The Story Behind The Song: Ashley McBryde, “Martha Divine”

Written by Ashley McBryde and Jeremy Spillman

Videos by American Songwriter

Music Video directed by Reid Long

Recorded by Ashley McBryde on 2020’s Never Will

Produced by Jay Joyce

How did “Martha Divine” begin?

It was my first time writing with Jeremy. We were in the basement of the church where we record. We’re in this weirdly, dimly-lit basement. I say, “I’m from Arkansas. Where are you from?” Well, he’s from Kentucky. I said, “If you don’t mind going dark with me, I’m trying to think of urban legends and ghost stories from Arkansas. I can’t think of anything that sounds great for a song.” I listed several urban legends. He listed a few, and one was Saltpetre Cave. The next one was Martha Divine swimming hole. I said, “Well, what is going on with that?” He told me there were two different stories that surround that swimming hole. Neither of them were going to make good song fodder… at all. It wasn’t like they were too dark or too complex. They just weren’t good song material.

I said, “You know what, I love the way divine sounds. That’s fun to sing, so we should just make up a story and we could do a sort of Jolene thing. Instead of singing ‘Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, please don’t take my man.’ What if we said, ‘Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, I’m coming after you with a shovel.’” 

Most of the time, the perspective is going to be from the person doing the cheating and they’re tortured about it, or it’s the person being cheated on and they’re devastated and angry. But what if we write from the daughter’s perspective? Not only is it the daughter, but she’s a little bit crazy. And she’s a little bit Bible-beating and protective of her mother.

We didn’t lay out all these characteristics before we wrote. We literally started with “I got a feeling, and I got a shovel, and I need to tell you you’re in a little trouble.” I kept picturing this Mennonite girl who is not a child but she’s not fully an adult and she’s not all the way in her skull either. She could go from preaching at you with her hand in the air, and then smile at you while saying crazy shit at you about how she’s fixing to hit you in the face.

Lyrically, McBryde allows the listener to savor the story, perhaps uncertain whether the character did the deed or not, until the end of the song. “Martha Divine, Martha Divine / You put your hands on the wrong damn man this time / Martha Divine, your ass is mine / And it ain’t murder if I bury you alive,” you sing, switching expectations at the last moment. Why save that for the very last moment?

I think it makes that character feel better. If I were interrogated after doing that, I could say, “Officer, the last time I saw her, she was still breathing.” And she’s not lying lying being a sin, of course. [laughs] Plus, once we got to the videos and everything, we really needed to reveal Martha lived. A tramp doesn’t learn her lesson if all you do is kill her. If you really want a person to learn a lesson, then you would do what you were going to do and let them survive it.

Musically, the song has a swampy darkness to it, especially with the introduction. How did that sound develop?

The demo was way different. It was almost circus-y sounding. When we first started rehearsing it as a band, we got a blues-swing sound going with it. Jay thought we should really straighten that out in a pretty extreme way. Then, just let the lead guitar swing, which I thought was awesome. We were all playing the beginning of the song, and you would completely lose the whole introductory lyrics. There was so much sound going on that even we stopped listening to the words. This isn’t a pop song. It’s not a song you want to wash over you and not care about the lyrics. This is a southern gothic tale. So, Jay said, “Screw, let’s just have you and the drums. This is going to be a song that hopefully, someday, when you are playing it live, two measures of that drum introduction and people will start cheering.” And sure as shit, that’s exactly how it turned out. [laughs]

Was director Reid Long onboard from the start on doing a literal interpretation for the music video?

I actually just dug out my chart I drew. I was trying to string all 11 songs together with every character from every song. If I could make 11 videos, could I keep the cast down to five people? And I did it. I showed it to John Peets, and I said, “The first three could look like this, and then, I’ve got Sheila left to introduce you to, and chances are you saw her in one of the other videos, and you didn’t know that was her until this!” In front of me, I have what looks like a child’s construction paper project. John calls Reid and shows him the whole thing. Reid made it into art, from the colors he chose to helping me cast it. I’ve never cast a music video before, and I love the way he listened to me. I said, “Martha’s gotta be a redhead. All I can tell you is one of my dad’s girlfriends was a redhead, and I want to see her fall down a flight of stairs.”

Reid is so calm, and he prepares so much on the frontend of things. I feel like we should have been anxious trying to shoot three videos in two days. But he never was. He always has his stuff together. His crew is so easy to work with. If you had any questions, you could just ask him. His facial expression never changes from that of “everything is fine!” 

Below, McBryde performs an acoustic rendition of the song.

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