Ashley McBryde was already considered one of the best artists from mainstream label crowd, and a bright spot for country music moving forward. With her new album Never Will, she cements her place as one of the best current artists in country music, period. Inspired, inspiring, well-performed and written, make ample room in your listening rotation for this one.
Ashley McBryde is country music that speaks to the also-rans of society: the dropouts, the single mothers, the spinsters, the bastards, those with bad tattoos and credit card debt. They’re not exactly hardened criminals (well, some of them probably are), but they damn sure ain’t saints either. Through broken homes and one night stands, they’re just trying to make the best of bad decisions and situations. But underpinning it all is a perseverance in the human spirit. Ashley McBryde offers a way out. And as someone who has risen out of the dregs of society to take center stage despite insurmountable odds herself, you believe her every word.
Once again McBryde teams up with producer Jay Joyce on this record, which means steel yourself for some mixed results. Ashley has never been straightforward country. As a limb that sprouted from the Eric Church tree, she has some rock ‘n roll tendencies that Jay Joyce is more than happy to exploit. A few electronic doo dads also find their way into the mix. But when the songs are this good, it sort of doesn’t matter what sounds accompany the listening experience.
And yet Never Will is also more country than you expect. “First Thing I Reach For” is stone cold country in both writing and style. So is the superbly-written “Stone”—one of the best songs on the record. There’s even a song called “Velvet Red” that sounds like it was piped through an AM radio circa 1950, which is a much better move than making a whole record sound scratchy to try an imbue it with a “soul” that doesn’t exist anyway like so many of today’s east Nashville albums. Ashley McBryde can’t help but have soul because if she sings it, she probably lived it.
“Martha Divine” may sound a bit more rock with its pounding drums in the verses, but at its heart this is simply a good ol’ murder ballad. But let’s not let Jay Joyce and the band completely off the hook. By the time they’re done with the song “Voodoo Doll,” you feel like you’ve listened to Lita Ford, and not in a favorable way. “Never Will” is the title track for a reason, and it’s similar to McBryde’s landmark “Girl Goin’ Nowhere” in the way it’s her life put to song. But it lacks the same intimacy, and the important message gets a little lost in the loudness.
But assign whatever style you want to the opening song “Hang In There Girl,” or the soaring “Sparrow.” These songs have the ability to uplift the spirit and inspire like few others can, and all while avoiding those sappy moments that make you feel silly for listening. Ashley McBryde is a soldier and a survivor, just like so many of us. This wasn’t our plan, or where our dreams would have taken us. But if we persevere, we can still end up on top, wherever or whatever the top is, just like Ashley McBryde did.
But now that she’s here—where the Grammy Awards and CMAs can’t go by without at least considering her, and even radio is starting to warm up to her songs—don’t expect Ashley McBryde to change like so many stars do when they get a little scratch in their pocket. Because ultimately she knows who she is an where she came from. She’s the anti-star, the also-ran who happened to make it despite the odds. She’s one of us. And that’s why when she sings, we listen, and believe it.
1 3/4 Guns Up (8.5/10)
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Purchase Ashley McBryde’s Never Will