As a child, Ashley McBryde learned a valuable lesson about how to present herself to people. In order to compensate for being shy, she developed a way of walking right up to an adult and introducing herself like a fully grown person might, momentarily holding her insecurities at bay.
“I noticed it would set people back, and I wasn’t afraid of them once they set back like that,” McBryde says, calling via FaceTime from her home in East Nashville. “That confidence had to be learned through faking it for a lot of years, and finding out that if you just are who you are without apologizing for it, the worst that can happen is [that] somebody’s not gonna like you. And that’s not that bad.”
The Arkansas-born singer-songwriter gave a sense of that confidence on her 2018 major label debut Girl Going Nowhere, immediately establishing herself in the country mainstream (or at least at the fringe of it) as an artist with many things to say and a big enough voice to slice through the noise. She accentuates those traits on her newly released album Never Will, leaning harder into the unrefined aspects of her personality and finding even more edgy musical avenues to express them.
Where McBryde showed an adeptness for country balladry and hard-charging country-rock on Girl Going Nowhere, she dials these sounds to their maximum on Never Will, which again teams her with eclectic producer Jay Joyce (Eric Church, Brothers Osborne). She exhibits even more range here: “First Thing I Reach For” is a twanging country song about bad habits; “Voodoo Doll” is furious, churning rock & roll; and “Martha Divine” is a murder ballad that struts along to a tumbling beat straight out of Marylin Manson’s “The Beautiful People” — whatever the sound was, McBryde and her band really went for it.
“If it felt like bluegrass, fuck it, we’ll just do mandolin and guitar, and that’s how it should be,” she says.
McBryde’s first offering from the album was last summer’s “One Night Standards,” a frank examination of a casual sexual encounter and the clear boundaries that define it. A tough sell for radio, maybe, but more realistic and truthful than a lot of people would like to admit.
“Sometimes honesty is uncomfortable. I’ve joked and said if you’ve seriously never had a one-night stand, you’re either missing out, or you’re lying, or it’s about time,” she says, laughing.
Class dynamics are at the heart of the story described in “Velvet Red,” which takes the close harmonies and instrumentation of bluegrass but adds a layer of grimy funk. The title came from a couple bottles of wine that McBryde and a friend consumed as inexperienced teenagers (“I hate to speak ill of anyone whose dream it was to make this wine, but it was so bad”). In describing the experience to her co-writers Patrick Savage and Daniel Smalley, she imagined how it could be part of an illicit relationship between a poor boy and the daughter of the mayor.
“‘What if we could write a bluegrass-style song, and what if that was homemade wine, and what if it was across class boundaries or racial boundaries or whatever it is?’” she recalls. “‘If we’re gonna make it traditional, then it needs to be about sex out of wedlock, which hopefully results in a child.”
McBryde finds catharsis in the powerful “Sparrow” and “Voodoo Doll,” both of which she co-wrote with the help of Brandy Clark. The same emotional release is particularly potent in “Shut Up Sheila,” one of two songs McBryde didn’t write for Never Will (the other is the clever album closer “Styrofoam,” which doubles as a loving tribute to the late songwriter Randall Clay). In “Shut Up Sheila,” McBryde describes a scene of grieving that gets messy and then explodes with earth-shaking force.
“There’s somebody in your family that you want to smack in the face and tell them to shut up,” she says. “But because we are from the South or we live in the South, we use our ‘company manners’ all the time. We don’t always get to ball that fist up and go ‘Shut up!’ Now you don’t have to — now you can just listen to that song.”
McBryde’s willingness to follow her instincts and whims — to embrace that ability to catch people off-guard — is neatly summed up in the title track, which bears a trace of Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” in its jangling DNA. It’s a sequel of sorts to “Girl Goin’ Nowhere,” but where that song talked about perseverance, “Never Will” is all about defiance, a gesture of confidence and self-awareness to anyone who says she’ll have to make compromises to get where she wants to go. “I didn’t. I don’t. And I never will,” she affirms in the chorus.
“The first record was really well received by and large, but as far as radio goes, still not super embraced. So there is still kind of that feeling of having to be defiant, just a little bit,” she says. “Those naysayers that existed when ‘Girl Goin’ Nowhere’ was being conceptualized, they all still exist now.”
Those naysayers likely won’t ever be satisfied with radio hits or awards nominations, which McBryde is beginning to amass — they’ll still look for other ways to discredit. But as she learned a long time ago, she knows she can knock the haters off balance with confidence and shrug if they still don’t get it.
“If you look at the overall message [of Never Will], it’s like kindness first but take no shit,” she says. “And if all else fails, this is what my middle finger looks like without the others around it.”