We’re at war for the soul of country music ladies and gentlemen, and recruiting cute little pop stars from affluent Southern suburbs, and then attempting to refine their sugary styles to be even more pop, and more cute under the misguided notion that this is how to tap into the passion of the masses has only resulted in continuing losses in that fight. As Waylon Jennings once said, “We need a change.”
We need a woman who can do battle with the bros, and beat them at their own game. We need a woman who refuses to take “no” for an answer, and won’t be demoralized by short-term losses. We need a woman who is used to battling through adversity, and whose first instinct when she faces a roadblock is not to turn to social media to complain, but to put her head down and barrel through it. We need a woman that slings her guitar around her shoulder like a Medieval barbarian firmly grips their two-handed hilt of a bastard sword, ready to go into battle. And finally we have that woman, and one who has infiltrated the ranks of major label performers, and even penetrated the once-thought impenetrable fortress of country music radio. Look the hell out, because Ashley McBryde is here, and she’s a badass.
Granted, Ashley McBryde is no country music savior in the traditional sense. As a sprout off of the Eric Church tree and under the sonic tutelage of producer Jay Joyce, you knew the results of drafting Ashley McBryde to the big leagues would be just as much akin to Heartland rock as hardcore country. But that’s okay because it fits Ashley’s established style, and what Ashley McBryde is singing about is way more akin to the actual realities those out there in middle America are facing compared to the rural Candyland portrayed on country radio. The country populous is way less Luke Bryan and way more Rosanne Barr, for better or worse, or as McBryde says in her anthem “Livin’ Next To Leroy” about about a meth head neighbor, “On the dark side of the country, it ain’t bonfires, it ain’t beer.”
On Ashley McBryde’s major label debut Girl Going Nowhere, there are no edges shaved off, and no punches pulled. That goes for the stark honesty and detail embedded in “Livin’ Next To Leroy,” to the emotionally-wrenching storytelling of “A Little Dive Bar in Dahlonega.” It ranges from unrepentant Heartland rock anthems like the guitar-driven “El Dorado,” to totally stripped down and soul-wrenching love sonnets like “Andy (I Can’t Live Without You).” Girl Going Nowhere doesn’t hide the tattoos and scars, it bears them. There’s no powder foundation to buff out the bad parts, there’s a circle drawn around them, and a show-and-tell undertaken. Ashley McBryde reveals the true America, warts and all.
You’re only being fair by pointing out the bad parts of Girl Going Nowhere as well. “Radioland” feels pretty superfluous, and can’t be rehabilitated by any Townes Van Zandt reference or a catchy rock backbeat. McBryde mentions Mellencamp in the song, and this is a major influence on this record, and not always in the best manner. Nothing wrong with being inspired by John Cougar and letting that influence infer your sound, but in moments the Mellencamp mood feels more like outright borrowing, making this album feel dated in segments, like the music and production of “Livin’ Next To Leroy.”
Ashley McBryde swings for home runs with every single song on Girl Going Nowhere, many times hitting, and sometimes whiffing. But even when she comes up a little empty, you appreciate the songwriting effort, like on “American Scandal” about trying to rekindle love by pretending it’s forbidden, or “Southern Babylon” that takes itself a little too seriously, even though the idea is classic, and some of the lines are smart.
Yet Girl Going Nowhere separates itself from the herd of mainstream releases, and by leaps and bounds by continuing to impress with one song after another as the record unfolds. “The Jacket” is the proper way to take a personal artifact, and expound upon it until it’s a story everyone can relate to. Memories and experiences aren’t always possessions solely of the mind. Sometimes they’re embedded into material things whose value can never be measured in monetary terms.
By knowing just the right times to take you up and bring you down, Girl Going Nowhere keeps the experience spicy and interesting, tickling a range of moods, and never leaving you in a dull moment, no matter the underlying appeal of a song. If you can’t feel the emotion when Ashley unleashes “Little Dive Bar in Dahlonega” and “Andy (I Can’t Live Without You)” back to back, do yourself a favor and book a cardiology checkup. And even though the modern day guitar solo is virtually dead in all forms of music aside from metal, the headway made on “Livin’ Next to Leroy” and “El Dorado” is hard to not fall victim to, even for a twang-affiliated country fan.
One of the most important and flattering praises for Girl Going Nowhere is that it doesn’t sound like a mainstream country release at all. You don’t have to squint to find what to like on this record, or regard it on a sliding scale since it was underwritten by a major label. And there’s something to like no matter what your personal tastes as a listener. It would have been nice if a song like “Tired of Being Happy” would have been handled in a more traditional country style since the writing is so fitting for that world, but there is plenty for a true country fan to latch onto here, even if a few of the rock songs elicit an immediate skip on the audio controls.
It’s time to stop pretending that mild-mannered pragmatism, measured goals, and guarded optimism will ever be enough to even put a dent in the dilemmas mainstream country music is facing, let alone break the doors down to where a flood of talent can come barging through and rejuvenate the format. Listen to the title track of this record, watch Ashley McBryde perform it during her Grand Ole Opry debut (which she wrote it specifically for), and then try to say she doesn’t have the skill, the talent, and the drive and guts to do what many have failed at doing before. Doubt Ashley McBryde all you want, but prepare to be made a dumbass because she has the boldness to sing the truth, the fearlessness to champion it through the fire, and the force to come out of the other side the victor. Country music, watch the hell out, because Ashley McBryde has arrived.
1 3/4 Guns Up (7.5/10)
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