The deck feels perpetually stacked against women in the modern country marketplace. To make any kind of commercial inroads, the constantly moving pathways currently require these ladies to either hide their twang behind a wall of pop production (RaeLynn, Maren Morris), ape the blustery sound that the boys are making (Carly Pearce) or shoot for something far outside the norm and pray for crossover success (Kacey Musgraves).
Where does that leave a country traditionalist like Ashley McBryde? As of this writing, it finds her at #35 of Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart with “A Little Dive Bar In Dahlonega,” the current single from her debut album Girl Going Nowhere and opening up for platinum-selling artist Luke Combs on his current headlining tour. Both are sensible places to be. That song, with its lyrical laundry list of working class signifiers (“To the flat broke/couch cushion gas money/the worker bee ain’t gettin’ no honey…it’s hittin’ rock bottom/smoke ‘em if you got ‘em”), is catnip to country fans. And traversing the U.S. with Combs as he plays mid-size venues on his ascent up the ladder is the best way to get her songs heard en masse without having to fight for attention at sheds and arenas.
Yet, neither position feels representative of where the Arkansas-bred singer/songwriter seems most comfortable. All the stories written in advance of this album’s release talk about the biker bars and honky tonks where she made her name before getting snapped up by a major label. And no other song on Nowhere fits as neatly into the eye of the needle that every artist in Nashville is trying to thread as “Dahlonega” does. It’s a no bullshit record free of frills and fat; 11 songs that make their points powerfully and memorably.
That last quality is found, at times, through McBryde’s clear debt to the sounds of classic rock. The passionate “American Scandal” is given an added jolt through a guitar part that quotes “Baba O’Reilly,” and with the addition of a syncopated synth melody, “El Dorado” could be a mirror image of Springsteen’s “Dancing In The Dark.” Like their inspirations, McBryde’s songs succeed in quickly drawing focus in and keeping it there.
But even when the core of the tune is just the smoky draw of her voice and an acoustic guitar, she makes her songs stick through the placement of sharp details. “Andy (I Can’t Live Without You)” finds a new twist on the familiar trope of a girl singing about a guy who she loves in spite of his bumbling ways by performing it as a heartfelt ballad rather than a winking goof. Similarly on “Tired of Being Happy,” McBryde’s humble reminder to an ex-lover that she’ll be there if his new relationship flames out is played with ample amounts of heat and distortion.
To some ears, then, Nowhere could sound like raw material to be crafted into some major hits for some major country stars. According to McBryde, that was potentially the case with the marvelous nose thumbing title track as apparently Garth Brooks had taken a shine to it. But luckily someone with her label or management team stepped in and put the brakes on him recording his own version of it before hers came out. These songs don’t need to be messed with or tarted up or given a 21st century shine. They work perfectly in their current roughshod, if gently polished, form. The needle may keep moving for female country artists, but that’s of little concern to McBryde. She’s on a journey toward career longevity and Nowhere is her confident and solid first step.