How a High School Algebra Teacher Inspired Ashley McBryde to Chase Her Dreams

After a teacher laughed off her dream of making music for a living, McBryde was inspired to make that dream a reality. 

Written by Chuck Dauphin
How a High School Algebra Teacher Inspired Ashley McBryde to Chase Her Dreams
Ashley McBryde; Photo Credit: John Peets

Much admired newcomer Ashley McBryde admits that she has become quite used to playing the part of the underdog in her career. That’s why the recent success of her single “A Little Dive Bar In Dahlonega,” has surprised the singer just a little bit.

“It’s kind of a strange thing,” she tells Sounds Like Nashville. “I’ve been playing in bars for about eleven years. All of a sudden, this buzz starts to happen, and it’s been strange to process it at the same time that we’ve been doing it. We’re going out and doing all of these festival shows, and each set has been better than the last. I’m still operating until the pretense that nobody knows who I am, and that’s not the truth anymore,” she said, thanks in large part to the exposure the song has received on SiriusXM. “People are asking me about meet and greets, and I have never done one. I’m not famous. So, I go hang out with people after we play a set. It’s weird to get phone calls, Tweets, and shout-outs from people who I have admired for so many years, now that the buzz is out there.”

She has made fans of her fellow artists and critics alike and has recently been compared to the likes of Hank Williams Jr. and Miranda Lambert.

“To see that, I just thought ‘Wow.’ That was a heavy thing,” she recognizes. “I am proud to be from Arkansas and to be from the Red Clay. I admire Miranda’s songwriting so much. We get put in the same group a lot, which is not a bad thing. Anytime somebody lumps you in with someone like that, it’s a really good thing. Having sang with Hank Williams, Jr., I know he has a whole lot of swagger, so for someone to think that I have a tablespoon of that, that makes me really happy.”

Music has always been a crucial part of her life, going back to her earliest childhood memories while growing up in Fulton County, Arkansas. She says it was either that or tending to the family farm.

“There were six of us, and we worked really hard from the get-go,” the singer recalls. “Running a farm is hard no matter how many people that you have. We all worked from the time that we were itty bitty. As soon as you could hold a shovel, you could find something that you could get done.”

When she wasn’t helping her family tend to the farm, McBryde could be found playing music. “I grew up playing Bluegrass, and doing a lot of shows. I started out playing mandolin when I was about three or four. So, I had a very strong Bluegrass influence, and also what is called ‘classic country’ now. I loved Dolly Parton and Ronnie Milsap, and as I started to develop my sound, I was more on the country side than the bluegrass side, and I was okay with that. I realized that there could also be a rock edge to it. The older I got, the more my sound became concrete. I think that’s from playing a mandolin and a guitar all day long. That’s all we had to do. It took us forty-five minutes to get to school. I had some friends of who would ask me ‘Why are you such a good guitar player?’ I didn’t have anything to do while growing up except for playing guitar. I joke sometimes that my siblings wouldn’t play with me while I was little, so I got really good at playing guitar and making up songs myself.”

Most who were aware of her talents were generally supportive of her career endeavors, but there was one person whose criticism of her dreams stung deep – and wound up inspiring her to prove them wrong. “I was in an Algebra class in ninth or tenth grade, and I had known since I was small that I wanted to make music for a living someday. I didn’t know how I was going to accomplish that, but I knew that’s what I was going to do. When I told [the teacher] I was going to make up songs for a living, I remember her telling me, ‘Well, that’s stupid. That would not happen, so I better have a really good back-up plan.’ Her words really weighed on me the rest of my growing-up life. I thought that no matter what I did, I wasn’t good enough to do this. So, I did the best thing possible for me in that my back-up plan was not to have one. I played music in Arkansas and did well, then moved to Memphis and did well. I thought ‘If I really want to find out whether I’m any good at this or not, I’ve got to go ahead and go to Nashville.’”

Making the move to Music City was frightening, but she says the unknown was intriguing. “It was terrifying to move to Nashville. It doesn’t pay anything to play hardly anywhere. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to pay the bills by just playing guitar. It was scary, but anything that scares the pants off of you is something that you should look into and do it. Perseverance is a really good word, and it really is a reoccurring theme. It’s not easy to make a living writing songs, especially when you don’t have big cuts coming in every day. You just have to keep doing it. The best thing about songwriting is the more that you do it, the better you are it. It’s like doing push-ups. There are going to be good days and bad days, but no matter what, you’re making progress.”

The singer says that the impact her song has made so far has surprised a lot of people – including her. “When we decided that this was going to be the single, I didn’t see it coming. But, I get it. It’s a song that I care a lot about. I didn’t know if it was single material, but it started to resonate with people. The two co-writers and I, Nicolette Hayford and Jesse Rice, we each had terrible days and a terrible night leading up to the night that we wrote. Everything that could have gone wrong went absolutely wrong. I had already said ‘We’re just not going to write anything today. We’re getting bad omens everywhere we turn.’ In talking about our bad days, we came out with this tune. It didn’t take us that long once we decided to put all of the facts together from all three of our bad days. Jesse started talking about meeting his wife at a little dive bar in Dahlonega, Georgia. It took me forever to learn to spell it correctly, so I made sure that was in the title. If I had to learn how to spell it, other people needed to learn to,” she said with a laugh.

McBryde is putting the final touches on her upcoming album, which she recorded with Jay Joyce, known for his work with Eric Church and Little Big Town. She says that she loved the recording process with the producer, who definitely caters his sessions to the strengths of the individual artist. “The way we did it – we’re both used to playing in bars for a long time, so we’re used to being up late at night in that kind of vibe. Jay really wanted us to feel authentic and honest. Even though we were in a studio, we were all in one room together – besides the drums, which had to be behind the door. We could all see each other and interact with each other. We didn’t even get to the studio until six o’clock at night. We would get there, have a snack, grab a drink, and play some songs. We did each one three or four times just to make sure we had complete tracks and didn’t have to comp anything. What Jay Joyce adds to a track is like an artist signing a painting at the very bottom. They don’t write their name across the center, but they make sure that at the end, you can tell it’s a Jay Joyce track. He took what we already knew how to do and magnified it, and really brought a new life for each song.”

A song that will likely be included on her upcoming full-length debut is “Girl Goin’ Nowhere,” a tune that was inspired by that algebra teacher who brushed off her desire to make music for a living. McBryde wrote the song with the Grand Ole Opry in mind and recently got to fulfill her dream of singing it on the revered stage.

“I wrote that in response to the teacher who told me I was stupid and would never make it a living writing songs so I could sing it when I stepped into the ‘Circle’ at the Opry,” she explains. “I got about three-fourths of the way through it before I started crying that night. I had been singing that song since we wrote it knowing that someday it would serve its higher purpose, and I would be there in the ‘Circle’ doing the song that we wrote for that moment.”

Ashley McBryde will have a chance to step into the circle and perform the song once again on Saturday (Aug. 26) when she returns to the Grand Ole Opry.