It doesn’t take much time listening to her music to realize Ashley McBryde doesn’t take any shit. On her major label debut Girl Goin’ Nowhere, released in 2018, the Arkansas-born singer/songwriter positioned herself as an indispensable addition to the modern country canon. She offered a new badass edge, one that country traditionalists as well as the genre’s more progressive players could get on board with. Her dominating rock ‘n’ roll guitars gave Eric Church a run for his money, while her slow-burning heartbreak anthems and small-town musings could slide right in on a Miranda Lambert classic.
She began that 2018 album with the title track, singing the line, “Don’t waste your life behind that guitar.” She sings, “I hear the band / And where they said I’d never be is exactly where I am,” proving to all the people who told her she wouldn’t make it in this business that they were flat-out wrong. Cut to 2020, and not only is McBryde in an even better place professionally than she was two years ago, but she’s also at the top of her game craft-wise.
Never Will opens on the same “girl,” but this time McBryde is repeatedly telling her to “hang in there.” She’s singing to her younger self who’s stuck in what her contemporary Hailey Whitters might call a “Ten Year Town,” a little slice of rural America that will never be big enough for some dream-chasers. The song immediately soars thanks to those massive guitars and McByde’s driving alto, reminding us that “Growing up takes a little time.” Carrie Underwood walked on the sultry 2000s hit “Last Name” so Ashley McBryde could run on the equally sexy “One Night Standards,” one of a few wonderful singles released ahead of the record. McBryde quickly and acutely sums up the unspoken rules of one-time hookups in a way that quietly but undeniably flaunts her agency as a 21st century woman.
As crazy as it sounds, it’s still rare to hear a woman singing about whatever she wants on country radio. Maren Morris currently sits at the top of the Billboard Hot Country chart with her 2019 charmer “The Bones,” but she’s the first female soloist to crown that ranking since 2016. According to a recent study, women still only account for about 10 percent of country radio airplay. Only time will tell if McBryde will find a home on the charts with this new release, though there’s no denying she’s worthy of it. Her team agrees:
“We have another goal in our sights,” Warner Music Nashville (McBryde’s label) chairman John Esposito said at the Country Radio seminar earlier this year, “to break Ashley McBryde. She’s proven she deserves to be in this format, she belongs in this format, she deserves your attention.”
He couldn’t be more right. Ashley McBryde has—and has had for a long time—the makings of a huge country star. That couldn’t be more clear on Never Will, which has something for every type of country fan. It’s no secret a large portion of country fans are conservative-leaning, and there’s nothing here to alienate that body. Never Will sounds like traditional country, rarely traipsing into the souped-up, poppy bro-country that makes up so much of the genre nowadays. At the same time, it feels forward-thinking. “First Thing I Reach For” is an honest honky-tonk ode to vices that spares no details. On album closer “Styrofoam,” she dedicates three minutes of spoken-word sweet nothings to the creators of the impossible-to-decompose material that was miraculously chilling liquids of all varieties well before Yetis were on the market. The mandolin takes center stage on the bluegrass-indebted “Voodoo Doll,” which is one of the most impressive songs on the album, if only for its light flirtation with pure, unadulterated black magic. References to any kind of devil worshipping will never not be at least slightly taboo in Nashville.
“Martha Divine,” another single that earned McBryde a place on several “most anticipated releases of 2020” lists, is the album’s other highlight and the eternal damnation of a serial homewrecker. “Martha Divine, you put your hands on the wrong damn man this time,” she sings, later adding, “It ain’t murder if I bury you alive.” Murderous revenge songs about no-good, cheatin’ scoundrels are nothing new in the realm of country music (see: “Goodbye Earl,” “Way Too Pretty for Prison,” etc. etc.), but it’s rare to hear one woman clawing after another as opposed to the man. McBryde’s experimentation with religious imagery is also a new take on the trademark revenge anthem.
Ashley McBryde isn’t necessarily an innovator—yet. But she’s an artist dead-set on using genre guidelines already in place to say something innovative, to sing something we’ve never heard from anyone else before. Like Kacey Musgraves, she’s unafraid to sing about sex and weed, but she makes the switch to tender at the drop of a 10-gallon hat (“Stone” will have you crying and calling your mama in no time). Never Will speeds up when it’s supposed to and slows down when it needs to (you’ll want to sail away on the slide guitar on the locomotive “Velvet Red”) while never veering too sharply from the groundwork laid by our country forefathers and mothers in the ’60s and ’70s. It’s utterly refreshing and equally re-listenable. If radio execs and DJs have any sense at all, they’ll play Ashley McBryde until we’re beggin’ them to stop. Few are as deserving of mainstream genre stardom as her, and Never Will is all the proof we need.
Ellen Johnson is an assistant music editor, writer, playlist maker, coffee drinker and pop culture enthusiast at Paste. She occasionally moonlights as a film fan on Letterboxd. You can find her yapping about all the things on Twitter @ellen_a_johnson.