Ashley McBryde Isn't Afraid to Say 'Never Will'
Country music's Ashley McBryde cuts deepest when being comic. She might not know the answer to life's problems and presumably "Never Will" as she put it in the title track. But that doesn't mean she has nothing to say.
Warner Bros. Nashville
3 April 2020
Ashley McBryde's latest album, Never Will, begins with a guitar riff borrowed from the Rolling Stones "Tumbling Dice" before launching into a Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band boardwalk vibe. Yes, this is modern country music that sounds more like rock and roll of the 1970s than anything on Billboard magazine's top ten Modern Rock songs or classic country music from the past. McBryde's not alone. One is more likely to hear sounds resembling rock before MTV on country radio than anywhere else on the airwaves—and that includes oldies stations.
What caused this resurgence of the past styles is reminiscent of 1960s artists singing about hopping trains, being coal miners, and such. When finding meaning in the present seems absurd, one looks backward for authenticity and significance. It's the same thing that connects those who avow making America great again with Bernie Sanders' supporters: a belief in a more glorious heritage that should guide our future. Okay, so that's a far stretch from discussing the intro to McBride's "Hang in There Girl", but putting the song in context reveals the significance of what seems to be a song with a simple message: don't give up but remain determined in difficult circumstances. One can hear it as a feminist mantra in the "nevertheless she persisted" mode or as a contemporary update to conservative women's anthems about not giving up one's values.
"Hang in There Girl", like many of the other 11 tracks on the album, is both and neither. That's why putting the lyrics in '70s style instrumentation makes sense as it recalls a time when country-rock was both country and rocked. The divisions between country and rock in the '60s (i.e., hawks vs. doves) had largely disappeared. However, McBryde is not afraid to twang. Her nasal inflections on songs such as "First Thing I Reach For" and "Velvet Red" are complemented by a steel guitar, banjo, and other traditional instruments. The music resembles that of the unsophisticated homespun sounds of the Band and Creedence Clearwater Revival more than the smooth California sounds of the Eagles and Linda Ronstadt.
The lyrics themselves follow in the tradition of Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn, who would sing bluntly about sex and social hypocrisy in ways the challenged the prevailing orthodoxy, but with a sense of humor and coyness that made their songs more acceptable. One could easily imagine the words of McBryde's comeuppance to religious duplicity "Shut Up Sheila" delivered by Parton or Lynn belting out the vituperative screed against a mistress "Martha Devine". Songs like this reveal McBryde's fighting side.
Like Parton and Lynn, McBryde also has a wicked sense of humor. Her ode to casual hookups, "One Night Standards", is fun and funny as it engages in wordplay (i.e., one night stands with one night standards) even as she deadpans lines like "Well how it goes is, bar closes / There's no king bed covered in roses / Just a room without a view." The insignificance of the coupling is matched by the flippancy by which McBryde presents it.
Sometimes the lightness of the material seems a bit silly, such as her tribute to "Styrofoam" because it allows one to keep one's beverages cold. It's as if McBryde is afraid to get too serious. The more earnest songs on the record, such as the solemn "Stone", are the weakest. McBryde cuts deepest when being comic. She might not know the answer to life's problems and presumably "Never Will" as she put it in the title track. But that doesn't mean she has nothing to say. The quality of the material on this album shows she's got a lot on her mind -- maybe more than she realizes.