badass does, "and check your spelling."