For the most part, when you see an artist working in the musical mainstream referred to as a “critical favorite,” the implication is that the artist in question has been stacking up a larger amount of keyboard-powered praise than gold record plaques and number one singles. It’s tough to argue anyone currently fits that bill more right now than Ashley McBryde.
The Arkansas native’s stellar 2018 LP, Girl Going Nowhere, not only received unanimous praise from any notable outlet covering country music, but netted the 36-year old a moving truck’s worth of award nominations and trophies. With only one major label release to her name, she’s not only racked up a couple of Grammy nominations, but has prizes from the ACMs, CMAs and CMT Awards sitting on her shelf.
But if anything is evident after listening to her latest, remarkable record, Never Will, it’s that she probably doesn’t care too much about what the critics think. If they like her, cool, but if not, she’s plenty secure in the quality of what she’s offering. We’d be surprised if she’s all too concerned with giving her award trophies any more prominent placing then any random doorstop might receive. Such a grounded, real and unflinching personality makes for a record that knows exactly what the hell it is from an artist who knows exactly the hell you’re listening to.
A “what you see is what you get” persona is only appealing if the person presenting it walks the walk to go with the big talk. With Never Will, McBryde wins over the listener with her believability. When she “tells it like it is,” we believe every syllable. Teaming again with producer Jay Joyce (Eric Church, Brandy Clark), Never Will is unapologetically empowering and uncommonly relatable.
The album-opening Americana-tinged rocker “Hang in There Girl” drapes up-tempo electric guitar and sweeping organ boldly around an anthem of encouragement. The following couple of songs are also empowerment-packed, though take a different route to that destination. “One Night Standards,” the mellow, yet dramatic lead single effectively builds tempo to the climactic chorus. Singing “Can’t you just use me, like I’m using you,” McBryde doesn’t shy away from the frank, no-bull approach only someone comfortable in her own skin can apply.
The moody, crawling, slowly pulsing “Shut Up Sheila” is another unrepentant tale of expression towards a nosy interloper casting holier-than-thou judgment. When McBryde seems to apologize, as she does in the honky-tonkin’ boogie-woogie gem “First Thing I Reach For,” she does so with a bit of humor, acknowledging that sometimes she’s her own worst enemy.
“Velvet Red” is a true bluegrass banger, bursting with rootsy instrumentation and sweet harmonies. Over the course of a few tunes, McBryde seems to effortlessly display her mastery over every sonic corner of the country music universe. The same range can be said for her vocal delivery. Dark and sinister at times (“Martha Divine”), and delicately tender at others (“Stone”), McBryde’s voice deserves every bit the shine her words rightfully receive.
On an album full of heart-busting anthems, the personal mission statement “Sparrow” is chief among the lot. It’s the sort of power-ballad that makes the hair on your neck stand up, and could be an ideal emotional punch to close her concerts. Her ability to own her circumstances and to take pride in where she’s from is as vital of an instrument for McBryde as her guitar is.
When she sings “Hard rain over Fayetteville / Jack and coke, sleeping pill / Living the dream / 30,000 feet down there / You’re waking Daddy up in his chair” the listener is being given the gift of stark reality, pure personal truth.
On Never Will, it’s not that McBryde is ever glorifying what other might deem as bad behavior. She’s simply laying out the truth. She’s being real, and you just need to accept it and enjoy it. If you don’t like it, that’s fine too, just don’t be like Sheila.