Ashley McBryde | Never Will | (Warner Music Nashville)
4 out of 5 stars
If The Highwomen, Dixie Chicks or Pistol Annies ever need another member, they could do worse than giving Ashley McBryde a call.
McBryde is a smart, sassy and above all empowered woman whose rootsy music balances gutsy rocking with classic country, folk and even slight bluegrass influences.
Sure we already have Miranda Lambert who, both with and without her Pistols sisters, checks many of the same artistic and philosophical boxes that McBryde does. But as the all-female roots acts make clear, there aren’t enough robust women tearing up the country charts these days and one more sure doesn’t crowd the field.
For her part, the Arkansas born and bred singer songwriter ramps up the volume after her successful 2018 debut, cranking out a rock/country hybrid that’s more visceral than, well, country/rock, and hits harder too. That’s immediately apparent on the nail-sharp Stones-like opener “Hang in There Girl.” It’s a distinct sonic break from “Girl Goin’ Nowhere,” her debut’s ballad title track, one that introduced McBryde to a wide audience. On the former she sings “Tangled up in the small town weeds / Dreamin’ of the day you leave / And all the places you want to be I know,” which isn’t far removed from the sentiments of the previous hit.
McBryde’s husky vocals and self-aware personality struts with confidence, telling a one-night stand what the rules are (“I don’t even care if you’re here when I wake up”) in the otherwise sweetly melodic, crafty wordplay title of “One Night Standards.” She occasionally regrets her hard living and loving ways, particularly in tough twang of “The First Thing I Reach For” with “You’d think a girl on fire / Would stay away from gasoline.” Underneath the bluster though is a gentle(r) soul who expresses grief and frustration after the death of her brother in “Stone” (read more about it in AS’s McBryde interview here) and who has come to terms with the struggle of being on the road in the “Midnight Rider” themed “Sparrow,” the disc’s most tender moment.
But generally, it’s McBryde’s more aggressive side that’s evident on tracks like “Martha Divine” where the protagonist hits her father’s lover with a shovel as a lead guitar screams. Similar emotions appear in “Shut Up Sheila,” one of only two tunes not partially composed by McBryde, where she tells a family outsider to mind their business in no uncertain terms as the music gains steam to reach a gutsy Southern rock crescendo.
The album’s only misstep is the closing “Styrofoam,” a quirky funky/reggae piece with humorous spoken word verses about the titular substance. It might work in her live show but falls flat here, especially next to the other ten gems.
Regardless, it’s difficult to imagine a better, more confident follow-up to McBryde’s popular and critically hailed first release. Never Will (pre-order here) proves the tough gal persona she established on that stunning debut was no fluke or act. It shows she’s got plenty of raw talent to keep her career growing as another capable, no BS rootsy country infused woman who has charged into the charts and is likely to stay there.