When it comes to creating new music, Ashley McBryde doesn’t believe in carrying baggage.
“The first record did not get to come to the studio with the second record,” she tells Sounds Like Nashville of recording her highly anticipated new album, Never Will, which released April 3.
It might have been tempting to try to recreate the success of her previous album, the Grammy nominated Girl Going Nowhere, but that’s not McBryde’s style. Instead of trying to replicate her major label debut or being paralyzed by fear of the dreaded sophomore slump, McBryde boldly charged forward and the result is a compelling collection of songs that cover a wide range of emotional territory with authenticity and heart.
“Of course there’s pressure because you have to prove with the second record that the first one wasn’t a fluke,” she admits, “but we didn’t go into it like, ‘Okay, we’ve got to earn another Grammy nomination’ or anything like that. We decided to go in as a band that has a lot of rock and roll tendencies, a lot of blues tendencies and a lot of bluegrass tendencies. We just decided to do everything that we kind of leaned towards louder and on purpose.”
McBryde grew up singing in a biker bar in her native Arkansas and released three independent projects before signing with Warner Music Nashville and releasing Girl Going Nowhere in 2018. The album struck a chord with both consumers and critics and McBryde’s career took off. In addition to landing a Grammy nomination for Best Country Album in 2019, McBryde was named Best New Artist at the CMA Awards, ACM New Female Artist and CMT Breakout Artist of the Year. She earned two more Grammy nominations in 2020— Best Country Song and Best Country Solo Performance for “Girl Goin’ Nowhere.”
Working again with producer Jay Joyce, McBryde started with around 30 songs then whittled it down to the 11 that made it on the new record. “We let those songs duke it out on their own in the rehearsal room. Our goal was to take this cool collection of songs and play them well and put them together in way that you’d want to listen to them more than once,” she says. “When that’s the only goal, there’s no way to do it wrong. We didn’t shoot ourselves in the foot by saying, ‘We need an “El Dorado” for this record or we need another “Livin’ Next to Leroy” for this record.’”
The first single from the album, “One Night Standards,” is currently climbing the charts. “We wrote that song kind of last minute right when we thought we were getting ready to go in to make the record,” she says of the song she co-wrote with Nicolette Hayford and Shane McAnally. “I thought, ‘We really need a love song,’ and that’s not what came out that day. We had already written the song halfway and it really wasn’t hitting the way we wanted it to hit. So we took it to Shane McAnally and said, ‘Can you help us fix what’s wrong with the song?’ And he said, ‘There’s nothing wrong with the song. You just haven’t been as honest as you know how to be.’ So we looked at it and just made it a little more honest and out it came.”
Honesty is one of McBryde’s obvious virtues, especially when it comes to her confessional songwriting. That trait is ever present in the songs on the new album, and one of the things she hopes fans take away from the record is hope. “There are a few messages that I hope that present themselves when you listen and one would be hang in there because it gets better,” she says. “Everybody is going through something. I needed to be reminded to hang in there and somebody else needs to be reminded too. So first of all hope and perseverance.”
Another message she wanted to convey is that loss is okay. “It sucks, but it’s okay to embrace it,” she says. “It’s okay to feel the way you feel when you feel that way and not everybody handles it the same way. So you’ve got ‘Stone’ [co-written by McBryde and Hayford], which is not there to make you sad. That’s there because a lot of us are sad. We’re not alone in that thought. Then you’ve got a song like ‘Sheila,’ which is also about loss, and that’s there to remind you that not everybody deals with shit the way that you deal with it.”
“Shut Up Sheila,” written by Hayford and Charles Chisholm, is one of only two songs on the album that McBryde didn’t co-write. (The other is the closing track “Styrofoam,” penned by Randall Clay.) “I heard ‘Sheila’ when Nicolette wrote it and sent it to me a couple of year ago, I was like, ‘Oh my God! Mark my words, I will put this on a record!’ This is brilliant and I think this is the countriest country song I’ve heard literally in a long time. Everybody has somebody in their family that you want to say this to. Most of us won’t get the opportunity or grow the balls to do it, so now you won’t have to you can just listen to the track. Everybody has a Sheila in their family. I’ve got two in mine. This is the person in your family that always has something to say about whatever it is you are doing. Let’s say you recently lost weight, instead of going, ‘Oh you look nice. What are you doing that is working for you?’ They go, ‘Well you could eat.’ And this is the same person who, when your grandmother is passing away and you are singing a song to your Granny, she says, ‘I don’t think this is the proper place to be singing a song,’ and you are like, ‘Come on! Not everybody deals with stuff the same way.’ It’s that person you could never ever please, and finally you just look at them one day and go, ‘Shut up!’”
McBryde describes the title track, “Never Will,” as a song she hopes will make people drive too fast when the hear it. “I guess you could just sum it up by saying, ‘Stop reading the comments. Everybody is going to have something to say about what you do and who you are no matter what you do or who you are,’” she says. “It’s impossible to please everybody, but you can piss them all off at the same time if you’d like to.”
For McBryde “Sparrow” is the most personal song on the record. “I sing that song as if it comes from inside my bones because I love what I do for a living and my family wants me to succeed,” she says, “but nobody warned me that I was going to have to trade seeing my family to do this. It’s a very weird and strange balance. You’re going to miss birthdays and surgeries and weddings and funerals for God sake. It’s all a big trade off. They get to see you on the TV. You just don’t get to see them. It doesn’t matter if you’re a police officer, a long haul truck driver, a salesman that travels a lot or an armed service man or woman, your family wants you to succeed at this thing that you love and you miss them dearly. That’s my most personal song.”
When asked if touring last year and meeting so many fans had an impact on the songs she wrote for this new album, McBryde says, “I don’t think it affected the writing. I think it affected the song choices. “Girl Goin’ Nowhere” didn’t get much love on the radio, but that song has impacted more people than any other song on that record. I had a little girl say to me at the table one time, ‘I want to be a girl going nowhere,’ and I was like, ‘That’s why you put that song on the record!’ It helps me to choose songs.”
McBryde is hoping to shoot videos for every song on the album. “I want to tie all 11 songs together visually. Every character can pop in and out of any of these videos and you would see them later in a video,” she says. “We shot ‘One Night Standard,’ ‘Martha Devine,’ and ‘Hang In There Girl’ all in the same two days. Then we did the video for ‘First Thing I Reach For,’ but that was kind of a day in the life of the band kind of thing. We haven’t shot anything else, but we’ve got my little sketches where I want to go.”
So much in McBryde’s life has changed since the success of her last album, and she admits she’s trying to make better choices and live a healthier life. “The biggest change was learning that I’m not 21 and my health is something I’m going to have to focus on,” she says candidly. “There are people depending on me. There are fans that need the music and there are 11 other people on the bus that all work with me. They need me to be healthy. That was one of the hardest things to grasp. I was drinking too much. I was drinking like it was just okay to drink as much as you wanted to drink every time and that’s not true. Part of being a whiskey drinking badass is knowing when to stop.”
McBryde admits she stills hasn’t quite mastered the art of temperance, but she’s working on it. “This morning I’m hung over because we’re in quarantine and I decided to drink a bottle of tequila and smoke a bunch of cigarettes last night,” she says. “It was a really, really, really shitty idea. For no reason, I just did it. I made a poor health choice, and I’m really paying for that today. So when I work out in a little bit, I’m going to really, really hate those cigarettes.”