When Ashley McBryde first moved to Nashville as a bright-eyed singer-songwriter in 2006, she received some suspect advice.
"I was told, 'nothing good would happen to you for 10 years,'" she says. "Completely false. Every 'no' I ever received was an inch closer to a 'yes.' If you can sing to a room of 60 people who don't give a damn, then, if someday you're playing to people who really want to hear your music, that's not hard. What's hard," she says, "is making a biker listen to Joan Baez on a Tuesday night in Conway, Arkansas."
"Thank god for basement dives and county fairs," the singer continues, referencing the lyrics to "Girl Going Nowhere," the title track to her Warner Music Nashville debut, out Friday, that Garth Brooks has recently been covering on tour. But McBryde could also be talking about "A Little Dive Bar in Dahlonega," her breakthrough ode to small pleasures and hard-won faith that's steadily climbing up the country charts.
After spending the better part of the past 15 years playing grimy roadhouses and sports bars, Ashley McBryde, 34, is emerging as one of the most exciting new voices in country music, a whiskey-swilling high priestess of dive bars whose radically lyrics-driven, rock-leaning approach to mainstream country commands instant attention.
Produced by Jay Joyce (Eric Church), Girl Going Nowhere is heavy on hooks and set to a radio-friendly blend of heartland riffs and pop-country. But it's also a gently left-field statement for Nashville, a stubbornly retro country-rock album that name-drops fringe figures like Townes Van Zandt instead of Merle Haggard.
"The first thing that immediately grabbed me about Ashley was of course her voice," says Eric Church, who invited the singer onstage to perform her song "Bible and a .44" with him last year. "I heard soul, heart, pain, grit, regret, vulnerability and edge. As I dug into her songs it became immediately apparent why I hear those emotions: it was her songwriting. Those emotions that flowed from her voice were also pouring out of her pen."
The foundation of McBryde's old-fashioned country-rock can be traced back to her upbringing in Mammoth Spring, Arkansas (population 963), a rural community deep in the Ozark Mountains that did not yet have Internet access, or even cable television, when McBryde and her five siblings were growing up in the Eighties on their family's cattle farm. One of McBryde's new songs, "Radioland," chronicles her upbringing via her hometown's FM dial, which picked up local oldies and country stations and provided the community with entertainment, news and church services.
"Everything I ever needed came out of a radio and a dashboard," she says. "My Mount Rushmore of what was cool came out of a radio – Trisha Yearwood, Patty Loveless, Mark Chesnutt."
As a child, McBryde, who was writing songs by age 12, soaked up her family's musical favorites: the Beatles and Karen Carpenter from her mother, Pat Benatar from her sister, hip-hop and modern alt-rock from her brother, and bluegrass and classic country like Haggard, Kris Kristofferson and John Denver from her father.
The McBryde children were primarily raised by their stay-at-home mom while their dad, a part-time preacher at the local Church of Christ, would be gone for weeks at a time supporting the family by working as an ER physician on the other side of the state.
"Growing up missing him like I did, little did I know that my family would now miss me like I missed him," she says. "I used to begrudge and hate him for it, because he wasn't around, but now I get it."
McBryde went to college at Arkansas State, where she majored in music, specializing in French horn, conducted the school's marching band, and became the vocalist for the jazz band.
As a result, McBryde brings an unusually well-rounded musical sensibility to country music, a classically-trained orchestral instrumentalist who loves blues and rock & roll but ultimately gravitates toward folk-leaning singer-songwriters. "You limit yourself to one genre, you're a fucking idiot," she says.
In conversation, McBryde repeatedly breaks into song, singing snippets by an impressive range of artists including Kenny Loggins, Roger Miller, Loudon Wainwright, Hayes Carll, Lucinda Williams, Ricky Skaggs and Patty Griffin.
She's a huge fan of Griffin's music, in particular. "Oh my god, 'Up to the Mountain,'" she says, referencing her favorite Griffin original, "that song kept me from drinking Windex for a year and a half."
"I had this soul-sucking job," she explains, "I knew when I went to work everyday that I was changing zero lives." After college, McBryde had moved to Memphis, where she worked as an operations manager at a Guitar Center while driving up to Arkansas for grueling gigs in biker bars at night.
"Where I'm from, there are two things to do after a certain age: make babies or make meth."
Most of McBryde's family still lives in Arkansas, but she's been able to visit less and less lately. "I feel like all of our dreams are on my shoulders," she says. The singer's hometown still looms large on Girl Going Nowhere, particularly on "Livin' Next to Leroy," which shines a light on a rural America epidemic that McBryde wishes more people were willing to address.
"Where I'm from, there are two things to do after a certain age: make babies or make meth," she says. "I don't think anybody else is willing to talk about it." In the song, which tells the story of a junkie who provides a safe-house for younger addicts in the community, McBryde delivers a pointed line: "In the dark side of the country," she sings, "it ain't bonfires, it ain't beer."
"In country music, we spend a lot of time talking about beer and having fun and bonfires, but there's a big meth problem with our listeners and our companions, and it deserves to be spoken about," she says. "There is this great party side to being from a rural area and from being in country music, but there's also this other animal that exists among us all the time. A secret gets bigger and nastier the longer you don't talk about it. The sooner you do talk about it, it can become a shadow of what it once was.
"Country music fans have been spoon-fed music for years, like, 'This is great: eat it,'" she continues. "But there's this other part out there."
"Leroy" is the type of message song that McBryde is most interested in singing. She admits that she was initially hesitant to release "Dahlonega" as her first single because it lacked the type of obvious larger meaning that she's keen on communicating. "It's not the best song on the record. It's not the most important, doesn't give the biggest message."
With fame approaching and her life changing, the constant for McBryde remains her band, an inseparable gang of players who serve as McBryde's coworkers, best friends and family. "We do everything together," she says, before illustrating her point. "Watch this." Shocking the rest of an unsuspecting dive bar, she begins yelling a pirate sea shanty: "Help me Bob, there's a bully in the alley!" "Way hey, bully in the alley!" chants her band in unison in return. They're seemingly always nearby, this time waiting for their boss to wrap up her interview so they can resume drinking.
But before that happens, McBryde wants to now share the best advice she ever received, given to her by journeyman country singer Johnny Lee. McBryde was opening up for the "Lookin' for Love" singer at the Goats, Music and More Festival in Lewisburg, Tennessee, in 2010, a big gig for her at the time, when Lee pulled her aside.
"You should know that you might try to do this the rest of your life and never ever make it big, and it won't matter to anybody," he told her, "but if you ever, ever quit, it will matter to you the rest of your life."
McBryde pauses to toss the advice around in her head, pondering its profundity and quietly repeating it, verbatim, to herself.
"Therapy is expensive," she says, looking up, "whiskey is cheap."