A moment like this one must have seemed like an impossible dream so many years ago.
For about an hour and half at First Financial Music Hall in El Dorado, country singer-songwriter Ashley McBryde — raised in Mammoth Spring (practically inches south of the Missouri border in northeast Arkansas) — has effortlessly exuded the confidence and skill of a performer who has come into her own. Up until this point in the show, McBryde has had the support of a crack band — four guitarists/instrumentalists and a drummer — all guys, all taller (even the seated drummer) than McBryde by at least half a foot or more. For the first song in what would be the single encore of the night, McBryde, dressed in black jeans and a black top with long black hair except for her one signature silver streak, is alone with her acoustic guitar.
The two-thousand-seat indoor venue, a development that opened in 2017 as part of the Murphy Arts District effort to revive the moribund oil boomtown, isn’t fully occupied, but it’s close. Women — silver sparkles on boots and tops appear to be favorites — outnumber men by a substantial margin. The atmosphere for this concert is, as you might expect, a mutual admiration society. The crowd adores McBryde (mid-set someone shouts the obvious “We love you, Ashley!”) and McBryde gushes about her love of the crowd, her love of her occupation and, for this encore, her home state.
She introduces the song, “Arkansas,” with a tale from her early days struggling in Nashville, when she’d pleaded with a roommate for a quick trip back home. The answer was no, as there wasn’t enough money between them for gas. She fought back homesickness by writing the song.
My first kiss was in that old tin barn
That old hayloft helped me break my arm
I can’t remember if I cried at all
I miss you Arkansas
“Arkansas” is one of McBryde’s pre-fame tunes, before Eric Church pulled her on stage during one of his concerts, essentially kicking off her big time musical odyssey, which has burned bright for nearly six years now. In that time span, McBryde has established a striking presence in the national country music scene; three major-label albums in, she’s reliably though not spectacularly popular. What is very clear — as clear and strong as her love for Arkansas — is that McBryde is an artistic force. It’s not a stretch or a Homerism to say that currently McBryde is making the most interesting and significant music in all of Nashville.
McBryde made her professional debut in 2018 with the album “Girl Going Nowhere,” which featured “A Little Dive Bar in Dahlonega.” Less than a month ago, she won her first Grammy: Best Country Duo/Group Performance for “Never Wanted To Be That Girl,” a duet with Carly Pearce. Whether or not you put stock in the Grammy awards, it’s one more indication that McBryde will outlast so many other Music Row flash-in-the-pans.
It’s one thing to thread the needle and elbow your way past the competition to cobble together something that looks like a country career; it’s quite another to chart songs that don’t fit the tight mold set by Nashville’s notorious control freaks. Last year, McBryde released the rarest of rare things in country music — a concept album. “Lindeville,” bolstered by collaborations with Brandy Clark, Brothers Osbourne and a whole host of others, is a small town musical exposé complete with faux commercials for funeral homes.
The album kicks off in high gear with “Brenda Put Your Bra On,” where the residents of the “trailerhood” gawk at an affair spilling outdoors with dishes thrown and an appearance by Channel 4. The rest of “Lindeville” is part novelty record and part expertly detailed Southern Gothic drama. It’s easy to hear McBryde’s album as a course corrective to the way current country paints small town America. Has modern, major-label Nashville released a record as dark, funny and just outright audacious as “Lindeville”? Even the sainted Miranda Lambert, who shares McBryde’s independence-in-the-machine streak, hasn’t put out something this antithetical to buttoned-up, corporate country.
One reviewer called McBryde a “bad ass” and, while she is that in spades, her live act keeps any kind of tough gal persona in check. During the entire El Dorado concert, McBryde beamed and seemed more grateful if not still surprised that this whole country thing has worked out.
McBryde opened her show with two songs off her “Never Will” album: “Hang In There Girl” and the title track. “Never Will” is an unabashed, even defiant make-what-you-want-how-you-want anthem and McBryde’s voice sounded as powerful and astonishing as any rival Nashville diva as she belted out the lyrics.
Both songs set the tone for most of what followed — a night of sturdy, rousing songs that spring not from a honky-tonk base but from a reverence for 70s or 80s arena rock. In most cases arguing over genre is a fruitless exercise, but McBryde and her band didn’t feel the need to defend the honor of country with salvos of pedal steel or fiddle. The mandolin made an appearance in McBryde’s new single, the warm “Light On in the Kitchen,” but it was tucked away after that. The choice of cover songs — Don Henley’s “Boys of Summer” and The Allman Brothers Band’s “Midnight Rider” — also supported the rock thesis.
Country, rock or what have you, in El Dorado McBryde demonstrated in no uncertain terms why she’s climbed out of obscurity and separated herself from her peers. Plain and simple, she has better songs: “Shut Up Sheila” (including the incredible line, “Why don’t you and Jesus take a walk down the hallway?”) and the searing “Living Next to Leroy” are just the tip of the iceberg. Her obsessions — small town dreams and delusions, striking out at religious hypocrisy — come to life in such a careful way in her hands. She doesn’t make glorified beer commercials or whatever else the Luke Sheltons and Blake Bryans are passing off as country songs.
We love you, Ashley. Shout it one more time, dude.