Editors' Notes “That was the trick: knowing who I was before I tried to tell anybody who I was, or before I let anybody else tell me who I was,” Ashley McBryde tells Apple Music. The magnetically natural singer and down-home storyteller with biker-bar swagger who snuck up on the country mainstream in the late 2010s honed her craft playing in bars. “I would not trade over a decade of playing in bars doing that, because the way I found out if a song was good or not was: Could I make somebody listen to it? And could I sneak it in between covers? I think that made the biggest difference, was just knowing that this is who I am and this is what I sound like when I went to make my first real record.” McBryde’s latest 11-song set, Never Will, the follow-up to 2018’s Girl Going Nowhere, makes few concessions to record label priorities or radio preferences. It does, however, range through riotous Southern gothic narration, classic honky-tonk transgression, blue-collar anthems of ambition, stoic mourning, and other cleverly altered, time-tested song forms. She, her trusty road band, and their producer Jay Joyce refracted those tunes through a process of studio experimentation that gave serrated contours to the grooves. Says McBryde, “If you've got like a weird, quirky idea, and if your sentence starts with ‘This might sound stupid, but let's try,’ Jay will let you try it.” Here McBryde talks through each track on Never Will.
Hang In There Girl “I saw this girl, she might've been 14 or 15, she was standing at the mailbox. This mailbox has been used as a baseball many times. It has been crunched and uncrunched and crunched and uncrunched, and it was just barely sitting on the fence post. She was doing something that I had seen myself do: She was kicking rocks, and not in a mad-at-my-mom kind of way, but in like a ‘Why am I sitting here putting my toe in these rocks? And why is the grass so tall? And why are all the clothes I own, I'm not the first person to own them?’ I'm the youngest of six, and not only did I have to wear hand-me-downs, I had to wear my brother's hand-me-downs. When I got a bicycle, it wasn't because they were able to get me a bicycle. It's because one of my older cousins was done using theirs. There's nothing wrong with growing up that way. I'm proud of the way I grew up. I just wanted to pull over and say, 'In only a couple of years, you're going to be old enough to get a job, you're going to have money, and you can get a car and you can leave this place. And I promise you, you will look fondly on this place once you leave.'”
One Night Standards “Nicolette [Hayford] and I, we wrote a song called ‘Airport Hotel.’ That hook was ending with, ‘I'm still sitting here kicking myself for treating my heart like an airport hotel,’ because that's not a place you want to stay for very long. We thought we would just let it sit just as a verse and a chorus because something was wrong. Our next write together we had a third, and his name was Shane McAnally. We played him what we had, and he said, ‘I don't think there's anything wrong with this. Let's just keep playing through it and try maybe being a little more honest.’ And I said, ‘Well, there is a reason that hotel rooms only have one nightstand in them, because they're one-night-standers.’ And Shane said, ‘Did you say “standards”? Make that rhyme and put that at the end as the hook.’ Then the next verse just came out. It's sort of like a ‘Honey. It's okay. Don't freak out. I'm going to lay the room key down right here, and if you pick it up and you meet me later, you do. And if you don't, it's no sweat off my back.’ I did get a little bit of flack when the single first came out, people saying, ‘It's not the most feminine thing you could've said. It's not the most ladylike thing.’ I've been called a lot of things, but a lady is not one of them.”
Shut Up Sheila “It was a piano and guitar demo, and I loved it the second Nicolette sent it to me. I'd never heard a country song about a dying grandmother. And anytime you get to say something like ‘shut up’ or drop an F-bomb, that's usually a cool thing to me, too. But there's somebody in everybody's family, whether they are holier-than-thou or not, that either on a holiday or in times of loss like this, you really just want to look at them and go, ‘Kind of wish you would just shut up.’ So just in case you're sitting there biting your tongue at Thanksgiving dinner, just go listen to the song. It made me think about loss, when it came to cut the record. When I lost my brother, I was so mad, and I remember being at the funeral and everyone being like, ‘Let's pray together for a minute.’ And I was like, ‘You know what? I don't want to pray right now. I want to be angry. I want to get drunk and I want to get high and I want to get away from this for a little bit.’ Everybody's going to deal with loss in a different way, and it's never okay to push how you deal with it on somebody else, so let's give everybody a little bit of breathing room here.”
First Thing I Reach For “I wrote that with Randall [Clay] and Mick [Holland] in the morning. Randall came outside and poured whisky in our coffee, and we all lit a cigarette. And we wrote it as a sad song. I get to the studio and I'm like, ‘In my world, which is fingerpicking, midtempo songs, what if we played this one like we were a bar band but the bar is inside a bowling alley?’ My lead guitar player, he's got a Telecaster with a B-bender in it, and his father is a steel guitar player. So it wasn't hard at all for him to come up with a really cool riff there.”
Voodoo Doll “I knew that I wanted that to be like a slow headbang on the metal side of things, and I didn't know how we were going to accomplish it. The band loved the song—we just weren't sure how we were going to do this in a studio. And I said, ‘Well, let's play it together and make it as big and loud as we can be and then give something small the lead. Let's make it a mandolin thing. Let's put the most traditional instrument inside the most rock ’n’ roll song. And let's take those really traditional sounds and make them with the overdriven guitars.’”
Sparrow “Nicolette and I had had this idea for a song about sparrows for a long time. When I first started getting tattoos down my arms, the first two were sketches of sparrows on the backs of my arms. She had asked me, ‘Why two sparrows? Why were those the first things you put on your arms?’ And I said, ‘Because it's a pretty widely known fact that sparrows fly all over the world, and they never forget where home is. They have the ability to beacon themselves back to the tree they came from, and that is a quality I would love to keep in myself.’ I knew if we brought this subject up with Brandy Clark, she would be able to really help us bring it to life.”
Martha Divine “I think this was our first song together, me and Jeremy Spillman. We were in the basement of an old church. So, I was like, ‘We should write something dark. I haven't written a murder song in a long time. Let's murder something.’ We came up with the name Martha Divine, who was an urban legend from his home state of Kentucky. We didn't use the actual story that surrounded Martha Divine, I just really liked the name. And I thought, ‘Well, what if it was like a Jolene situation, only the person that we're going to write the perspective from is this slightly psychotic, Bible-beating, overly-protective-of-her-mother little girl? Maybe she's 15, maybe she's 21. She needs to go back and forth, in my mind, between reciting Bible verses like a good little girl and smiling at you because she's about to hit you in the face with a shovel and she's so proud. I've joked a couple times that cheating songs normally come from the perspective of cheating or being cheated on. Luckily, I was able to write it for the perspective of the daughter, and who knows where I got that perspective from. I'm sure that my father will really appreciate that song on the record.”
Velvet Red “When we first started cutting it, I was like, ‘Guys, we're going to have to play it as a band and then have [Chris] Sancho play that bass part on it, because it's really screwing with my head.’ It's a big hollow-body bass that he was playing, and he comes from a Motown and a blues background. And next thing we know is we have that [part], and it's so cool. That way you still get the traditional feel for ‘Velvet Red,’ which is what is best to let that story come through, but then you're not beat in the face with just the bluegrass feel either.”
Stone “Nicolette and I, we have a pretty general rule that normally we don't write anything down until one of us cries, either from laughing or because we've hit a nerve, and once we hit the nerve, we jump on it. Our brothers died in very, very different ways. They're both Army veterans, but her brother David was hit by a vehicle, and mine killed himself. So, we go outside to smoke, just chitchatting back and forth, trying to stay close to the topic and then get far enough away from it that we give ourselves some oxygen. And she said something, and I cackled, and when I cackled I went, ‘Oh my god, I laugh like him.’ It drives me nuts, and I just started bawling. And she goes, ‘There it is. You're so angry because you're so hurt, and the reason you're so hurt is because you didn't pay attention to how alike you were until he was dead. That's okay. Let's write from there.’ So it's not hopeless. It's ‘I see little bits of you in me.’ I think it needed to be on the record because it moved me farther through that process than therapy ever could have. Maybe it can help somebody else through it too.”
Never Will “Matt [Helmkamp], our lead guitar player, sent over this guitar riff that he had been playing. It kind of had this cool groove to it. Mumbling around, we came up with ‘I didn't, I don't, and I never will.’ That's when we kind of dove into, remember those people that were mean to you because you wanted to do music? And now you're doing things like getting Grammy nominations and all you can do is think, 'You were so confused about the reason that we were making music and the way we were doing it and how I was only playing in bars. How the hell else do you think you get to play in arenas if you don't play in bars? A career is not a participation trophy.”
Styrofoam “I used to play this writers’ night at Blue Bar [in Nashville]. It was called the Freakshow. Randall Clay was on stage one night and he just takes off, ‘Well, in 1941,’ and I was like, ‘What is he talking about?’ But by the time he got to the chorus, I'm cracking up because this song is so much fun to sing, and it's actually educational. Randall was just one of those writers that could do that. I grew up eating gas station and truck stop food and getting my drinks from it. I know it's environmentally irresponsible, but things just taste better in styrofoam, and it's just fun to sing 'styrofoam.' Of course, he died [in October 2018]. We really wanted to pay tribute to him. And there were two other of his songs that are in our live show that I wanted to put on the record that didn't get to be there. And on the last day of cutting, Jay goes, ‘I wish we had one more song that was just super fun to listen to.’ So I sat down and sang ‘Styrofoam.’”
Hang In There Girl
One Night Standards
Shut Up Sheila
First Thing I Reach For
11 Songs, 40 Minutes
April 3, 2020
℗ 2020 Ashley McBryde under exclusive license to Warner Music Nashville LLC.
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