The intersection of “redneck” and “sensitive singer-songwriter” has been an ever-narrowing Venn diagram in the last couple decades. Maybe it’s the waning of Texas’ influence on mainstream country music, or maybe the commodification of the outlaw label by a generation of singers who don’t really have anything more to rebel against than a low stock of light beer. Still, there remains the faint promise that when someone sings, “All my rowdy friends are coming over tonight,” they might all be coming over for, you know, poetry class.
All of which is preamble to why Ashley McBryde arrived as such a breath of Woodford-scented fresh air when she came on the national scene with her 2018 album “Girl Going Nowhere” and seemed primed to give us a bit of Patty Griffin and Gretchen Wilson in the same tatted-up package. Here, you sensed, was a woman who could likely drink you under the table, and who you knew could write you under the table. The Arkansas native came off as the practiced veteran of a thousand open-mic nights, as well as somebody who might actually have played — and slayed — from behind chicken wire at some point in her three and a half decades.
Following up on a slew of accolades — like the CMA, ACM and CMT awards for new artist of the year — her second major-label album, “Never Will,” is not a letdown. Along with a handful of not-always-well-known co-writers (and one fairly recognizable one, Brandy Clark, who contributed to two tracks), McBryde has come up with an 11-song collection finely honed enough to beckon the question: Does modern mainstream country deserve writing this good? Maybe not, but it’s getting it anyway, even if it’s not in the form of top 10 hits. Probably every real country fan in the nation knows who she is and likes her at this point, thanks to her awards, winning TV moments and relentless opening tour slots. Radio people even adore her; unlike, say, Kacey Musgraves, who they secretly whisper breathes too rarefied an air for their format, McBryde has a one-of-the-boys personality that makes her an easy fit for every radio tour stop in America. Now if they just get the message that their audience already digs her — and that critical hosannas are nothing to hold against her — imagine what could happen.
Her label made a somewhat brave, even wanton, decision out of the gate by releasing “One Night Standards” as the new album’s first single. But it’s a song that would have been a smash in the distant era when country radio played cheating laments (even if this one doesn’t technically count, since the couple sizing each other up probably aren’t up on their luck enough to have anyone to be cheating on). “How it goes is, the bar closes / There ain’t no king bed covered in roses,” she sings in a ballad about lowering the bar for whoever helps you make it through the night. While the number is not exactly, shall we say, aspirational, it provides an evocative reprise of a theme that used to be country songwriting’s bread and butter: sad carnality.
The track that follows it on the album is even more uncompromising: “Shut Up Sheila” is about the grandchildren of a dying woman trying to shoo off an evangelical interloper. “We don’t cry, we don’t pray … and if we want to throw the ashes off the goddamn roof, we’re going to,” McBryde sings in a slow-burning rocker that’s the least pious death song country has churned out in a generation.
“Shut Up Sheila” is one of just a couple of songs on the album in which McBryde isn’t credited as a co-writer, but it does bear the imprint of someone who collaborated with the singer on several of its other tracks, Nicolette Hayford, who ought to be pushed to the front ranks of go-to Nashville writers just on the basis of these new songs alone. Another song that was written by Hayford and McBryde as a duo, “Stone,” might actually be the standout on an album that is full of them. It’s a somber ballad about family members who seem hard as a rock, and being a little bit afraid that you identify with them. The song is dedicated to service members who suffer from PTSD, including McBryde’s brother, who committed suicide in 2018. You’ll find it hard to believe anyone could stretch the title metaphor for as many lines as she and Hayford do, in an extended riff on personal stoicism that is at once warm and bone-chilling, if you consider such a thing possible.
She also gets personal about family matters in a more light-hearted — but by her account, equally true-too-life — vein with “Martha Divine,” a high-energy warning to a mistress who’s about to get a boot up her ass (it’s the Loretta-can way), the slight twist here being that it’s a daughter threatening to do damage to the woman coming between mama and dad.
There are definitely format-friendlier, if not 100% family-friendlier, tracks. She strikes notes of feisty inspiration more than she does wry depression. The opening number, “Hang In There Girl,” is a message of hope delivered to a teenage girl she drives by on “the other side of the poverty line … [with] two old mutts in a single wide.” The title track, which is a little bit in a Southern-fried Gin Blossoms anthemic country-rock vein, follows the theme of her previous album’s title as a kiss-off to everyone who told her she didn’t have what it takes to make it in showbiz. (Given how little precedent there is for anyone with her look and attitude breaking out recently, you can almost excuse that underestimation.) “I can point out the names and the faces of the people who said it / But honestly I just don’t want ’em to get any credit,” she sings. It’s a song about not selling out that does a great job selling itself.
Producer Jay Joyce does some salesmanship of his own, alternating between modern country, proto-hillbilly and ’80s rock styles with always something mixed just peculiarly enough in the headphones to not let familiar instrumental beds sound too staid. But it’s McBryde as the driver that makes this the second straight country album of the year contender in a row he’s produced (coming off Brandy Clark’s very different, more stylized effort).
Now if only the characters McBryde writes about can pace some of their self-destructive habits, they might be around to see her get into the Hall of Fame in 40 years.
Warner Music Nashville