When Ashley McBryde’s debut single, “A Little Dive Bar in Dahlonega,” came out in 2017, it made a lot of country fans think back to the previous time a first single had the kind of combination hookiness and hardscrabble detail that sat them bolt upright in their bucket seats. That last such example of a thoroughly lived-in-feeling freshman grabber of a song — for a lot of us, anyway — would have been Kacey Musgraves’ “Merry Go ’Round,” which in 2012 marked the arrival of one of the genre’s major modern talents. That McBryde has her first album coming out the same day as Musgraves’ third is cause to remember and celebrate that, in country, it seems to be the women who arrive as fully formed individualists. (Theories about why the ladies are owning it will have to wait for another time — although baseball caps being laden with creativity-stifling toxins seems as good a conspiracy theory as any.)
Although Musgraves and McBryde happen to be arriving on the same street date, their releases aren’t really in competition, at least stylistically. That’s because Musgraves is pretty much reinventing her whole sound and lyrical approach with “Golden Hour,” as if she’d planned to cede the smart-girl-writes-about-small-town-life space to McBryde all along. She’s also ditched the kitschy throwback aspects of her look and the whimsicality of songs like “Biscuits” and “Follow Your Arrow” for a regionally unspecific record that might be more quickly identified as pop.
That’s not to say she’ll be pulling a Taylor Swift move and inviting Kendrick onto a record anytime soon; we’re talking a distinctly chill, finger-picky brand of pop. With the virtually all-ballad “Golden Hour,” Musgraves is shifting into a genre that might best be described as artful adult contemporary, where the acoustic guitars and banjos sound more canyon-y than twangy, and sit comfortably alongside lush synth touches and even the odd Vocoder effect. It’s a measure of how much of a departure it is that her label isn’t even attempting to work a single onto country radio.
On first listen, “Golden Hour” might be disappointing for a Musgraves fan who assumed that certain wry or retro traits were immutable. The humor and novelistic lyrics are initially missed, and the mood of the album is so subdued that it’s not until 11 songs into a 13-track collection that you get a “tempo” tune, in “High Horse” — and the tempo in question is vintage disco. But on second or third review, it feels like she’s making exactly the right move by painting herself out of a corner, as lovable as that corner was.
“Write what you know” has apparently led Musgraves to quit making both jokey and lonely material — with the exception here of the awesomely lonesome “Space Cowboy” — to come up with a shockingly romantic record that suggests a good measure of newlywed bliss. After we’d previously heard Musgraves apply her unaffectedly sweet voice to so many acerbic, dryly funny songs, it’s slightly startling to hear her spend almost an entire album using it to be … sweet.
The album is quietly sexy, too, living up to the first track’s promise of a “Slow Burn” (which she says is “good in a glass, good on green / Good when you’re putting your hands all over me”). Maybe she’ll get back someday to her vintage Loretta Lynn fetish, but damn if she isn’t just as appealing as a folky Sade.
Meanwhile, if you still require an unabashed, Southern-rooted, honest-to-gawd great country record on March 30, McBryde is here to make sure that jones is satiated. As much as we might compare her to Musgraves Mach 1, you can also think of her as the cross between Gretchen Wilson and Brandy Clark we didn’t realize we needed: a tatted-up rabble-rouser who’s the farthest thing from shy onstage and also not shy about name-checking Townes Van Zandt in a song. “Girl Going Nowhere,” her unprophetically titled debut, is rife with autobiographical detail, rowdiness and sensitivity. She can blast your windows out with anthemic passion — “American Scandal” makes her sound momentarily like country’s answer to Melissa Etheridge — and then surprise you with the earworm-iest tune you’ve ever heard about a deceased meth-dealer neighbor (“Livin’ Next to LeRoy”).
McBryde has never met an opening-act slot she couldn’t slay. But even thoroughly convinced country radio programmers are being a little sluggish about moving “Little Dive Bar in Dahlonega” up the chart where it belongs. (Maybe, when they do the callout research, they’ll just need to make sure that tongue-twister of a title is offered as a multiple-choice option and not a write-in.) Regardless of how it makes its way to No. 1 in country fans’ hearts, you’d be hard-pressed to think of a better paean to the transformative power of coming across music in the neon-lit wild as a cure for depression — or, as McBryde sings in her great run-on sentence of a chorus: “Man, it’s a hitting-rock-bottom, smoke-’em-if-you-got-’em, nothing’s-going-right, making-the-best-of-the-worst-day kind of night.” Even those closer to Dulles than Dahlonega may relate.