Singer-songwriter Ashley McBryde grew up listening to bluegrass and classic country music and says that’s what put the “bug” in her and made her want to start writing and recording her own songs.
“I’m the youngest of six kids, so not everybody wanted to play with me,” she says in a recent phone interview from a Salt Lake City tour stop. Ashley McBryde performs with Ashland Craft at 7 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 27, at the Agora. “I started playing just so I could entertain myself. Where I grew up was very, very rural. We lived on a little cattle farm. There were instruments available. My dad played guitar, and my sister played flute, and I had a brother that played trumpet for a while, and there weren’t a lot of distractions. Once you find something to do, there’s not a lot to get in the way of it.”
Originally, McBryde took her talents to the local biker bars.
“I wouldn’t trade what I saw and learned [at those bars] for anything,” she says. “It doesn’t come in a textbook. They do not offer a degree in it. I ran across a picture of me from six or seven years ago. I was in my early thirties. I looked at the girl in the picture, and I thought, ‘What a baby.’ I was traveling on my own and playing in these biker bars. I loved it. I learned that people who own motorcycles are some of the finest people in the world — even the guy who seems rough will bend over backwards for you. Playing in bars in general was a great way to educate yourself as an entertainer. If you can get those guys to listen to you, you can get anyone to listen to you.”
McBryde self-released a couple of albums before inking a major label deal for 2018’s Girl Going Nowhere. The transition to the big-time came with one particularly drastic change.
“[As an independent artist,] I booked everything and rehearsed the band and drove the van, but once you get with a major label, you’re not in control of everything anymore,” she says. “That is a really difficult thing to get used to. And then, after you have gotten used to it, you can’t even book your own flight.”
If Girl Going Nowhere represents what McBryde describes as “a snapshot of the time,” last year's Never Will is a conscious attempt to crank up the guitars and emphasize the rock side of McBryde’s sound.
“When we started making Never Will, I started asking the guys to do what we naturally do, and since we naturally lean in that rock 'n’ roll direction, we should turn it up a bit and not be afraid to write a song that’s straight-up rock,” she says, adding that she grew up on heavy doses of Janis Joplin, Carole King and Linda Ronstadt. “So we did it on purpose this time, and I was so excited for that record to come out, even though it came out at a strange time.”
Working again with producer Jay Joyce, a guy McBryde describes as a “mad scientist,” McBryde writes with a sharp eye for narrative. That approach comes across nicely in songs such as album opener, “Hang in There Girl,” an anthem buttressed by soaring vocals and bits of acoustic instrumentation.
“At the time, I was living out toward Watertown, TN, which is about an hour outside of Nashville,” she says. “I was driving into Watertown one day when I saw this young girl. She seemed to be in her teens. She was walking around in her sweat pants. She looked kind of like me when I was younger. It was probably her older brother’s hand-me-downs that she was wearing. She had gone out to the mailbox and looked like she was just mad at the world. She was kicking rocks. I wished I could tell her that in just a couple of years, she’d be out of school, and she’d have a job and have a car, and she would look back at the place so fondly and be so proud of how she was raised. I was the same way, even though I loved growing up on a farm. I’m so proud and so lucky I was raised that way.”
The rollicking “Martha Divine,” a song about cheating, comes off as McBryde’s answer to Dolly Parton’s “Jolene.”
“I would say, yeah. That’s my ‘Jolene,’” says McBryde of the tune. “It’s a little different. It’s as if ‘Jolene’ was written from the standpoint of the daughter instead of from the standpoint of the woman being cheated on."
“Stone,” another album highlight, was inspired by her brother’s suicide. McBryde wrote the ballad with her friend Nicolette Hayford.
“[Hayford] had also lost her sibling in a much different way,” says McBryde. “I was telling her how I was still pretty angry about losing my brother and wanted to write something about that and tell him that he made a big mess we were all left to clean up. She said, ‘You know I’m not going to let you write an angry song about my brother.’ I laughed really hard and that made me tear up. I sounded like my brother when I laughed. I also get pissed as easy as he did too. [Hayford] said, ‘Go grab your guitar.’ We started writing it and started with that chorus. We wrote a song that wasn’t angry at all, and I was happy to honor him with that song, which we recorded on what would have been his birthday.”
McBryde hit the road over the summer and has been going strong ever since (she says she’ll be off for about 11 days over the holidays before returning to touring).
“We were so out of shape when we started out,” she admits. “I hadn’t run around and sung for 90 minutes in a while. We gave ourselves a couple of shows, but we were so happy. Everyone is so happy to be back in front of an audience and on the stage that what little mistakes there were were received with a lot of grace. I can’t fricking wait until the tour comes to Cleveland. It’s going to be great.”