Songs We Love: Ashley McBryde, 'Andy (I Can't Live Without You)'
Ashley McBryde is used to strangers pegging her as a Bonnie Raitt fan due to the white streak of hair sprouting from her otherwise brunette crown. A variation on that look has been Raitt's trademark for decades and McBryde is a genuine fan. But she's not trying to emulate the blues-pop legend so much as convey that she's comfortable in her own skin, and wholly unfazed by popular music's obsession with youth.
"My hair turned gray when I was 24," McBryde shrugs, reclining in a leather-upholstered easy chair, numerous tattoos visible beneath her shirt sleeves. "That's the only part of my hair we don't color."
Even in the country music world, historically adult in its image, concerns and appeal, McBryde is something of an anomaly these days. Particularly for female artists, often held to impossible standards of desirability, to not land a deal by the age of 25 is to reach your expiration date in the eyes of many in Nashville. Yet here she is, releasing her major label debut, the hearty and headstrong Girl Going Nowhere, in her mid-thirties.
"If you are fortunate and you work hard and you get a label behind you like Warner [Nashville] right now is with me, I'm not gonna say it's brave of them to do that, but I'm gonna say it's smart," she chuckles. "Because we've got stuff to say."
By "we," McBryde means songwriters and performers who've lived a little and worked out their identities by the time they enter the spotlight. The Arkansas native is proud of her "11 years in dive bars and biker bars and trucker bars."
"I'm lucky that I've gotten to live this much of a life," she tells NPR. "I've encountered almost all the surprises that you're gonna encounter before 50, right? It's hard to surprise me at this point."
McBryde sings with sanguine fortitude, and there's a companionable, anthemic, underdog appeal to some of her best-known songs, like "American Scandal," "A Little Dive Bar In Dahlonega" and the small-town-girl-made-good title track. But only a seasoned songwriter could've captured subtleties of committed affection the way that she did in "Andy (I Can't Live Without You)," which NPR is premiering today with a performance video.
Jewly Hight: I think "Andy (I Can't Live Without You)" is the only song on here that you wrote solo.
Ashley McBryde: On this album, yeah. I wrote it in the kitchen because I was mad at [band guitarist and roommate] Andrew [Sovine].
We used to go out every Monday night. We would go to Dan McGuinness [Pub]. I would play Guinness Girls, that writers' [round], and then he would meet me back at the house and we would put on silly hats and drink moonshine and sing gospel songs while playing instruments. We were both raised in the Church of Christ, where it's a sin to play an instrument. We called the game "Get Drunk for Jesus." So we were like, [singing] "Some glad morning when this life is over"... only dressed as a bunny. Or I had him in a dress one time.
That whole song came about because I had gotten home before him and asked when he was gonna get to the house, and he texted and said he wasn't coming home that night. I thought, 'Well, I'll drink by myself.' I reached up and grabbed my bottle of Elijah Craig and there wasn't as much in it. He'd been drinking my whiskey without asking. Then I looked at my house and my life. It was been a wreck since Andrew Sovine had moved in with me. I thought I would just kinda vent and complain about it. Through doing that, I [realized], "Man, that is my absolute best friend in this whole wide world."
The details are so intimate; the line about using your good towels on the dog. It definitely feels like a conversation going on between people who inhabit the same space.
Sometimes the specificity of it is what makes it so relatable to other folks. He still disagrees that he used my good towels on the dog.
I think people in town for a long time thought Andrew and I were together. I mean, I know they did. I joke with people: "This is why I don't write love songs, guys, because that song is about my buddy."
It does capture an affection that runs deeper than exasperation. It's a very believable song about a relationship.
Absolutely. I've played it live all over the place and people have said, "That's my marriage exactly!" Good, then I did it right.
You also have a song on your album called "Radioland" that describes your dad on a tractor listening to Townes Van Zandt, your mom blaring the kitchen radio and you listening to country and Top 40. It sounds like your parents' lives were enriched by music. How did it become the pursuit of your life?
There were always instruments around. All six siblings can sing well.
I grew up in a bluegrass world. I was four days old when I went to my first bluegrass festival.
Did you experiment with sibling harmony?
Only in church. 'Cause, you know, we all kind of have always butted heads. Luckily, my grandmother, my dad's mom, required each of us to be able to read the shape notes in the hymnal.
But I grew up in a bluegrass world. I was four days old when I went to my first bluegrass festival. My mother was married to a guy named Roger Wooten and he and his family had a bluegrass band. That family really took us in and accepted us a part of their family, too.
I had a yellow and blue Mickey Mouse Telecaster, plastic strings. I would always take my little lawn chair [at festivals] and sit in the front row and strum my guitar and watch these bands. I asked my mom, "Can I get on stage?" So, she asked my grandfather, "Would you help Ashley jump on stage between bands or something?" He talked to [the bluegrass band] the Tennessee Gentlemen and they said, "Sure." I got to go sit on the end of the stage and play my little guitar. Then at the end of a song, my mom tells the story that everybody started clapping and my eyes lit up. She thought, 'Oh, crap. She's gonna want to be on stage.'
And that changed to me getting up and singing in the instrument mics as I got a little bit older. So, the love of performing and playing and all that, it was just in me.
The bluegrass world really nurtures aspiring young musicians.
The best part was after the festival, the jam session. My mom would take a bucket or milk crate and set it at these jam sessions and say, "Sit down and watch and learn." As I got older, I'd say, "Hey, mister, how do you play an F?" They'd show me how to do it. The thing about bluegrass is you have access to the masters of that craft. There's no other genre of music that's like that, where it's the novices and the masters all in the same place.
I never had a bluegrass band of my own. But I was always up for jam sessions. And I really liked what they call classic country now, but it was just country to me then. I stayed in that space for a long time, and it wasn't until really college that rock and blues started sinking in there and finding the cracks and filling them up.
You're known for the tough side of what you do, the country-rock and blues elements, along with your confessional singer-songwriter side. But you're musical background is even broader than that. You sang with a jazz ensemble and were into musical theater. How has that factored in?
I have a big love for jazz music. The only thing I hated about singing with a jazz band was having to wear a gown to everything. That's the costume. I was lucky to grow up with a mom who was really familiar with musicals. My first musical I ever went to see live was The Music Man. A friend of hers was in the pit band. It was so cool.
The performance aspect of musical theater is a really interesting thing because they're not just singing a song, they're conveying it, even if it's just with their eyebrows or mannerisms.
You've told the story of the algebra teacher who told you your musical dreams were completely unrealistic. Surely you must've encountered other discouraging feedback along the way. What made that early episode stick with you?
I think it's because I was so young — you know, ninth, 10th grade. I was really shy anyway, so for me to even divulge that information in front of 25 other kids, to say, "I wanna write songs someday," when no one really even knew that I played guitar and did all that stuff? For her to try to squash that right then was pretty scarring for a kid in high school. Thank god I experienced my first big "no" at a young age, because then I got here and my skin was already thicker.
Her words actually stuck with me through every job I've ever had. I was a server. I've slung barbecue, Italian food. I was a veterinary technician, a security guard at a catholic hospital, and I would always hear that: "You're never gonna be much."
I listened to an old album of yours, Elsebound. It had a little more of a folk rock feel to it.
There are bits and pieces of evidence out there of you figuring out your thing.
Making that record was a development thing. It was me and a guy named Mike Holmes. I had damaged my throat so badly that I was gonna have to have surgery.
By over-singing? Or singing improperly?
By singing in bars and drinking beer and smoking a pack of cigarettes a night or dipping a can of dip a night. I remember the day I injured it, and, like, a year later I finally went to the doctor and it was bad. Mike and I had been kind of working on getting me used to the studio. He was just a really nice guy that let me do that. I was afraid that if something went wrong with that surgery, what if I never sang again? So we actually cut those vocals the night before the surgery. I stood in the studio, in the vocal booth and Mike was like, "Do you understand that you have other tools that you're not accessing? You've already injured yourself. I want you to go in there and sing it six times, different every time. I don't care if you miss a note, because I know something is in there." And it was full voice, not head voice. I was like, "Whoa. There is a whole other bag of tools in there."
Then Jalopies & Expensive Guitars was an EP that we were trying to just get any kind of momentum with. There's stuff on there that I wanted on there and there's stuff on there that I wouldn't have chosen. We needed it to be radio-friendly. That was still part of the figuring-out process.
When I met [manager] John Peets and we started taking about figuring out songs to do, which ones to send to [producer] Jay [Joyce], I had permission at that point to just be myself, and the opportunity to do something I'd never done before, which was use just my band on the record. That was a big deal: "Guys, we can just relax and do it. This record is supposed to sound like us."
It's been pointed out what an unlikely thing it is for an artist who happens to be a woman in her mid-30s to get the push that you're getting at this point. The only other example I can even think of this millennium is Brandy Clark. How did you confront that reality during your nearly dozen-year slog?
I would be like, "Ash, in all reality here, you're not 25 years old, and you know that that's kind of the stopping point." The rest of my brain would go, "I don't care. I'm going to be doing this no matter what's behind it or what's not behind it."
I moved to town to be a songwriter first. I knew that I wanted to perform, but I knew that the chances of that were pretty slim from the beginning.
Was there a real distinction between what you were writing for other artists and for yourself?
Yes. There was a time period when writing for me was a completely different thing that writing for somebody else. I've written some songs that I wouldn't listen to. That was just sort of the culture at the time: "Hey, this person's cutting [a new record] and we need this song about bubblegum and popsicles and puppies."
You might as well not fake authenticity, because I'm terrible at it.
The most honest I was and the more "me" songs I wrote, the more attention those got from other artists anyway. You might as well not fake authenticity, because I'm terrible at it.
I first heard of you not from any music industry types, but from a friend who'd seen you play in a local bar. You spent a number of years building a following on your own. What did you learn about your audience?
It's a really wide range of people. I would do these covers gigs where I could get 40 percent original stuff in there. I stopped telling people when something was original, because they stopped being able to tell the difference. There wasn't a person across a desk telling me that the song I wrote today was good. There were 35 bikers who could give a damn if there's anybody playing [music] or not. That was my testing ground for material, stage presence and jokes. If you could catch the attention of these — my mother would call them ruffians, even though bikers are the sweetest demographic in the world — if you can make a bar that doesn't care pay attention, then whatever you did, keep going in that direction and start to use that as your barometer.
Sometimes I would play really, really nice places, and I didn't do as good there. I got hired to play this thing in Memphis, and there were table cloths. That was my first red flag. It was all stemless wine glasses and things like that, and I'm in a plaid shirt. Everybody's in cocktail attire. I made jokes with the bartender that were not funny. They handed me this beautiful globe-shaped glass of whiskey when I asked for it, and I said, "Pardon me, sir. This mug ain't got no handle." He looked at me like I had nine heads, and I was like, "OK, so this probably isn't my demographic."
There is a longstanding relationship between country music and biker culture.
When I was growing up, it was something to be afraid of. People talked about biker clubs and bike gangs like they were super dangerous, when they're really just an awesome community.
My very first time in a biker bar, I was terrified. There was a sign that said "Bikes only." This guy stopped me. I was like, "Oh, I needed to pull my truck back here [to unload my P.A.]. I hope you don't mind." And he was like, "We were going to unload your stuff for you." All these guys came and grabbed it all. That's biker culture. Same thing with truckers.
The thing about bikers and truckers is they're just regular folks, and that's definitely my demographic. I'm never looking for a pedestal. If I can convince you that you want to have a beer with me, then I've done a good job of entertaining.
People have conjectured that Chris Stapleton's success has helped make space for you to do what you do. But you've also made me think back to when Gretchen Wilson broke through representing blue-collar toughness.
Being one of the boys while being all woman, that's a hard line to walk. I found Gretchen Wilson in college. Here I am with a can of dip in my pocket, and this chick dips tobacco. There were other artists that were able to embody grace and beauty and still be super tough. Terri Clark was one.
Stapleton has opened doors for us. [Jason] Isbell has opened doors for us, also. Margo Price. But maybe you're right that people have kind of forgotten that Gretchen was kicking those doors open 10 years ago.
What did you make of it when you heard what Wilson was doing, the kinds of songs she wrote, saw how she presented herself, what her music videos were like?
The first concert ticket I ever spent my own money on was [when] Big & Rich and Gretchen Wilson [and the] Muzik Mafia came to my college campus. Really, when I first saw her music videos and bought the record and all that, I thought, 'Finally, someone who speaks exactly my language.'
When we started making this record, I was looking at country music is this big, giant place now where we have all these sub-genres. We have our power vocalist, and we have our resident bad-ass. What we didn't have was, "Where's my Joan Jett? Is it OK if we do that in this song?" And it was. That was me naming a lane.
Girl Going Nowhere comes out March 30 via Warner Music Nashville.
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