Ashley McBryde Is Playing an Insider/Outsider Game

The expectation-upending country star talks her collaborative concept album Ashley McBryde Presents: Lindeville, her much-anticipated third solo album and more

Music Features Ashley McBryde
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Ashley McBryde Is Playing an Insider/Outsider Game

On the title track to her 2020 album, Never Will, Ashley McBryde sang about the pressures she faced as a major-label country artist who had neither the look nor the sound of the genre’s female stars. Short, stocky and heavily tattooed, with a rock ‘n’ roll edge to both her guitars and her storytelling, she didn’t fit the mold.

“You gotta play the game if you ever want to play to the big crowds / You’ve gone as far as you’ll ever go unless you’re willing to sell out,” she sang in that song, quoting her industry advisors. Her response to that advice provided the tune’s hook: “Well I didn’t, I don’t, I never will.” It was a rousing anthem of independence in a town that usually plays by the rules.

So it was surprising to see at one of the close-to-the-stage tables during the televised CMA Awards on Nov. 9. McBryde had been nominated by the Country Music Association in five of the eight categories for which she was eligible: Female Vocalist, Single, Song, Music Video and Musical Event. She won a trophy in that last slot (for her collaboration with Carly Pearce on “Never Wanted To Be That Girl”) and got to play a song from her latest release live on TV.

The number she sang, “When Will I Be Loved,” is the only cover tune on her new concept album Ashley McBryde Presents: Lindeville. Joining her as lead vocalists on the song made famous by the Everly Brothers and Linda Ronstadt were her album collaborators Brandy Clark, Caylee Hammack and Pillbox Patti (aka Nicolette Hayford). Playing the slide-guitar solo was the album’s producer, John Osborne of the Brothers Osborne.

“The people I look up to, like Eric and the Bros.,” she says, referring to Eric Church and the Brothers Osborne, “who do things their own way, give me confidence that I can do things my own way and still get some recognition. And the CMA Awards confirmed that. During the show, Jess Carson from Midland stopped by my table and said, ‘I’m so glad you put out Lindeville. I love that record.’”

Carson was reflecting a widespread admiration for McBryde’s willingness to upend expectations by doing things like releasing this unusual, multiple-artist, high-concept recording before the third solo album everyone’s been waiting for. Not everyone in Nashville is willing to take such chances, but they’re glad that she is. Maybe that’s why she wound up with five nominations without ever having a top-10 single under her own name. Maybe that’s why she was accepted as a member of the Grand Ole Opry in October.

It’s all part of the insider/outsider game she’s playing. She stays inside the boundaries of mainstream country enough to have two top-10 albums, three top-20 singles, a deal with Warner Music and co-writes with Music Row titan Shane McAnally. She stays outside enough to rev up the guitars, as she did in her Memphis bar-band days, to stick to her look and to sing a chorus like this one: “Can’t you just use me like I’m using you? ... I don’t want a number you ain’t gonna answer / Let’s just stick to the one-night standards.”

“We’re a little bit different but not defiantly,” she says over the phone from her Nashville home. “We want to reach the country audience. But I have to do a gut check pretty regularly, because I don’t want my rough edges polished off. If I’m bothering some people, that’s a good sign.”

“A lot of writers these days write specifically for the radio,” comments John Osborne, “but she doesn’t do that. She writes about the real lives of real people. She’s just herself in an industry where it’s hard to do that. And yet she got five nominations, because everyone in this town is behind her. And because she’s a great artist.”

Lindeville is a fictional village created by McBryde and her pals as a way to examine what goes on below the surface of a small American town. It thus follows in the tradition of such mythical hamlets as Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire (from Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town); Peyton Place, New Hampshire (from the novel, movie and TV series of the same name); and Harper’s Valley, Kentucky (from the song “Harper Valley PTA,” written by Tom T. Hall and sung by Jeannie Riley).

The idea lit up like a light bulb during a songwriting session that McBryde had with Hayford and Aaron Raitiere in July of 2020, when the pandemic was still raging, and they were taking cautious baby steps out of isolation. The trio had just written a song called “Black Out Betty,” and they realized how similar it was to songs such as “Shut Up, Sheila” (written by Hayford and Charles Chisholm for Never Will), “Living Next to Leroy” (written by Hayford and McBryde for the latter’s debut album) and “Jesus Jenny” (recently written by Raitiere and Jon Decious). All these songs boasted alliteration in the title and a willingness to look at the underside of small-town American life.

“All I said was, ‘You know those songs we’ve been writing; let’s write some more of that shit, the weirdness that happens in these small towns we all grew up in,’” McBryde explains. “Those towns are always made to look so pristine in Nashville, and it’s not always like that. Sometimes some woman gets her ass beat in front of Blockbuster. That’s not a good memory, but it’s an important memory.

“We have a knack for writing these character songs,” she adds, “but we’re not the first ones to do it. It was about this time that I realized that Dennis Linde had written all these amazing character songs. John Peets, my manager, told me that the Earl in Dennis’s ‘The Queen of the Double Wide Trailer’ was the same guy that Dennis killed off in his song ‘Goodbye Earl.’ I used to sing that trailer song all the time, and I had never made that connection. John told me that Dennis had created a town for all these characters; he even drew a map.”

So McBryde decided that her fictional town would be called Lindeville, with a baseball field called Dennis Linde Park. The town would be set in Faulkner County, Arkansas, just three hours south of the Ozarks town where McBryde grew up. “Faulkner County” was not only easy to sing, but it also alluded to William Faulkner, who created his own fictional county of Yoknapatawpha in Mississippi for his novels and stories. To populate Lindeville with a variety of characters, McBryde knew she would need a variety of songwriters.

McBryde, Hayford, Raitiere, Clark and Connie Harrington had often gone off on songwriting retreats well outside Nashville, and they were eager to do it again. McBryde wanted a “wild card,” someone she’d never met before, and Hayford suggested Benjy Davis. On Airbnb, Hayford found a cabin in Dover, Tennessee, and filled it up with groceries. The six writers focused on the Lindeville concept for an entire week and shared the songwriting credits equally for every song on the resulting album but “Jesus Jenny” and “When Will I Be Loved.”

“Usually we don’t do much writing the first day,” McBryde recalls, “but this time, once we got everything in the refrigerator, we got going—like kids on the playground. Nicolette threw out the line, ‘Brenda Put Your Bra On,’ and as soon as she said that, we all asked, ‘Why is she putting her bra on?’ Before we knew it, everyone was making suggestions.”

“Brenda Put Your Bra On” wound up being the opening track on the Lindeville album. McBryde kicks it off by telling her two female neighbors (played by Hayford and guest vocalist Caylee Hammack) to get dressed and come outside, because “shit’s going down in the trailerhood.” Another neighbor, Tina, has caught her baby daddy Marvin in flagrante delicto with a bimbo known as Old Suntan City, and now dishes and furniture are flying and crashing.

It’s a funny song delivered over some twangy, twitchy country-funk. The album has several more songs like that, but it’s not all comedy. For instance, T.J. Osborne, John’s sibling in the Brothers Osborne, sings the poignant ballad “Play Ball.” Pete, the groundskeeper at Dennis Linde Park, had “lost his wife to cancer and a thumb in Vietnam,” but nonetheless became a father figure to the former juvenile delinquent who’s now narrating the song.

“We didn’t decide the album needed a cup of sugar and a cup of flour,” McBryde says. “It just happened that way. If we were in a more serious mood, maybe after eating dinner, we’d write a serious song. If we were in a giddy mood, maybe after a morning coffee, we’d write something funny. And it just worked out.”

“Gospel Night at the Strip Club” begins as a comic number but takes a turn for the serious. “When I watch people hear that song for the first time,” McBryde says, “they have a smile at that first verse. But that smile disappears when the preacher says, ‘I hope some more people show up,’ because he needs the gas money. And when he says, ‘Jesus loves the drunkards and the whores and the queers,’ they go, ‘Hold on, this song’s saying something important.’ We were glad when we were done that the album wasn’t just a parody, and it wasn’t all serious songs, either. A song like “Gospel Night at the Strip Club’ needs a song like ‘Brenda Put Your Bra On.’ And vice versa.”

That line, “Jesus loves the drunkards and the whores and the queers,” is crucial, because it makes explicit the project’s unifying theme: Everyone is flawed, and everyone is worthy of love and respect despite those flaws. Perhaps we should spend less time hiding our sins and weaknesses, and more time forgiving the same in others.

“A lot of the time, people want to present the best of themselves,” points out producer Osborne. “If you look on social media, people post about their best moments, how they want to be seen. But reality isn’t like that. Lindeville is about what’s going on beneath the veneer, but it also tells the listener that it’s alright, because that’s the life we all have wherever we are. Life is funny, life will break your heart, life is miraculous, and if you take one thing out, it’s no longer real.”

“I was raised really, really, strictly religious,” McBryde adds. “In that environment, you’re told that God can’t even hear you if you’re drunk, that if you’re an unwed mother he wants nothing to do with you. But I realized when I was older and playing bars that something wonderful out there loves us, loves us even when we’re drunk, even when we make bad decisions. It doesn’t matter if the church service is in a strip club. Those people need it as much as anyone else—if not more so.”

Sprinkled amid the funny songs and the somber are three radio commercials for local businesses in Lindeville: the Dandelion Diner (“It’s high time for pie time”), Ronnie’s Pawn Shop (“Hey, we don’t ask, we don’t tell / We just buy, we just sell”) and the Forkem Family Funeral Home (“When you meet your maker, we’ll be your undertaker”).

“The idea was that you’re driving through this town of Lindeville, and you turn on the radio and you hear the local commercials,” explains Osborne. “I had the musicians pick up instruments they don’t usually play so they sounded like local amateur musicians in the town. I ran the songs through an old FM radio alarm clock and recorded it off the clock. The commercials were all written at the same time as the songs. They could write a song about burning things in a bonfire. And the next thing they write an ad for a funeral parlor. That impressed the hell out of me.”

The Phil Everly composition was added later at the suggestion of manager Peets. McBryde was initially dubious, but she realized that Tina, the cheated-on victim in “Brenda Put Your Bra On,” was a woman scorned, and so is the woman singing “When Will I Be Loved.” “Just before ‘Bonfire at Tina’s’,” McBryde says, “we needed a moment where Tina is hurting, and ‘When Will I Be Loved’ is that moment.”

The cover of the album declares, Ashley McBryde Presents: Lindeville. And yet there’s only one track (the album closer “Lindeville”) where she’s the lead singer all the way through. Even though it’s her name out front, she’s unusually generous in sharing the leads with Hayford, Raitiere, Clark, Hammack, Davis and T.J. Osborne.

“I left it to Ashley to assign vocals,” says producer John Osborne. “The first voice and the last voice you hear is Ashley. But she only sings one song by herself. I was really impressed by that decision. She really loves her people. She has no ego about it at all; she’s all about the song first. On this record, for the most part, they all wrote all the songs. And they share them that way.”

“We definitely could have had a version where I sang all the songs, and I love singing ‘Gospel Night at the Strip Club,’ which Benjy sings on the album,” says McBryde. “But the magic of the work tapes was us sitting around that kitchen table, and to recapture that magic it had to be Benjy’s voice, it had to be Nicolette’s voice. And it needed to sound like different characters in different parts of town singing each song.”

Everyone involved was excited with the demos recorded during the retreat, but McBryde was worried it would become one of those cool projects that winds up “on a thumb drive in someone’s drawer, and we only sing the songs when we’re really hammered at a Christmas party.” She decided she wasn’t going to let that happen, and she insisted that Warner Music release Lindeville before her third solo album.

The only reason she got away with it is because she finished the solo album right after the Lindeville sessions ended. The as-yet-untitled solo recording, which includes the “Black Out Betty” song that inspired Lindeville, will come out in the spring, after a single drops in February.

“We turned everything up,” she says of the solo album. “It’s got a lot of tingly things on it. Our attitude was, ‘Oh, you think that’s too country? Let’s make it more country. Oh, you think that’s too rock ‘n’ roll? Let’s make it more rock ‘n’ roll.”

The six co-writers, guest stars and producer on Lindeville occupy a strategic place in Nashville right now. They’ve got one foot in mainstream country music and one foot in Americana. They’re aiming to get on country radio, but on their own terms. They’re playing that insider/outsider game that their role models such as Church, Chris Stapleton, Maren Morris and The Pistol Annies have excelled at. The Annies (Miranda Lambert, Angaleena Presley and Ashley Monroe) were especially helpful in showing how you could write modern country songs about women doing unladylike things.

“I can remember covering the Pistol Annies’ ‘Hells on Heels’ when I was still singing in bars in Memphis,” McBryde says. “I was so glad someone had written those songs, because they talked about the life I was leading. That song ‘One’s Drinking, One’s Smoking, One’s Taking Pills’ describes every band in the world. I should really thank those girls for kicking the door open for me.”

Ashley McBryde Presents: Lindeville is out now on Warner Music Nashville.