Ashley McBryde’s music is as elemental as fire and water. Her songs are welded together like sculptures made from the junk heap of experience. They stand strong, stark and true. Little wonder, then, that she has already scored Grammy and Emmy nominations with songs from her first album, Girl Goin’ Nowhere.
She’s also copped CMT’s breakthrough video of the year prize and the Academy of Country Music’s best new female vocalist trophy. Taken together, it’s clear why McBryde has been named CMT Breakout Artist of the Year.
Currently working on her second album, McBryde acknowledges, “It’s been a huge year! The last year and a half has been insane. Everything has moved so fast. So many different nominations and different awards and experiencing things we never experienced. And I thought as many good things as can happen to you in a year have already happened — but then I got word that CMT was going to celebrate what a nice, giant year we’ve had.”
Although McBryde’s recording credentials are recent and slim, the 36-year-old Arkansan has been working the clubs and honky-tonks for years, a life she recreated in shards in her luminous 2017 debut single, “A Little Dive Bar in Dahlonega.”
But it was the song “Girl Goin’ Nowhere” that gave her wings. It is a deliciously venomous smackdown of the naysayers who gut punch you at the precise times you most need a pat on the back. So when McBryde was invited to sing it on the charmed circle stage of the Grand Ole Opry, it was such an emotionally fulfilling moment that she wept.
“Since I was a kid I’ve known I wanted to do this,” she says. “One of the most important things that can happen to you if you want to do this for a living is play the Grand Ole Opry. So when I found out that the Opry had invited us to come play, I cried, of course. You’ve seen the video. We had to redo my makeup five times that day [before I went on].
“So when I finally got to go out and do it, I thought, ’I’ve cried enough today. I’ll probably be OK.’ And then in the middle of ’Girl Goin’ Nowhere,’ I started to break apart. Part of you wants to resist that, and the other part was like, ’If there’s any time to feel how you feel, it should be the first time you play the Grand Ole Opry.’ So I wasn’t ashamed at all to cry that day. That was monumental.”
From the outset, McBryde says that she and co-writer Jeremy Bussey knew “Girl Goin’ Nowhere” was something special. “It was his story and it was my story, and to be able to share that and really get some honesty out there was a nice thing to do. But it’s not just my story and it’s not just his story. What we found out once the song became a single was there’s a photographer we work with a lot who was told she wouldn’t be able to photograph live music [performances] for a living. So it’s her story, too. Or it’s somebody who wanted to work in radio and somebody said that that’s not a ’real job.’ It’s funny how that story resonated so personally to other people when it was so personal to us.”
Being true to what she knows is a big deal for McBryde, whether it’s projecting “authenticity,” as some critics call it, or her own description of “getting some honesty out there.” Her current single, “One Night Standards,” which is a grittier, low-rent version of “Help Me Make It Through the Night,” is a case in point.
“If you’ve never had a one-night stand, you’re lying or you’re missing out,” she declares with admirable candor. “It’s a very common occurrence. Maybe girls shouldn’t be writing about it, but I don’t care if we should be writing about it or not.”
She and Nicolette Hayford started writing the song, she explains. But they were not quite satisfied with what they came up with. “The next time we got together [to write], we were with Shane McAnally, who, of course, is brilliant. He didn’t say there was anything wrong with the song. He said, ’Let’s just mess with it for a little while,’ and we did. We were talking about an airport hotel at the time, and I [wondered] why these hotels have only one nightstanders [nightstands] in them. And he said, ‘Standards’? You said ‘standards’? I said, ‘No, I said “standers.” And he said, ’No. You said “standards.” That’s the way we gotta go.’” And, thus, was a song born.
It’s been a long learning curve for McBryde, who once fashioned a tip jar out of a plastic gas can with the words ’Gas Money’ written pleadingly on the side. She would later attract the attention of Eric Church, who was so smitten by her songwriting that he invited her on stage to sing for him and his crowd.
And she’s learned a lot about stage presence from one of her idols, Reba McEntire, who seems always to present herself physically from the best angles, McBryde observes, with shoulders back and chin up. It was especially thrilling for her to learn that CMT is not simply honoring her as Breakout Artist of the Year but Reba as Artist of a Lifetime.
“When I go through a tough time or there’s a little bit of doubt,” she says, “I just shoulders back, chin up and Reba the crap out of it.” To her other achievements, Reba can now count herself as a verb, thanks to Ashley McBryde.
ACM new vocalist of the year, CMT Breakthrough Video of the Year