Ashley McBryde is a pro storyteller. The tracklist of her sophomore major-label album, Never Will, weaves accessible, but compelling, tales with honest moments of introspection ("First Thing I Reach For"), statements of intent ("Never Will") and just a dash of lighthearted kitsch ("Styrofoam").
"One Night Standards," the lead single from Never Will, is a frank look at a one-night stand from a woman's perspective. It's a point of view not often expressed within country music and, McBryde says, draws "genuine and valid" reactions on both end of the spectrum.
"Some people feel that we shouldn’t be doing that," the singer adds, "but Loretta [Lynn] did it, Tammy [Wynette] did it. It happens all the time, so why not tackle it?"
The heartfelt "Sparrow," meanwhile, will resonate with anyone missing home, and the heartbreaking "Stone" was born from the hurt McBryde felt -- but hadn't yet processed -- following her brother's suicide. Co-writer Nicolette Hayford, who also lost a brother, helped pull the emotions out of McBryde.
"I cackled, and I went, 'Oh my God, I laugh just like my brother Clay.' And she went, 'Oh my God, you're so angry because you're so hurt, and you're so hurt because you didn't know you were so much like him until he died,'" McBryde recalls. "And I started bawling. And she goes, 'Oh, sit down and grab your guitar.'"
Each of these songs tells a story in its own way, but Never Will's five other tracks are fully part of country music's storytelling tradition. Keep reading for a look at McBryde's newest tales.
"Hang in There Girl" is a message of encouragement: "Hang in there girl, you're gonna be alright," McBryde sings. The star was inspired to write the song by a young girl she saw while driving on a remote highway near her house.
"She was just kind of frustrated at the world and at the mailbox, kind of kicking the dirt, and I remember feeling like that," McBryde recalls. "I grew up on a cattle farm. I'm really proud of how I grew up, but I remember being 15 and being frustrated with the world, and I thought if I could just pull over and tell her that, 'In three years, you're gonna have a car, and you're gonna get out of here. You're gonna look back really fondly on growing up in the middle of nowhere. If you'll just hang in there, you're going to be okay.'
"But then I thought about how creepy it would be if I pulled over and told this girl that it was okay to be frustrated and to hang in there -- total stranger," she adds. Instead, she vividly describes the whole encounter in "Hang in There Girl."
Like "Stone," "Shut Up Sheila" harnesses the anger, hurt and pain McBryde felt after her brother's death -- but the anger, hurt and pain she felt toward others who disagreed with the ways she was processing her loss. In the song, it's the protagonist's grandmother who's dying, and Sheila's taken things one step too far.
"Shut up, Sheila / This here is a family thing, and ain't nobody bought you a ring," McBryde fires back in the second verse. "Shut up, Sheila / I don't remember askin' you / And if we wanna throw the ashes off the goddamn roof, then we're going to."
"We drink and we get high / We laugh at the wrong time / We don't cry, we don't pray," McBryde adds in the chorus, the music building with her emotions. A quiet melody grows louder, building to searing guitars before near-silence arrives as McByde sings one final time, "We don't sing "Amazing Grace" / We don't read from the Bible / We just go about lettin' go in our own way."
Both of McBryde's two releases with Warner Music Nashville have included story songs that border on the surreal: On Girl Going Nowhere, it was "Southern Babylon," and on Never Will, it's "Voodoo Doll," written by McBryde with, among others, Brandy Clark. The song's protagonist is so pained by the thought of an ex's new love that she senses it physically, as though the new woman is a voodoo doll.
"I keep smellin' cigarettes / Feel that pretty black dress slippin' off her back," McBryde shrieks in the chorus. "Those lips on her neck, needles in my chest / Ooh, she's makin' my skin crawl / You got yourself a voo doo doll."
McBryde and her bandmates created a loud, full wall of sound for the chorus of "Voodoo Doll," while producer Jay Joyce added an echo-y effect to her voice. "I didn't even know I had a rock scream," McBryde tells PopCulture.com of the song's vocals.
In "Martha Divine," the titular "jezebel" is cheating with the song's protagonist's father, and that's not sitting well -- like, really not well. Sings McBryde, "Martha Divine, your ass is mine / And it ain't murder if I bury you alive."
Questionable understanding of the law aside, "Martha Divine" is one of country music's catchiest revenge songs, period. It's a melodic look at the real emotions a teenage McBryde felt about her father's girlfriends, she shares with the Tennessean.
"I told [my co-writer, Jeremy Spillman] I wanted to write something dark," McBryde explains, "and we created this story that surrounds the most delightful trollop of a human being and gets down underneath the fingernails of the uncomfortable truth about family dynamics."
There are bluegrass flourishes throughout Never Will, but "Velvet Red" is a straight-up, harmony-laden bluegrass song about forbidden love, inspired by a brand of cheap red wine named (you guessed it) Velvet Red -- or, rather, its label. The bottles feature the image of a woman hiking up her skirt as one would to stomp grapes, but "it just looks very strange, like maybe she was hiking it up for a reason other than stomping on grapes," McBryde explains to American Songwriter.
McBryde and a longtime friend drank two bottles of the Velvet Red wine one night, years ago. At a songwriting session, McBryde brought up the bottles' label; she remembers discussing with co-writers Patrick Savage and Daniel Smalley, "[Let's] go [sings] ‘Velvet red, velvet red,’ and do what Patty Loveless would do with that, which is leave it bare, put some harmonies on it, and let’s write a love story.
"And if it’s going to be a love story and it’s going to be bluegrass, it’s got to involve sex out of wedlock and a child out of wedlock," they agreed, as well as the crossing of both social and, in McBryde's eyes, racial lines. And that's all, exactly, what "Velvet Red" is.