by Rachel Reeves
Growing up in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas, in a town of fewer than 1,000 people, Ashley McBryde didn’t have internet or cable TV. Raised by a preacher and a preacher’s wife, she associates her childhood with a Bible and a gun, per her song “Bible and a .44.” She wrote that one during a surreptitious session with her father’s prized Martin guitar, which she was forbidden from playing.
The doctrine of her church considered the use of instruments a sin. But at home, there was music.
“Mama kept Police playin’ in the kitchen turned up just a little too loud,” McBryde recounts in her song “Radioland.” “Daddy was a rockstar ridin’ on a tractor listenin’ to Townes Van Zandt. I was five years old with a hairbrush microphone.”
Her mother would take her to bluegrass festivals and she’d sit on an overturned bucket with her plastic-stringed Mickey Mouse Telecaster and watch. She’d ask masters of the craft to teach her chords. She began to dream of writing songs and singing them for a living.
When McBryde was in high school, her algebra teacher asked all the students to go around the room and share what they wanted to do when they grew up. McBryde said she wanted to write songs. Later she recounted the incident to a Billboard reporter: “In front of the whole class, she looked at me and said ‘That’s stupid. That won’t happen. You need to remember where you’re from, and have a good backup plan.’”
Her father also explicitly disapproved of her dream. But what McBryde had in her arsenal was a supportive mother.
She attended Arkansas State University, where she majored in French horn. A professor remarked to her one day that she seemed more interested in playing music than in the theory of it. Unlike the high school teacher who called her dream stupid, the professor encouraged her to pursue her dream.
McBryde dropped out of college that day.
She moved to Nashville and joined a band called Deadhorse. For a decade, she was broke. She worked as a server, a vet technician, and a security guard at a hospital to get by. At night, she sang in dive bars, biker bars, and trucker bars. She wrote songs for other artists, some of which she’s sworn never to listen to nor play.
Warner Music Nashville signed McBryde in 2017. With the release of her studio album “Girl Goin’ Nowhere” the following year, she proved to everyone that had ever doubted her she wasn’t goin’ nowhere. On the track named for the album, she sings: “And all those folks who swore I’d never be anything – it took a whole lot of yes I wills and I don’t care, a whole lot of basement dives and county fairs to this show right now and y’all sure look good out there. Not bad for a girl goin’ nowhere.”
McBryde won the Academy of Country Music Award for new female vocalist of the year in 2018. The following year, she won musical event of the year at the Academy of Country Music Awards and new artist of the year at the Country Music Association Awards. She started sharing stages with country powerhouses Eric Church and Chris Stapleton.
NPR called her an “anomaly,” given she was in her mid-thirties and most female country stars rise to fame when they’re barely legal. Perhaps because she had a decade to find her sound and herself before being thrust into the spotlight, Ashley McBryde knows who she is.
She is tattooed, honest, and unapologetic. She describes her creative process as cigarettes and Coors Light. She calls truckers and bikers her demographic. She described herself to a CMT interviewer as a “Tasmanian devil that comes in the room making jokes with finger pistols.”
Her sound, like her, is different. It’s a blend of country, rock, and blues that merges mandolin and electric guitar. There are dips into hard rock, when her voice becomes “full-boar,” as she described it to American Songwriter, that have earned her band a reputation as rocking “harder than anything else on country radio right now,” as Paste Magazine reported. She still plays with Deadhorse – Motown-obsessed bassist Chris Sancho, songwriting mandolin player Chris Harris, drummer Quinn Hill, and guitarist Andrew Sovine. And she’s still determined to prove, through her message and her example, that life opens up when you follow your heart even when everyone else is telling you not to.
“I’d been gone long ago if I’d listened to what they were sayin’,” she sings in “Never Will,” “but I didn’t, I don’t, I never will.”
Ashley McBryde plays BeachLife Ranch September 17.