Photo: Alysse Gafkjen
Meet First-Time Nominee: Ashley McBryde On Self-Acceptance & Why There's Room For Everyone In Country Music
When she was five years old, Ashley McBryde told her mother she wanted to be a country musician. Then, when she was 12, she said it again. And she didn't want to be just any country singer, either. The Arkansas native who grew up on a 400-acre cattle farm and loved attending bluegrass festivals dreamt of GRAMMY gold.
To make that dream happen, she dropped out of college and played TV-on-the-wall sports bars. When McBryde finally got the attention of record labels, she was told her hair was "too curly" and to lose weight. And she tried. She lost 35 pounds and wrote songs a certain kind of way. But it wouldn't stick—McBryde couldn't be who the glossy, 30-pounds-skinnier artist industry executives wanted her to be. So she turned a corner—if she was going to "become" anyone, it would have to be herself. The music industry would have to accept her as she was, tattoos, wild hair and all.
Her unapologetic nature has paid off: At 35 years old, McBryde has a critically acclaimed debut album, Girl Going Nowhere, and her first GRAMMY nomination for Best Country Album.
Ultimately, her experience has inspired the album. Songs like "Girl Goin' Nowhere" tell a story of fierce persistence. "Don't waste your life behind that guitar/ You may get gone, but you won't get far/ You're not the first, you won't be the last… But when the lights come up …. And I can't find an empty chair/ Not bad for a girl goin' nowhere," she sings.
In an exclusive interview, McBryde spoke to the Recording Academy about what it feels like to be where she is now, her first-time nomination, women in country radio, the artists who inspired her, and what she's looking forward to the most during the 61st GRAMMY Awards on Feb. 10.
What were you doing when you found out you were nominated for a GRAMMY?
I was in my bunk on the bus, and I had let my phone die on accident the night before because I'm one of those people that looks at their phone until they fall all the way to sleep. I woke up; phone was dead. I plugged it in and as it started to charge, it started to go off, of course, a million times. Ding, ding, ding, ding. That was annoying. So, I turned the ringer off and went back to sleep, and when I woke up I had 49 texts.
I kind of glanced at the screen and to see some of the names that were popping up, I was like, "Something bad or something really good happened. Because I didn't even know the nominees were being read that morning." When you're in tour mode, you just play the show, sleep, get up, play the show, sleep, and I clicked on a video my friend had sent me, and it was them reading the nomination on TV.
So I freaked out, and then I text that video to my band, and I got under the covers and put my head under the covers and just screamed.
After finding out, you tweeted: "When other girls my age were planning their dream weddings, I dreamt of a Grammy nomination." Talk to me about when you used to dream about this moment. What did you envision at that time?
I was such a weird kid I guess. I'd get in trouble all the time for practicing my autograph in classes I wasn't supposed to [be doing those things in]. I never wanted anything more than I wanted to do this for a living. So I kind of thought, how would I call my mom? Where would I be? How would I react? Should I tell my mom in a really big way and be like, "Oh my gosh, Ma! We got nominated for a GRAMMY!" And that's not at all what I did, I called her and just I said, "Hey Mom. What are you doing?" And she was working, and she said, "Oh, just working. What are you doing?" I said, "Oh, I just woke up on the bus and we're nominated for a GRAMMY." She goes, "Okay, honey. What?!"
So, I would kind of play through these scenarios. How I would tell my sister, how I'd tell my brother, and what it would feel like to be nominated for the biggest award there is for a musician, for a songwriter, for an artist. And all of the envisioning I did still didn't prepare my gut for the size of those butterflies.
My best friend called me. We have been best friends since we were 16, and I was having trouble processing this information. And she called, and she said, "Ashley, you remember sitting in Coach Hanson's class and we got in trouble because I was writing poetry and you were practicing your autograph." Yeah, and she goes, "Dude, you did it. 17-year-old you just did the thing we dreamt of." And that's when the tears started for me and started to creep in.
When did you know you wanted to become an artist?
My new skills really developed until was 25. I told my mom when I was five that I was gonna be a country artist someday. And then, again when I was 12. It never changed, but I really reiterated again when I was 12. I said, "Mom, I'm gonna be a songwriter someday. I'm gonna move to Nashville, Tennessee and I'm gonna write songs." And she said, "Okay." Her answer was always, "Okay, honey." And not in a dismissive way, but in an "Absolutely" kind of way.
Was there any moment in your journey that almost made you want to give up?
Nothing makes you wonder why the hell you're doing it like playing at a sports bar where they don't turn the TVs down for their live music. But that's one of those things you have to learn to adjust to when you're a chick that plays the bars for a living. Sometimes you're the thing that's happening, and sometimes you're the noise behind the thing that's happening. Either you get in your head about it and you're like, "Why the hell are they having me do this when a radio could do this job?" And some of the bars don't even turn the projector off behind you when the ball game was on.
You get in your head about it and you get, "Why the hell am I doing this?" And then you remember, you know what? You could always go back and work in retail. You can always go back. You could go do anything for a living. And you have to ask yourself, would you do anything else? No. Okay, then shut up and sing 'Fishing in the Dark'… You do this because you love it or you just don't do it. There are things that make you wonder if you should keep doing it, but if it's in your bones then the answer is still gonna be yes when you still check.
A lot of women in country, including Carrie Underwood, have spoken out about the lack of women represented in country radio. With so many music platforms available to share and discover music on nowadays, is terrestrial radio a priority for you?
I think terrestrial radio is a priority for anybody who is really wanting to do music on a level that we're doing. It's a weird struggle. It broke my heart to find out how radio worked 'cause I was so ... I've been playing in bars for 11 years. I had no idea what radio tour would be like. And I met such amazing people on radio tour and finding out how hard their job is as a program director and as a music director and finding out how it really works and how a song really gets on the radio has so little to do with music that it was just heartbreaking.
I don't understand why there aren't more chicks on the radio ... We have huge fans. We sell out shows. And you're right, with so many different platforms to get ahold of our music, you would wonder if terrestrial radio is still is a champion for you as you want it to be, but it's absolutely a thousand percent necessary. It doesn't have to be the biggest thing in your life. It doesn't have to be the only way they're gonna find you, obviously, because they ain't playin' it. But it's still a companion you have to have. The people who are singing the records and the people who are spinning the record and the people that are pushing the record, we're all the music industry, and we all have to be companions to each other.
Why do you think traditional country radio has been so slow to diversify its roster?
It's so weird because we diversify our genre. We represent the pop side of things on country radio. We represent the more traditional side. We represent the ritzy side. We represent kind of that shake-hop thing that happened. We're so diverse as a sound, I don't know why it's so hard to diversify as far as who's singing the song. I don't know why that is, but it wasn't always that way. You look at the '90s, they're were as many if not more strong female artists as there were strong male artist, and they all got along. Nobody was bitching about one another. I think that's the wrong way to go. Country music is a big-ass place. There's room for all of us.
You've spoken about the importance of being your true self in this industry. What got you to realize this, and what motivates you to stay genuine as an artist and a person?
There's always that moment in everybody's career where it's "Lose 30 pounds, change your hair, change your name," all this stuff. And I knew I wasn't willing to do that from the get-go. You have to do a small percentage of it anyway, because if you don't ... how do I say this? If you don't buy tickets to the game, you don't get to go.
For me, learning that I had to be unapologetically myself was, I lost 35 pounds. I looked amazing, except my head was way too big for my shoulders. And there was a, "Your hair's really curly. Can we kind of make that more of a wave kind of a thing?" And I was like, "Okay. I'll trust you. I'll try anything one time. I won't have to tell you it looks stupid. You'll see it looks stupid." So, we did that and I tried to do the thing that people would have me do, and it was a momentum and a façade that I knew there's no way I could keep that up and maybe stick out my stomach, two for ten, that I'm the skinniest girl in the room. I'm never gonna be that and that's fine. I look silly with straight hair.
That for me was a big turning point, and also some of the songs that we were choosing for me at the time. It's not that I didn't like them. I wrote them, but they weren't exactly the thing I would want to do and the message that I wanted to put out. I had stuff that had better messages to it. And learning that I really suck at being anybody else, and as long as I've got permission to just be me, and me and the guys can just make the music that [speaks] to us, that's when it started working for us. That's when the ball really started rolling.
You bring up really great points and it kind of gets me thinking, did you ever see yourself represented when you were younger in the industry, in the singers that you saw?
I did. Really strong women like Trisha Yearwood, Lorrie Morgan, Patty Loveless. They were vocally so agile and so powerful. That was easy to look up to, but I grew up on a cattle farm in the Ozark mountains of Arkansas. I was in the cheapest Wrangler jeans you can get. We bought our clothes at a place called Tri-County Farm and Ranch Supply. I wore white Hanes T-shirts that were hand-me-downs from my older siblings and I rolled the sleeves up because I'm a really small statured person. I still roll my sleeves up to this day because even short sleeved t-shirts, the sleeves are too long for me.
And I ran across this song I really liked called "When Boy Meets Girl" by Terrie Clark. I went to Walmart and I bought her record and on the cover of the record, she had on a cowboy hat just like I did, she had on a T-shirt with the sleeves rolled up just like I did, and she wore Wrangler.
So, for the first time I saw a strong female presence with good songs that meant something to me that looked like I did. And then later on in college, it would be Gretchen Wilson where I would go, "Hey, I'd dip tobacco. That chick dips tobacco," even though it's sort of unattractive … I can identify with her. So, I really did have some good role models I looked up to on both sides of the spectrum. People that I wanted to sound like and people that sounded like me. People that I can identify with just life wise. The way the women looked and the way we lived.
"Girl Going Nowhere" is such a powerful song. What is the inspiration behind it?
Ahh, that song is a 100% my story and it is 100% Jeremy Bussey's story, the friend that I wrote that with. That morning, Guy Clark had passed away. He's one of my favorite songwriters of all time, and I was really upset when I got to the writing room. To calm down, I'd just met Jeremy that morning and he said, "Yeah. Let's get your brain out of there out of being sad ..." "I'm from Alabama." And I'm like, "Oh, I'm from Arkansas." "When did you move to town?" I said, "Well, I was 22, 23." He's like, "Cool. I was much older than that when I moved to town to start this as a career." We just kind of interviewed each other kind of getting our brains going in the same direction.
We started swapping stories of all of the people that told us we were crazy to move to Nashville. The story that really stuck out that day for me was about that algebra teacher that I had that when she asked what I wanted to do for a living, I told her I was gonna write songs. And she told me that that was stupid, and that wasn't gonna happen. And the longer we talked about that, Jeremy said, "Have you played at the Grand Ole Opry?" And I said, "Not yet, but I will." And that was about a year-and-a-half before the Opry had ever even heard my name. He said, "I like the way you think. Today, all we have to do is write what you want to sing the very first time you step in that wooden circle and we'll write it in such a way that Guy Clark wouldn't hate it if he had to listen to it."
What would you tell your algebra teacher now?
She's getting on up in years, and as many things as I've dreamt of saying to that bitter old woman, I think now, the only thing I could say to her would be "Thank you." I was a stubborn kid. She gave me hell. I gave it right back. I ultimately got kicked out of her class, by the way, because of my mouth. But now, I would say thank you because nothing lights a fire under your ass like somebody telling you they don't think you can do it.
How's the next album going, have you written any songs for it yet?
Oh yeah. We started picking out the songs for the second record the day after we finished the first record. We have a huge pile already of stuff that I had already written. Just stuff that I've written over the last two years. And now, I'm gonna take a month and just write, not really toward anything, not trying to fill any gaps, but just write as many songs as we can in 25 days and see what pops out.
What are you most looking forward to during the 61st GRAMMY Awards?
Just attending the Grammys is huge to me, and to be nominated is of course a dream come true, especially with these artists with these albums that I'm standing next to. I think what I'm most looking forward to is taking who I want to take to the GRAMMYs. I took my mother to the CMAs, so I have a pretty good idea of who I'd like to take to the GRAMMYs, but I won't say yet because she's gonna freak out.
If there is something you want the world to take away from your music, what would it be?
The reason me and the guys even play music for a living is because at some point in our lives, music changed us. My goal is to do for one person what music did, but so many songs did for me growing up.
I got to perform at the CMAs, which was another dream of mine. And to think of me, a chick from Arkansas, being on that stage. That blows my mind. To think of the first time I step in the Opry circle, that blows my mind. If I can do that, you can do anything. Especially if someone told you not to do it. Then you should do it more colorfully, if someone told you not to do it or told you that you can't do it. If I can do it, you damn sure can.