Ashley McBryde was madder than a hornet. When her brother Clay took his own life in the summer of 2018, she was left holding a ragged bag of emotions. She felt anger, more than anything, and it wasn’t until six months later that she began to understand why she felt that way.
In a songwriting session with go-to songwriter Nicolette Hayford (Steve Moakler, William Michael Morgan), McBryde originally wanted to write a song about “being members of the dead brother’s club,” she recalls of the song that would eventually become “Stone,” off her second major label album, Never Will (out April 3 on Warner).
“It’s a very dark humor and way of dealing with it,” she confides to American Songwriter over a phone call last week.
But nobody wanted to write that song.
When McBryde rattled off “how angry I was that my brother died,” she says, Hayford immediately locked into the story. She too had lost a brother, who had also been an army veteran, like Clay, and so the two songwriters began compiling their emotions into a raw song about grief. “Our brothers died in very different ways. Her brother was struck by a vehicle while he was trying to help somebody else.”
“I said, ‘I’m just so mad. Can we write this song that’s like… ‘how dare you leave me with this big mess: your one son, when he gets married, I’ve got to be there because you’re not there. When he buys a house, I’ve got to help him because you’re not there. When he has a baby, your baby sister has to clean up the mess.’”
“Nicollette said, ‘Why are you so angry?’”
They then grabbed a pack of cigarettes and went out for a smoke. “While we’re out there, she says something that makes me laugh. I laughed really hard. I looked at her and said, ‘You know, when I laugh, I sound like Clay.’ I started bawling. She said, ‘Yes! That’s the thing. You found it. You’re angry because you’re hurt. You’re hurt because you didn’t pay attention to how much like him you were until he was dead.’”
An emotional reference point in the back pocket, McBryde and Hayford began writing the song initially reflecting on Clay’s headstone and fleshed out the story with references to stones in its many forms throughout life. “You taught me all about which ones sink and which ones skip / There’s throwing ones / And rolling ones / Getting us to open up was like getting blood from one,” she carves out a sobering performance. “The stepping kind / The steady kind / The hey I’ve got your back ones you can stand behind.”
“You know how your siblings are. You teach them, or they teach you,” she reflects. “This kind floats. This kind sinks. This is what is used to build a dam. Of course, growing up as country as we did, bless our hearts, those lessons were very real.”
Something else began to happen in the process, too. “What wound up happening, of course, is it saved me years of therapy. Instead of the song just being hopeless, and ‘I’m so sad you’re gone,’ it gives this message of ‘there are little bits of you here. I didn’t lose all of you.’”
Grief pops up in another of the record’s essentials, on the bristling kiss-off “Shut Up Sheila.” Co-written by Hayford and Charles Chisholm, the electric guitar-bound track manages through the narrator’s grandmother’s death by finally speaking her mind ─ against, perhaps, her better judgement and Christian upbringing. “This here is a family thing / And ain’t nobody bought you a ring / Shut up, Sheila,” she sings, half-whispered.
The song quickly shifts from a solemn, unfussy performance into a fiery, rock-ignited declaration. “Everybody’s got this one person in their family that they just want to tell them to shut up. You’ve got one that you see at Thanksgiving or one you see at Easter,” McBryde explains. “Everyone has that one family member that goes, ‘I don’t think we should do that on a Tuesday…’”
McBryde, who grew up in a very strict household and attended the Church of Christ, finds true catharsis in the song, its fork-tongued narrator an extension of herself. “Because we are raised with southern grace, we’re not allowed to look at them and say, ‘Shut up!’ For everybody who’s ever bottled it up, like their mother-in-law or younger brother, now you don’t have to pop them in the mouth and tell them where to stick it. You can just listen to a song about somebody who did, and she really did. She looked at Sheila and said, ‘I really wish you’d shut the fuck up.’”
With the song’s explosive shift, and fang-toothed lyrics, McBryde pulls upon the pain from her brother’s passing. “I didn’t want to sing ‘Amazing Grace’ or pray or cry. I wanted to be drunk or high or anything other than sad. There’s no right or wrong way to lose somebody. However you do that, that’s the right way. The only time there’s a problem is if somebody tries to impose their way of dealing with it on you.”
She quickly adds, “Hopefully, people will realize that when that happens, there’s this one finger that’s in the middle of all your other ones. And it’s OK to show that person what that one finger looks like without the others around it.”
Never Will, produced by Jay Joyce (Little Big Town, Eric Church, Miranda Lambert), barrels from opening bobber “Hang in There Girl” to the starlit vulnerability of “Sparrow” to “Voodoo Doll,” a straight-up rock song laced with mandolin and containing McBryde’s throaty, sky-scorching scream. “I keep smelling cigarettes / Feel that pretty black dress slipping off her back / I don’t drink rum but I’m tasting it,” she yowls, letting a primal blood-thirst pour out of her. “Rolling off her tongue, every drop you ain’t wasting it / Those lips on her neck, needle in my chest.”
Written with Hayford, Brandy Clark, Connie Harrington (Lee Brice, Blake Shelton), Jake Mitchell (The Lone Bellow, Luke Bryan), and Aaron Raitiere (Brent Cobb, Ashley Monroe), “Voodoo Doll” was conceived on “smoking cigarettes and drinking Coors Light during the demo,” McBryde recalls.
“On the first record [2018’s ‘Girl Going Nowhere’], I needed to be careful and make sure everybody knows that country music is not a costume to me. It’s not something I’m doing to go to another genre. This is what I sound like ─ but I have a lot of other tools in the bag,” she says, citing her head-first dive into hard rock.
“When we did this song, I said, ‘Jay, on this chorus, I want to scream it, full-boar, chest voice. Let’s just go there.’ He said, ‘Well, let’s just go there! The song’s going to be silly if we don’t do it that way.’ I loved taking a rock song and putting mandolin as the main character that pulls everything together.”
McBryde’s vocal prowess strikes as a tiger unleashed from its cage. She pounces on the chorus, and it’s the stench of betrayal that drips from her tongue. “Lord, I hope you haven’t been cheated on, but I guess we all have. We’ve all been on one side of it or the other. That’s nothing so well-hidden that it can’t be perceived,” she says. “You know when something’s up. When you keep asking ‘honey what’s wrong?’ and they keep saying ‘nothing’ when you know that’s not the truth, then everything they do ─ you feel that.”
“You would just go [mimics] ‘Wahhh!’ It would be smoke on the ceiling, and fire crawling up the walls. It’s water up to your knees for no reason. That is the emotional place you’re standing in. You’re just screwed, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
The GRAMMY Awards nominee also surprises with the story song “Velvet Red” (written with Patrick Savage and Daniel Smalley), a welcome swerve back to her bluegrass roots with a tale of forbidden love. During a trip to Little Rock with her best friend of 17 years, McBryde, not quite a heavy wine drinker, scooped up two bottles of cheap wine ─ called Velvet Red.
“The wine was terrible. We drink both bottles. We have a hootin’, hollerin’ time and a really nice visit. But this wine is so terrible that the following day, Monday, I am back in Nashville with Patrick and Daniel,” she remembers, “and I’m like, ‘I’ve gotta tell you about this wine we had. Granted, I don’t know anything about wine. This is what the label looked like.’”
She goes on to describe the label: a lone woman standing in a field with her skirt hiked up, presumably stomping grapes. “It just looks very strange, like maybe she was hiking it up for a reason other than stomping on grapes. Even though the wine was terrible, how much fun would it be to go [sings] ‘Velvet red, velvet red,’ and do what Patty Loveless would do with that, which is leave it bare, put some harmonies on it, and let’s write a love story,” she describes. “And if it’s going to be a love story, and it’s going to be bluegrass, it’s got to involve sex out of wedlock and a child out of wedlock.”
The song poured from their fingertips. The songwriting trio also made “sure social lines were crossed ─ and class lines were. I listen to it as though racial lines were crossed, too. It was so much fun to write. I had forgotten that we had that song in the pocket because it was so many years ago.”
When it came time to piece the album together, during rehearsal at East Nashville’s Co-op, “we let the songs choose themselves,” she says. “We were in the middle of playing a lot of the rock songs. Our photographer [Katie] Kessel walked in, and she said, ‘You remember that song ‘Velvet Red’ you wrote? I loved that song.’”
“So, I played it to the band, and we were playing it as a palette cleanser. I thought, ‘Damn, if we can honor our roots in a really tasteful way, where it’s not cheesy, then I think this should go on the record.’”
A song many might be surprised makes the record is the closer “Styrofoam,” a gooey spoken word elixir written by Randall Clay. During one Wednesday night at Blue Bar, the songwriter, known for always bringing his most interesting work, launched into the song with the opening line: “In 1941 a physicist named Ray McIntire rediscovered a method first discovered by Carl Munters, an inventor from Sweden.”
In attendance that night, McyBryde recalls thinking, “‘Why am I getting a Wikipedia lesson right now…’ It was flawlessly written. It was funny, but it was educational. But it was fun to sing. That’s really hard to accomplish in country music. It was never planned to be on the record. This is a very weird song, and it’s the equivalent of somebody having a very serious conversation with you and at the end, touching your nose and going, ‘Boop!’”
It was down the the wire in the studio when Joyce proposed adding in one more song, a ditty oozing personality with an undeniable hook. “I said, ‘Well, I have a song. It’s not mine, but it’s Randall’s.’ I was dying for Randall to have another song on the record. We really want to honor the people who got us here. He is such a brilliant writer. His songs belong on all of our records. I played it for Jay, knowing he’d be like, ‘Too weird!’ He had the opposite reaction. He said, ‘Yeah, let’s put it on the record!’
“[This song] is sort of on-brand. It’s like how I hide plastic dinosaurs all over the United States. I’m not going to show you pictures of how big my crowd was or how important I think I am, but I am going to show you what a plastic dinosaur hidden in a barbecue restaurant in Kansas City looks like.”
Setting Girl Going Nowhere and Never Will side-by-side, an unexpected connective tissue sprouts between the two, particularly with the latter’s title cut which reads as a direct sequel to the “Girl Going Nowhere” character. “While we were writing it, we were just saying what we wanted to say that day. I like to live with a song for a few days and leave it alone ─ and then go back and play it again or listen to it again. I was like, ‘Well, hot damn, we wrote a sequel!’ We didn’t mean to write a sequel.”
She continues to etch out the entire character’s storyline. “The character in ‘Girl Going Nowhere’ was still really hurt that those naysayers said, ‘You will never do this.’ As she grows, and I guess she’s me, of course, then, I start playing in bars all over Arkansas and Tennessee. Those same people who said that are now saying, ‘Yeah, but you’re just playing in bars.’”
“Then, you have some success. You’re playing theatre shows or you’re opening for a little bit bigger acts. Then, they go, ‘Who cares. Even though you’re succeeding right now, you’re probably just an asshole. Or you’re probably sleeping your way to the top!’ That’s hilarious. After that, those same people say, ‘You can make all the money you want in the whole world, and all it’s going to do is change you, fundamentally, as a human being, and I hope it does.’”
Her rebuttal then is to dig her feet further into the dirt, the spotlight bearing down on her shoulders. “The only recourse would be to say, ‘I’m sorry if you said that in the comments on Facebook. I don’t read the comments. I have to live a life. The only reason I’m succeeding at all at this is because I don’t care about the comments. I didn’t care that you thought I couldn’t do it, and I didn’t care that you didn’t like it when I did it. You didn’t understand why we were making music.’”
The song’s last verse remains her personal favorite. “They never did understand all the reasons we did it,” she sings, wagging her head in disdain. “I can point out the names and the faces of the people who said it / Oh but honestly I just don’t want ’em to get any credit.”
“There are so many people inside the music industry who make these suggestions and naysay in different ways. I’m like, ‘Man, you just don’t get why we’re making music, do you?’ If I were here to make money, I’d be in the wrong business,” she explains. “Also, I’m going to make sure I never say your name out loud. It would break my heart if you got some kind of credit for us just doing what we were going to do anyway.”
“As it turns out, you can lay the first record next to the second record, and it’ll be a sentence that’s not quite complete: Girl Going Nowhere, Never Will…”
Photo Credit: Daniel Meigs