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Meet First-Time Nominee: Ashley McBryde On Self-Acceptance & Why There's Room For Everyone In Country Music

Ashley McBryde

Photo: Alysse Gafkjen 

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Meet First-Time Nominee: Ashley McBryde On Self-Acceptance & Why There's Room For Everyone In Country Music

When the music industry told her she needed to change, the Arkansas-born country singer opted to become more herself

GRAMMYs/Jan 21, 2019 - 09:43 pm

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."

RELATED: Meet The First-Time GRAMMY Nominee: Tia Fuller On  Artistic Vision & Leading By Example

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.

RELATED: Meet The First-Time GRAMMY Nominee: Between The Buried And Me's Paul Waggoner

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.

Alicia Keys To Host The 2019 GRAMMY Awards

Press Play On GRAMMY U Mixtape: New Year, It’s Poppin'! Monthly Member Playlist

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Press Play On GRAMMY U Mixtape: New Year, It’s Poppin'! Monthly Member Playlist

The GRAMMY U Mixtape is a monthly, genre-spanning playlist to quench your thirst for new tunes, all from student members. GRAMMY U celebrates new beginnings with fresh pop tunes that will kickstart 2023.

GRAMMYs/Jan 6, 2023 - 12:17 am

Did you know that among all of the students in GRAMMY U, songwriting and performance is one of the most sought after fields of study? We want to create a space to hear what these students are creating today!

The GRAMMY U Mixtape, now available for your listening pleasure, highlights the creations and fresh ideas that students are bringing to this industry directly on the Recording Academy's Spotify and Apple Music pages. Our goal is to celebrate GRAMMY U members, as well as the time and effort they put into making original music — from the songwriting process to the final production of the track.

Each month, we accept submissions and feature 20 to 25 songs that match that month’s theme. This month we're ringing in 2023 with our New Year, It's Poppin'! playlist, which features fresh pop songs that bring new year, new you vibes. Showcasing talented members from our various chapters, we felt these songs represented the positivity and hopefulness that GRAMMY U members embody as they tackle this upcoming year of exciting possibilities.

So, what’s stopping you? Press play on GRAMMY U’s Mixtape and listen now on Spotify below and Apple Music.

Want to be featured on the next playlist? Submit your songs today! We are currently accepting submissions for songs of all genres for consideration for our February playlist. Whether you write pop, rock, hip hop, jazz, or classical, we want to hear from you. Music must be written and/or produced by the student member (an original song) and you must be able to submit a Spotify and/or Apple Music link to the song. Students must be a GRAMMY U member to submit.

About GRAMMY U:

GRAMMY U is a program that connects college students with the industry's brightest and most talented minds and provides those aspiring professionals with the tools and opportunities necessary to start a career in music.     

Throughout each semester, events and special programs touch on all facets of the industry, including the business, technology, and the creative process.

As part of the Recording Academy's mission to ensure the recorded arts remain a thriving part of our shared cultural heritage, GRAMMY U establishes the necessary foundation for music’s next generation to flourish.

Not a member, but want to submit to our playlist? Apply for GRAMMY U Membership here.

A Guide To Modern Funk For The Dance Floor: L'Imperatrice, Shiro Schwarz, Franc Moody, Say She She & Moniquea
Franc Moody

Photo: Rachel Kupfer 

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A Guide To Modern Funk For The Dance Floor: L'Imperatrice, Shiro Schwarz, Franc Moody, Say She She & Moniquea

James Brown changed the sound of popular music when he found the power of the one and unleashed the funk with "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag." Today, funk lives on in many forms, including these exciting bands from across the world.

GRAMMYs/Nov 25, 2022 - 04:23 pm

It's rare that a genre can be traced back to a single artist or group, but for funk, that was James Brown. The Godfather of Soul coined the phrase and style of playing known as "on the one," where the first downbeat is emphasized, instead of the typical second and fourth beats in pop, soul and other styles. As David Cheal eloquently explains, playing on the one "left space for phrases and riffs, often syncopated around the beat, creating an intricate, interlocking grid which could go on and on." You know a funky bassline when you hear it; its fat chords beg your body to get up and groove.

Brown's 1965 classic, "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," became one of the first funk hits, and has been endlessly sampled and covered over the years, along with his other groovy tracks. Of course, many other funk acts followed in the '60s, and the genre thrived in the '70s and '80s as the disco craze came and went, and the originators of hip-hop and house music created new music from funk and disco's strong, flexible bones built for dancing.

Legendary funk bassist Bootsy Collins learned the power of the one from playing in Brown's band, and brought it to George Clinton, who created P-funk, an expansive, Afrofuturistic, psychedelic exploration of funk with his various bands and projects, including Parliament-Funkadelic. Both Collins and Clinton remain active and funkin', and have offered their timeless grooves to collabs with younger artists, including Kali Uchis, Silk Sonic, and Omar Apollo; and Kendrick Lamar, Flying Lotus, and Thundercat, respectively.

In the 1980s, electro-funk was born when artists like Afrika Bambaataa, Man Parrish, and Egyptian Lover began making futuristic beats with the Roland TR-808 drum machine — often with robotic vocals distorted through a talk box. A key distinguishing factor of electro-funk is a de-emphasis on vocals, with more phrases than choruses and verses. The sound influenced contemporaneous hip-hop, funk and electronica, along with acts around the globe, while current acts like Chromeo, DJ Stingray, and even Egyptian Lover himself keep electro-funk alive and well.

Today, funk lives in many places, with its heavy bass and syncopated grooves finding way into many nooks and crannies of music. There's nu-disco and boogie funk, nodding back to disco bands with soaring vocals and dance floor-designed instrumentation. G-funk continues to influence Los Angeles hip-hop, with innovative artists like Dam-Funk and Channel Tres bringing the funk and G-funk, into electro territory. Funk and disco-centered '70s revival is definitely having a moment, with acts like Ghost Funk Orchestra and Parcels, while its sparkly sprinklings can be heard in pop from Dua Lipa, Doja Cat, and, in full "Soul Train" character, Silk Sonic. There are also acts making dreamy, atmospheric music with a solid dose of funk, such as Khruangbin’s global sonic collage.

There are many bands that play heavily with funk, creating lush grooves designed to get you moving. Read on for a taste of five current modern funk and nu-disco artists making band-led uptempo funk built for the dance floor. Be sure to press play on the Spotify playlist above, and check out GRAMMY.com's playlist on Apple Music, Amazon Music and Pandora.

Say She She

Aptly self-described as "discodelic soul," Brooklyn-based seven-piece Say She She make dreamy, operatic funk, led by singer-songwriters Nya Gazelle Brown, Piya Malik and Sabrina Mileo Cunningham. Their '70s girl group-inspired vocal harmonies echo, sooth and enchant as they cover poignant topics with feminist flair.

While they’ve been active in the New York scene for a few years, they’ve gained wider acclaim for the irresistible music they began releasing this year, including their debut album, Prism. Their 2022 debut single "Forget Me Not" is an ode to ground-breaking New York art collective Guerilla Girls, and "Norma" is their protest anthem in response to the news that Roe vs. Wade could be (and was) overturned. The band name is a nod to funk legend Nile Rodgers, from the "Le freak, c'est chi" exclamation in Chic's legendary tune "Le Freak."

Moniquea

Moniquea's unique voice oozes confidence, yet invites you in to dance with her to the super funky boogie rhythms. The Pasadena, California artist was raised on funk music; her mom was in a cover band that would play classics like Aretha Franklin’s "Get It Right" and Gladys Knight’s "Love Overboard." Moniquea released her first boogie funk track at 20 and, in 2011, met local producer XL Middelton — a bonafide purveyor of funk. She's been a star artist on his MoFunk Records ever since, and they've collabed on countless tracks, channeling West Coast energy with a heavy dose of G-funk, sunny lyrics and upbeat, roller disco-ready rhythms.

Her latest release is an upbeat nod to classic West Coast funk, produced by Middleton, and follows her February 2022 groovy, collab-filled album, On Repeat.

Shiro Schwarz

Shiro Schwarz is a Mexico City-based duo, consisting of Pammela Rojas and Rafael Marfil, who helped establish a modern funk scene in the richly creative Mexican metropolis. On "Electrify" — originally released in 2016 on Fat Beats Records and reissued in 2021 by MoFunk — Shiro Schwarz's vocals playfully contrast each other, floating over an insistent, upbeat bassline and an '80s throwback electro-funk rhythm with synth flourishes.

Their music manages to be both nostalgic and futuristic — and impossible to sit still to. 2021 single "Be Kind" is sweet, mellow and groovy, perfect chic lounge funk. Shiro Schwarz’s latest track, the joyfully nostalgic "Hey DJ," is a collab with funkstress Saucy Lady and U-Key.

L'Impératrice

L'Impératrice (the empress in French) are a six-piece Parisian group serving an infectiously joyful blend of French pop, nu-disco, funk and psychedelia. Flore Benguigui's vocals are light and dreamy, yet commanding of your attention, while lyrics have a feminist touch.

During their energetic live sets, L'Impératrice members Charles de Boisseguin and Hagni Gwon (keys), David Gaugué (bass), Achille Trocellier (guitar), and Tom Daveau (drums) deliver extended instrumental jam sessions to expand and connect their music. Gaugué emphasizes the thick funky bass, and Benguigui jumps around the stage while sounding like an angel. L’Impératrice’s latest album, 2021’s Tako Tsubo, is a sunny, playful French disco journey.

Franc Moody

Franc Moody's bio fittingly describes their music as "a soul funk and cosmic disco sound." The London outfit was birthed by friends Ned Franc and Jon Moody in the early 2010s, when they were living together and throwing parties in North London's warehouse scene. In 2017, the group grew to six members, including singer and multi-instrumentalist Amber-Simone.

Their music feels at home with other electro-pop bands like fellow Londoners Jungle and Aussie act Parcels. While much of it is upbeat and euphoric, Franc Moody also dips into the more chilled, dreamy realm, such as the vibey, sultry title track from their recently released Into the Ether.

The Rise Of Underground House: How Artists Like Fisher & Acraze Have Taken Tech House, Other Electronic Genres From Indie To EDC

Living Legends: Billy Idol On Survival, Revival & Breaking Out Of The Cage
Billy Idol

Photo: Steven Sebring

interview

Living Legends: Billy Idol On Survival, Revival & Breaking Out Of The Cage

"One foot in the past and one foot into the future," Billy Idol says, describing his decade-spanning career in rock. "We’ve got the best of all possible worlds because that has been the modus operandi of Billy Idol."

GRAMMYs/Nov 25, 2022 - 04:19 pm

Living Legends is a series that spotlights icons in music still going strong today. This week, GRAMMY.com spoke with Billy Idol about his latest EP,  Cage, and continuing to rock through decades of changing tastes.

Billy Idol is a true rock 'n' roll survivor who has persevered through cultural shifts and personal struggles. While some may think of Idol solely for "Rebel Yell" and "White Wedding," the singer's musical influences span genres and many of his tunes are less turbo-charged than his '80s hits would belie.  

Idol first made a splash in the latter half of the '70s with the British punk band Generation X. In the '80s, he went on to a solo career combining rock, pop, and punk into a distinct sound that transformed him and his musical partner, guitarist Steve Stevens, into icons. They have racked up multiple GRAMMY nominations, in addition to one gold, one double platinum, and four platinum albums thanks to hits like "Cradle Of Love," "Flesh For Fantasy," and "Eyes Without A Face." 

But, unlike many legacy artists, Idol is anything but a relic. Billy continues to produce vital Idol music by collaborating with producers and songwriters — including Miley Cyrus — who share his forward-thinking vision. He will play a five-show Vegas residency in November, and filmmaker Jonas Akerlund is working on a documentary about Idol’s life. 

His latest release is Cage, the second in a trilogy of annual four-song EPs. The title track is a classic Billy Idol banger expressing the desire to free himself from personal constraints and live a better life. Other tracks on Cage incorporate metallic riffing and funky R&B grooves. 

Idol continues to reckon with his demons — they both grappled with addiction during the '80s — and the singer is open about those struggles on the record and the page. (Idol's 2014 memoir Dancing With Myself, details a 1990 motorcycle accident that nearly claimed a leg, and how becoming a father steered him to reject hard drugs. "Bitter Taste," from his last EP, The Roadside, reflects on surviving the accident.)

Although Idol and Stevens split in the late '80s — the skilled guitarist fronted Steve Stevens & The Atomic Playboys, and collaborated with Michael Jackson, Rick Ocasek, Vince Neil, and Harold Faltermeyer (on the GRAMMY-winning "Top Gun Anthem") —  their common history and shared musical bond has been undeniable. The duo reunited in 2001 for an episode of "VH1 Storytellers" and have been back in the saddle for two decades. Their union remains one of the strongest collaborations in rock 'n roll history.

While there is recognizable personnel and a distinguishable sound throughout a lot of his work, Billy Idol has always pushed himself to try different things. Idol discusses his musical journey, his desire to constantly move forward, and the strong connection that he shares with Stevens. 

Steve has said that you like to mix up a variety of styles, yet everyone assumes you're the "Rebel Yell"/"White Wedding" guy. But if they really listen to your catalog, it's vastly different.

Yeah, that's right. With someone like Steve Stevens, and then back in the day Keith Forsey producing... [Before that] Generation X actually did move around inside punk rock. We didn't stay doing just the Ramones two-minute music. We actually did a seven-minute song. [Laughs]. We did always mix things up. 

Then when I got into my solo career, that was the fun of it. With someone like Steve, I knew what he could do. I could see whatever we needed to do, we could nail it. The world was my oyster musically. 

"Cage" is a classic-sounding Billy Idol rocker, then "Running From The Ghost" is almost metal, like what the Devil's Playground album was like back in the mid-2000s. "Miss Nobody" comes out of nowhere with this pop/R&B flavor. What inspired that?

We really hadn't done anything like that since something like "Flesh For Fantasy" [which] had a bit of an R&B thing about it. Back in the early days of Billy Idol, "Hot In The City" and "Mony Mony" had girls [singing] on the backgrounds. 

We always had a bit of R&B really, so it was actually fun to revisit that. We just hadn't done anything really quite like that for a long time. That was one of the reasons to work with someone like Sam Hollander [for the song "Rita Hayworth"] on The Roadside. We knew we could go [with him] into an R&B world, and he's a great songwriter and producer. That's the fun of music really, trying out these things and seeing if you can make them stick. 

I listen to new music by veteran artists and debate that with some people. I'm sure you have those fans that want their nostalgia, and then there are some people who will embrace the newer stuff. Do you find it’s a challenge to reach people with new songs?

Obviously, what we're looking for is, how do we somehow have one foot in the past and one foot into the future? We’ve got the best of all possible worlds because that has been the modus operandi of Billy Idol. 

You want to do things that are true to you, and you don't just want to try and do things that you're seeing there in the charts today. I think that we're achieving it with things like "Running From The Ghost" and "Cage" on this new EP. I think we’re managing to do both in a way. 

Obviously, "Running From The Ghost" is about addiction, all the stuff that you went through, and in "Cage" you’re talking about  freeing yourself from a lot of personal shackles. Was there any one moment in your life that made you really thought I have to not let this weigh me down anymore?

I mean, things like the motorcycle accident I had, that was a bit of a wake up call way back. It was 32 years ago. But there were things like that, years ago, that gradually made me think about what I was doing with my life. I didn't want to ruin it, really. I didn't want to throw it away, and it made [me] be less cavalier. 

I had to say to myself, about the drugs and stuff, that I've been there and I've done it. There’s no point in carrying on doing it. You couldn't get any higher. You didn't want to throw your life away casually, and I was close to doing that. It took me a bit of time, but then gradually I was able to get control of myself to a certain extent [with] drugs and everything. And I think Steve's done the same thing. We're on a similar path really, which has been great because we're in the same boat in terms of lyrics and stuff. 

So a lot of things like that were wake up calls. Even having grandchildren and just watching my daughter enlarging her family and everything; it just makes you really positive about things and want to show a positive side to how you're feeling, about where you're going. We've lived with the demons so long, we've found a way to live with them. We found a way to be at peace with our demons, in a way. Maybe not completely, but certainly to where we’re enjoying what we do and excited about it.

[When writing] "Running From The Ghost" it was easy to go, what was the ghost for us? At one point, we were very drug addicted in the '80s. And Steve in particular is super sober [now]. I mean, I still vape pot and stuff. I don’t know how he’s doing it, but it’s incredible. All I want to be able to do is have a couple of glasses of wine at a restaurant or something. I can do that now.

I think working with people that are super talented, you just feel confident. That is a big reason why you open up and express yourself more because you feel comfortable with what's around you.

Did you watch Danny Boyle's recent Sex Pistols mini-series?

I did, yes.

You had a couple of cameos; well, an actor who portrayed you did. How did you react to it? How accurate do you think it was in portraying that particular time period?

I love Jonesy’s book, I thought his book was incredible. It's probably one of the best bio books really. It was incredible and so open. I was looking forward to that a lot.

It was as if [the show] kind of stayed with Steve [Jones’ memoir] about halfway through, and then departed from it. [John] Lydon, for instance, was never someone I ever saw acting out; he's more like that today. I never saw him do something like jump up in the room and run around going crazy. The only time I saw him ever do that was when they signed the recording deal with Virgin in front of Buckingham Palace. Whereas Sid Vicious was always acting out; he was always doing something in a horrible way or shouting at someone. I don't remember John being like that. I remember him being much more introverted.

But then I watched interviews with some of the actors about coming to grips with the parts they were playing. And they were saying, we knew punk rock happened but just didn't know any of the details. So I thought well, there you go. If ["Pistol" is]  informing a lot of people who wouldn't know anything about punk rock, maybe that's what's good about it.

Maybe down the road John Lydon will get the chance to do John's version of the Pistols story. Maybe someone will go a lot deeper into it and it won't be so surface. But maybe you needed this just to get people back in the flow.

We had punk and metal over here in the States, but it feels like England it was legitimately more dangerous. British society was much more rigid.

It never went [as] mega in America. It went big in England. It exploded when the Pistols did that interview with [TV host Bill] Grundy, that lorry truck driver put his boot through his own TV, and all the national papers had "the filth and the fury" [headlines].

We went from being unknown to being known overnight. We waited a year, Generation X. We even told them [record labels] no for nine months to a year. Every record company wanted their own punk rock group. So it went really mega in England, and it affected the whole country – the style, the fashions, everything. I mean, the Ramones were massive in England. Devo had a No. 1 song [in England] with "Satisfaction" in '77. Actually, Devo was as big as or bigger than the Pistols.

You were ahead of the pop-punk thing that happened in the late '90s, and a lot of it became tongue-in-cheek by then. It didn't have the same sense of rebelliousness as the original movement. It was more pop.

It had become a style. There was a famous book in England called Revolt Into Style — and that's what had happened, a revolt that turned into style which then they were able to duplicate in their own way. Even recently, Billie Joe [Armstrong] did his own version of "Gimme Some Truth," the Lennon song we covered way back in 1977.

When we initially were making [punk] music, it hadn't become accepted yet. It was still dangerous and turned into a style that people were used to. We were still breaking barriers.

You have a band called Generation Sex with Steve Jones and Paul Cook. I assume you all have an easier time playing Pistols and Gen X songs together now and not worrying about getting spit on like back in the '70s?

Yeah, definitely. When I got to America I told the group I was putting it together, "No one spits at the audience."

We had five years of being spat on [in the UK], and it was revolting. And they spat at you if they liked you. If they didn't like it they smashed your gear up. One night, I remember I saw blood on my T-shirt, and I think Joe Strummer got meningitis when spit went in his mouth.

You had to go through a lot to become successful, it wasn't like you just kind of got up there and did a couple of gigs. I don't think some young rock bands really get that today.

With punk going so mega in England, we definitely got a leg up. We still had a lot of work to get where we got to, and rightly so because you find out that you need to do that. A lot of groups in the old days would be together three to five years before they ever made a record, and that time is really important. In a way, what was great about punk rock for me was it was very much a learning period. I really learned a lot [about] recording music and being in a group and even writing songs.

Then when I came to America, it was a flow, really. I also really started to know what I wanted Billy Idol to be. It took me a little bit, but I kind of knew what I wanted Billy Idol to be. And even that took a while to let it marinate.

You and Miley Cyrus have developed a good working relationship in the last several years. How do you think her fans have responded to you, and your fans have responded to her?

I think they're into it. It's more the record company that she had didn't really get "Night Crawling"— it was one of the best songs on Plastic Hearts, and I don't think they understood that. They wanted to go with Dua Lipa, they wanted to go with the modern, young acts, and I don't think they realized that that song was resonating with her fans. Which is a shame really because, with Andrew Watt producing, it's a hit song.

But at the same time, I enjoyed doing it. It came out really good and it's very Billy Idol. In fact, I think it’s more Billy Idol than Miley Cyrus. I think it shows you where Andrew Watt was. He was excited about doing a Billy Idol track. She's fun to work with. She’s a really great person and she works at her singing — I watched her rehearsing for the Super Bowl performance she gave. She rehearsed all Saturday morning, all Saturday afternoon, and Sunday morning and it was that afternoon. I have to admire her fortitude. She really cares.

I remember when you went on "Viva La Bamback in 2005 and decided to give Bam Margera’s Lamborghini a new sunroof by taking a power saw to it. Did he own that car? Was that a rental?

I think it was his car.

Did he get over it later on?

He loved it. [Laughs] He’s got a wacky sense of humor. He’s fantastic, actually. I’m really sorry to see what he's been going through just lately. He's going through a lot, and I wish him the best. He's a fantastic person, and it's a shame that he's struggling so much with his addictions. I know what it's like. It's not easy.

Musically, what is the synergy like with you guys during the past 10 years, doing Kings and Queens of the Underground and this new stuff? What is your working relationship like now in this more sober, older, mature version of you two as opposed to what it was like back in the '80s?

In lots of ways it’s not so different because we always wrote the songs together, we always talked about what we're going to do together. It was just that we were getting high at the same time.We're just not getting [that way now] but we're doing all the same things.

We're still talking about things, still [planning] things:What are we going to do next? How are we going to find new people to work with? We want to find new producers. Let's be a little bit more timely about putting stuff out.That part of our relationship is the same, you know what I mean? That never got affected. We just happened to be overloading in the '80s.

The relationship’s… matured and it's carrying on being fruitful, and I think that's pretty amazing. Really, most people don't get to this place. Usually, they hate each other by now. [Laughs] We also give each other space. We're not stopping each other doing things outside of what we’re working on together. All of that enables us to carry on working together. I love and admire him. I respect him. He's been fantastic. I mean, just standing there on stage with him is always a treat. And he’s got an immensely great sense of humor. I think that's another reason why we can hang together after all this time because we've got the sense of humor to enable us to go forward.

There's a lot of fan reaction videos online, and I noticed a lot of younger women like "Rebel Yell" because, unlike a lot of other '80s alpha male rock tunes, you're talking about satisfying your lover.

It was about my girlfriend at the time, Perri Lister. It was about how great I thought she was, how much I was in love with her, and how great women are, how powerful they are.

It was a bit of a feminist anthem in a weird way. It was all about how relationships can free you and add a lot to your life. It was a cry of love, nothing to do with the Civil War or anything like that. Perri was a big part of my life, a big part of being Billy Idol. I wanted to write about it. I'm glad that's the effect.

Is there something you hope people get out of the songs you've been doing over the last 10 years? Do you find yourself putting out a message that keeps repeating?

Well, I suppose, if anything, is that you can come to terms with your life, you can keep a hold of it. You can work your dreams into reality in a way and, look, a million years later, still be enjoying it.

The only reason I'm singing about getting out of the cage is because I kicked out of the cage years ago. I joined Generation X when I said to my parents, "I'm leaving university, and I'm joining a punk rock group." And they didn't even know what a punk rock group was. Years ago, I’d write things for myself that put me on this path, so that maybe in 2022 I could sing something like "Cage" and be owning this territory and really having a good time. This is the life I wanted.

The original UK punk movement challenged societal norms. Despite all the craziness going on throughout the world, it seems like a lot of modern rock bands are afraid to do what you guys were doing. Do you think we'll see a shift in that?

Yeah.  Art usually reacts to things, so I would think eventually there will be a massive reaction to the pop music that’s taken over — the middle of the road music, and then this kind of right wing politics. There will be a massive reaction if there's not already one. I don’t know where it will come from exactly. You never know who's gonna do [it].

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Hear All Of The Best Country Solo Performance Nominees For The 2023 GRAMMY Awards
2023 GRAMMYs

Graphic: The Recording Academy

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Hear All Of The Best Country Solo Performance Nominees For The 2023 GRAMMY Awards

The 2023 GRAMMY Award nominees for Best Country Solo Performance highlight country music's newcomers and veterans, featuring hits from Kelsea Ballerini, Zach Bryan, Miranda Lambert, Maren Morris and Willie Nelson.

GRAMMYs/Nov 23, 2022 - 03:01 pm

Country music's evolution is well represented in the 2023 GRAMMY nominees for Best Country Solo Performance. From crossover pop hooks to red-dirt outlaw roots, the genre's most celebrated elements are on full display — thanks to rising stars, leading ladies and country icons.

Longtime hitmaker Miranda Lambert delivered a soulful performance on the rootsy ballad "In His Arms," an arrangement as sparing as the windswept west Texas highlands where she co-wrote the song. Viral newcomer Zach Bryan dug into similar organic territory on the Oklahoma side of the Red River for "Something in the Orange," his voice accompanied with little more than an acoustic guitar.

Two of country's 2010s breakout stars are clearly still shining, too, as Maren Morris and Kelsea Ballerini both received Best Country Solo Performance GRAMMY nods. Morris channeled the determination that drove her leap-of-faith move from Texas to Nashville for the playful clap-along "Circles Around This Town," while Ballerini brought poppy hooks with a country edge on the infectiously upbeat "HEARTFIRST."

Rounding out the category is the one and only Willie Nelson, who paid tribute to his late friend Billy Joe Shaver with a cover of "Live Forever" — a fitting sentiment for the 89-year-old legend, who is approaching his eighth decade in the business. 

As the excitement builds for the 2023 GRAMMYs on Feb. 5, 2023, let's take a closer look at this year's nominees for Best Country Solo Performance.

Kelsea Ballerini — "HEARTFIRST"

In the tradition of Shania Twain, Faith Hill and Carrie Underwood, Kelsea Ballerini represents Nashville's sunnier side — and her single "HEARTFIRST" is a slice of bright, uptempo, confectionary country-pop for the ages.

Ballerini sings about leaning into a carefree crush with her heart on her sleeve, pushing aside her reservations and taking a risk on love at first sight. The scene plays out in a bar room and a back seat, as she sweeps nimbly through the verses and into a shimmering chorus, when the narrator decides she's ready to "wake up in your T-shirt." 

There are enough steel guitar licks to let you know you're listening to a country song, but the story and melody are universal. "HEARTFIRST" is Ballerini's third GRAMMY nod, but first in the Best Country Solo Performance category.

Zach Bryan — "Something In The Orange"

Zach Bryan blew into Music City seemingly from nowhere in 2017, when his original song "Heading South" — recorded on an iPhone — went viral. Then an active officer in the U.S. Navy, the Oklahoma native chased his muse through music during his downtime, striking a chord with country music fans on stark songs led by his acoustic guitar and affecting vocals.

After his honorable discharge in 2021, Bryan began his music career in earnest, and in 2022 released "Something in the Orange," a haunting ballad that stakes a convincing claim to the territory between Tyler Childers and Jason Isbell in both sonics and songwriting. Slashing slide guitar drives home the song's heartbreak, as Bryan pines for a lover whose tail lights have long since vanished over the horizon. 

"Something In The Orange" marks Bryan's first-ever GRAMMY nomination.

Miranda Lambert — "In His Arms"

Miranda Lambert is the rare, chart-topping contemporary country artist who does more than pay lip service to the genre's rural American roots. "In His Arms" originally surfaced on 2021's The Marfa Tapes, a casual recording Lambert made with Jack Ingram and Jon Randall in Marfa, Texas — a tiny arts enclave in the middle of the west Texas high desert.

In this proper studio version — recorded for her 2022 album, Palomino — Lambert retains the structure and organic feel of the mostly acoustic song; light percussion and soothing atmospherics keep her emotive vocals front and center. A native Texan herself, Lambert sounds fully at home on "In His Arms."

Lambert is the only Best Country Solo Performance nominee who is nominated in all four Country Field categories in 2023. To date, Miranda Lambert has won 3 GRAMMYs and received 27 nominations overall. 

Maren Morris — "Circles Around This Town"

When Maren Morris found herself uninspired and dealing with writer's block, she went back to what inspired her to move to Nashville nearly a decade ago — and out came "Circles Around This Town," the lead single from her 2022 album Humble Quest.

Written in one of her first in-person songwriting sessions since the pandemic, Morris has called "Circles Around This Town" her "most autobiographical song" to date; she even recreated her own teenage bedroom for the song's video. As she looks back to her Texas beginnings and the life she left for Nashville, Morris' voice soars over anthemic, yet easygoing production. 

Morris last won a GRAMMY for Best Country Solo Performance in 2017, when her song "My Church" earned the singer her first GRAMMY. To date, Maren Morris has won one GRAMMY and received 17 nominations overall.

Willie Nelson — "Live Forever"

Country music icon Willie Nelson is no stranger to the GRAMMYs, and this year he aims to add to his collection of 10 gramophones. He earned another three nominations for 2023 — bringing his career total to 56 — including a Best Country Solo Performance nod for "Live Forever."

Nelson's performance of "Live Forever," the lead track of the 2022 tribute album Live Forever: A Tribute to Billy Joe Shaver, is a faithful rendition of Shaver's signature song. Still, Nelson puts his own twist on the tune, recruiting Lucinda Williams for backing vocals and echoing the melody with the inimitable tone of his nylon-string Martin guitar. 

Shaver, an outlaw country pioneer who passed in 2020 at 81 years old, never had any hits of his own during his lifetime. But plenty of his songs were still heard, thanks to stars like Elvis Presley, Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings. Nelson was a longtime friend and frequent collaborator of Shaver's — and now has a GRAMMY nom to show for it.

2023 GRAMMY Nominations: See The Complete Nominees List