REVIEW: Ashley McBryde – ‘Girl Going Nowhere’

No-one can dispute that Ashley McBryde has paid her dues! She’s been releasing music independently since 2006 and played every honky-tonk, sports bar and pub across Nashville and the southern States since. In-fact she told me recently, in an interview with Lyric Magazine, “There were times when I would be in a sports bar, in a small city, with all the TVs on and the football game on and they don’t turn off the sound and nobody cares what you’re playing – those were the hardest times.” But she is a human juke-box no longer, with this, her debut album release for major Nashville label, Warner Music.

Ashley began to seep into people’s consciousness in a big way last year after artists like Eric Church and Garth Brooks publicly declared their love of her music. Church pulled her up on stage had her perform her own material at one of his shows and Brooks changed the name of ‘Girl Goin’ Nowhere’ to Boy Goin’ Nowhere’ and performed it at his shows.

UK fans, of course, have recently fell in love with her, and rightly so, after her whirlwind appearance in early March at the C2C festival in London, where she played multiple stages across the whole weekend to rave reviews and both fan and critical acclaim. Her on stage presence was both warm and humble and the her humour shone through, as did her powerful voice and knack for a melody and a clever turn of phrase. The overwhelming feeling on social media after the festival had finished was that the organisers would be mad not to re-book her for the main arena stage in 2019, such was the reception she received this year.

So, this is an eagerly anticipated release with a buzz around it seldom generated by debut albums and certainly not Country music debut albums, that exist in a world and a marketplace that is historically slow to catch on to new music and seems to demand a ‘try-before-you-buy’ policy of insisting an artist makes at least three albums before they are welcomed into the Nashville family. ‘Girl Goin’ Nowehere’ will buck that trend. It will open doors for Ashley McBryde that were hitherto closed and it will smash through that ‘debut album ceiling’ and become, I predict, one of the best-selling Country music debut albums of all time.

The beauty of ‘Girl Goin’ Nowhere’ is that it is a real chameleon of an album. There is pure, good old-fashioned Country music on it but there are also leanings towards southern rock, soft rock, jazz and the blues. Each song on it has been carefully positioned to showcase a particular facet of Ashley McBryde’s song-writing skill and persona.

Right from the off you can tell that this is a brave album. I mean, who would open their major label Nashville debut album with an acoustic ballad, in the form of the title track! ‘Girl Goin’ Nowhere’ is a wonderfully open, honest and frank look at the struggles that musicians have in their quest to take their music to a wider audience. It is a refined, nuanced song that demands utmost attention and here it is, opening track on McBryde’s debut album – what a statement of intent!

There are lots of other Country songs that follow. ‘A Little Dive Bar in Dahlonega’, arguably a bigger hit with the fans than either ‘Girl Goin’ Nowhere’ or ‘Bible and a .44’ (which does not appear on this album, more of that later) is an uplifting tale of resilience and second chances with a huge sing-along chorus that showcases just what a powerful singer McBryde is, whilst ‘Tired of Being Happy’, another song that made its way out into the public consciousness pre the release of the album, comes across like a classic Loretta Lynn or Tammy Wynette song that you would have heard crackling out of your parents’ radio back in the 70’s or 80’s. It has a timeless Country-credibility and the type of lyrical ambitions that only the Country genre has. When McBryde sings, ‘I’ve never wrecked a home but don’t put it past me,’ you feel like the line should find a home for itself in the Country Music Hall of Lyrical Fame, it is that clever and well placed, being both self-aware and sardonic at the same time.

‘Girl Goin’ Nowhere’ has two more songs on it that sit nicely under the Country umbrella. ‘The Jacket’ is a mid-tempo song driven forward by driving drum percussion: a story about a father’s denim jacket, ‘the best thing Levi ever made,’ and its associations with times, places and memories whilst ‘Andy (I Can’t Live Without You) is a quiet, acoustic song about how love and friendship can triumph over people’s foibles and habits. The aforementioned Andy in the song is hung out to dry over the first two verses – his bad habits, his behaviours and his lack of awareness make him seem remarkably unlikeable and then McBryde comes in with the reasons why she can’t live without him and the song takes on a slightly different perspective. Both songs, ‘The Jacket’ and ‘Andy’ are beautifully executed Country music songs and are both, I suspect, the main reasons why the song that started it all off for Ashley McBryde, ‘A Bible and a .44’ is not included on the album. ‘The Jacket’ is all about a father’s presence, as is ‘Bible……’ so there probably wasn’t room on the album for two songs like that whilst ‘Andy’ is very much a quiet, acoustic song, similar to both ‘Bible…..’ and the title track and having three of those out of the eleven tracks would have probably been too much.

In my recent interview with her, Ashley said this about ‘Bible and a .44’: “That song is probably my favourite song I’ve ever written. It’s so important and so close to me. I will re-cut that song somewhere in the future. It’s not on the record, because we already had ‘Girl Goin Nowhere’ and ‘Andy (I Can’t Live Without You)’ on it. Both of those are stripped down, acoustic songs and we just felt that there wasn’t room on the record for another one like that”.

Andy rears his head again on the track ‘El Dorado’, which is a massive rock song and must-be-future-single! The track begins all 80’s Springsteen drumbeat and in-fact, once Ashley has delivered her open line of, ‘Morning side of midnight….’ You can almost segue way smoothly into the second line of Springsteen’s ‘Dancing in the Dark’ with ‘and I ain’t got nothing to say’! ‘El Dorado’ is a tale of road musicians and troubadours out their searching the crowds and the success. It has a massive chorus and the type of driving guitars and drums that will make it an instant live classic. In it we see Andy, ‘burning his last cigarette,’ as the band trek across the country in search of fame.

Another big rock song that can be found on the album is ‘Radioland’. Ashley released this just before the album and opened many of her sets at C2C with it. It’s in that same part of the Venn Diagram as Tom Petty and John Mellencamp. Big guitars, nostalgic lyrics about the power of radio and Jack & Diane references leave you in no doubt that this song is a worthy addition to the ‘Great American Storytelling Song-Book’, and the same could be said of the final big rock song on ‘Girl Goin’ Nowhere’, ‘American Scandal’. This track provides McBryde with the big Meat Loaf moment on the album. It’s a sweepingly dramatic song about illicit love and scandal and the double drumbeat and music change that happens right after she sings the line, ‘hold me baby, hold me, like you ain’t mine to hold,’ is straight out of the Jim Steinman playbook that he used so well on tracks like ‘I Would Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That)’ – it’s a monster of a song and having seen Ashley sing it live with just an acoustic guitar and I can 100% say that it is even more powerful in the live setting than it is here, in its recorded form.

There are three other songs on ‘Girl Goin’ Nowhere’ that showcase different sides to McBryde. Album closer, ‘Home Sweet Highway’ is a bluesy, jazzy number reminiscent of something like ‘Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay’. Another song about life out on the road, something Ashley has seen a lot of, is builds throughout and finishes as something akin to a gospel song with great backing and a church organ. ‘Southern Babylon’ continues in that jazzy vein. It is a quiet, slightly un-nerving, claustrophobic song about purgatory and the after-life, similar in feel to something like The Eagles’ ‘Hotel California’, which does get a name-check in the song, as does ‘The Devil Went Down to Georgia’. In it, McBryde wanders into a bar after a road traffic accident and is asked to play on stage with the house band, who have been waiting for her. Her tab is already open and you are left with the overwhelming feeling that she will be up on that stage until the end of time, there is no leaving this bar! It’s a great song that will work well live too and gives great opportunity for a long, meandering guitar-outro, similar to what the Eagles did with ‘…California’, that seems to be missing from the recorded version.

Finally, we come to ‘Livin’ Next to LeRoy’ – this is the song that McBryde was most excited for fans to hear and I can understand why. After showing us all that she can play Country, Blues, Soft Rock and Jazz we get some good old-fashioned, down home Southern rock, all presented in a cautionary tale about drug use and the ‘dark side of the country’. The aforementioned LeRoy is a meth-head, opiate addicted drug user who lives three doors down from the narrator in the song. A ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ style southern guitar rocks its way through this tale of LeRoy’s life and eventual death but we also get glimpses of joint smoking teenagers and pill pushing school kids before a searing guitar solo that Cadillac 3 or Blackberry Smoke would kill to have written, kicks in. McBryde had this to say about the song in our recent interview:

“It’s also a true story – it’s about a meth addict – he lived a few doors down from co-writer Nicolette Hayford when she was growing up – he wasn’t a bad person, it’s not a sad story. In fact, she has no idea for a long time that he had a drug problem, because we don’t talk about drugs a lot in Country music. We like to talk about girls in short shorts and beer and tailgates and that’s awesome, but there is a serious opiates problem in the USA right now, worldwide even, and it’s ok to talk about it and not necessarily in a damning way, it’s just a fact, this does happen three doors down from where you live.”

Such a cautionary tale, played in such a raucous, southern way is a joy to behold and the song will garner McBryde a lot of attention in Nashville as it gradually creeps its way into people’s consciousness.

‘Girl Goin’ Nowehere’ is a triumph. It doesn’t feel like it is a debut album but then it isn’t really. It is a brave, multi-faceted and passionate look at life in America right now. It has been assembled with love and with care and there is no lyric wasted or chord tossed in for the sake of it. The songs resonate with a warmth and a character that is rarely seen on a debut album, which is testament to all the years and the blood, sweat, tears and booze that have gone into the making of it! This album will be at the top of many people’s ‘Top Five’s of the year’ come December so whilst Ashley McBryde took a long time to get to this place she sure as hell ain’t going away anytime soon!

James Daykin
@rockjames