Ashley McBryde moves from promising new artist to one of her generation’s strongest voices with her confident and substantive new album, Never Will.
McBryde was raised on nineties country, and she learned all of the right lessons from the women of that era who have shaped her music, including the most important one of owning a unique style and point of view. There is no confusing McBryde with anybody else. Her vocal style, most clearly influenced by Terri Clark, has a sophisticated twang that proudly claims its small town country roots while doggedly insisting on a world beyond them.
The album opens with a message to small town girls like herself. “Hang in There Girl” paints the picture perfectly: “Half a mile on the other side of the low water bridge and the poverty line. Two old mutts in a single wide. That’s home.” In a bro-country saturated market that reduces such girls to pretty little things in cut-off shorts that are happy to be part of the scenery, McBryde is singing for the girl who wants to get out, and she knows instinctively that she might be the only voice that girl hears that encourages her to do so: “When the moment comes, buckle up and hold on tight.” It’s going to be hard, but hang in there girl, because sticking around is not an option.
McBryde is doggedly determined to give voice to women who exist in the real world but rarely make it on to a record. The woman in “Shut Up Sheila” rejects Christianity, at least in its most obnoxious small town form, asserting her family’s right to grieve the way it wants to: “We drink and we get high. We laugh at the wrong time. We don’t cry and we don’t pray.” The lonely woman of “One Night Standards” doesn’t bother to feign weakness as a fig leaf for a one night stand. She wants some action, and she’s using the guy as much as he’s using her: “I’m not going to say I never do this, because truth is, lonely makes a heart ruthless.”
In the “First Thing I Reach For,” she’s fully aware of her own vices, and makes no apologies for them: “Another night of bad decisions. There’s one still laying in my bed. The bastard in me wishes he’d have woke up first and left.” On the title track, she recounts those who told her not to pursue the road she’s traveling, but has so much confidence in her own integrity that she can write them off like this: “I can call out the names and the faces of the people who said it. Oh, but honestly, I just don’t want ’em to get any credit.”
The two best songs on the album are built around metaphors. The heartbreaking “Stone” finds her letting go of a loved one that she’s angry with but also able to see herself in. “I sway like you when I get nervous. I’m shy like you, but most folks couldn’t tell. I get the same shade of red as you did when I’m angry. I’m red right now ’cause I’m mad as hell…I’m just now finding out now that you’re gone. We were cut from the same stone.”
Even better is “Sparrow,” co-written with Brandy Clark. It captures the sacrifice of following your dream, which fulfills you like nothing else can. But it also means that you have to be separated from home and the ones you love. “Sparrow, oh, it wouldn’t trade nothing for the way it feels to fly. It ain’t fair though, how you miss the ground when you’re out here in the sky. Higher than you’ve ever been. Lonely like you never been. Waiting on the wind to take you home.”
There are some entertaining moments sprinkled throughout, including the dark humor of “Martha Divine” and the playfulness of “Styrofoam.” But it’s “Stone” and “Sparrow” that loudly proclaim that McBryde is a talent for the ages, and that she’s just getting better with time. I don’t know if radio will be the vehicle to get Ashley McBryde’s music to the girls who need to hear it, but it would be a tremendous loss for those girls – and the rest of us – if her voice doesn’t get more widely heard.