Country singer turns high school algebra teacher's doubts into career fuel

In 10th grade, Ashley McBryde’s algebra teacher surveyed the class, asking students what they hoped to do for a career one day. When McBryde responded that she was going to move from her Arkansas home to Nashville to pursue a living as a songwriter, the teacher laughed.

“She said, ‘That is stupid. That will never happen. And you'd better remember where you're from and have a really good backup plan,’” McBryde said in a recent phone interview.“And, you know, maybe that was a little bit of a reflection on how she felt about herself. Maybe her dreams lived inside the county line, so mine had to, too.

“Also, thinking back to, ‘Remember where you're from,’ that seems so stupid to me now. I know where I'm from. I'm from Arkansas. And so is Johnny Cash, and Glen Campbell, and Conway Twitty, and Collin Raye. I mean, it's not like Arkansas never put out a talented human being.”

According to McBryde, as she processed her teacher’s reaction, the initial sadness turned into anger, which turned into bitterness, which turned into a healthy spite, which turned into a deep-seated drive to succeed and, eventually, a song: “Girl Goin’ Nowhere,” the leadoff track on her debut album, Girl Going Nowhere (Warner Bros. Records), released earlier this year.

“Don’t waste your life behind that guitar/You may get gone, but you won’t get far,” McBryde sings atop gentle acoustic picking. “You’re not the first, you won’t be the last/And you can tell us all about it when you come crawling back.”

As the song unfolds, however, McBryde finds success amid the skepticism, delivering an exceedingly polite middle finger to her doubters, high school faculty included. “And where they said I’d never be is exactly where I am,” she sings.

“It's a nice little reminder in the back of your brain that … right now there's somebody else somewhere who is being told that they can't do whatever it is they want to do,” said McBryde, who headlines the Bluestone on Thursday, Nov. 8. “And that's the reason I have that drive: Because if it happened to me, it's happening to somebody else. So I have to succeed.”

McBryde further traces this internal hunger to her upbringing. Growing up as the youngest of six children, the musician said she was a constant target for her older siblings. “I was always picked on, and it was always: ‘You're too small’; ‘You're too short’; ‘You're too young,’” McBryde said. “And, despite all of that, I'm not a fast runner, but I'm fast for somebody my size. And I'm not strong, but I'm strong for someone of my stature. And I could out-spit and outshoot and out-funny and out-volume all of my siblings.”

While Girl Going Nowhere begins on a quieter note, the rest of the album builds on big, muscled guitars — given a boost by producer and Eric Church collaborator Jay Joyce — and McBryde’s rich, forceful vocals, which reach hurricane strength on songs like “American Scandal.”

“I love when we have that wall of guitar thing that we know how to do,” McBryde said. “I love the big solo in ‘El Dorado,’ and the big, extended solo in ‘Livin’ Next to Leroy,’ which [our guitarist] was playing really nicely and very clean, and I said, ‘This part of the song is about him OD-ing. So would you please just play what you would imagine that OD would feel like or sound like?’ And that was the track we wound up keeping — that crazy, squealy stuff.”

Though often musically outsized, the record is largely shaped by its detail work, McBryde painting a moving portrait of the people populating blue-collar, small-town America. Songs depict everyone from those seeking escape in off-radar watering holes (“A Little Dive Bar in Dahlonega”) to an addict struggling to maintain a semblance of humanity amid a clutter of stolen spoons and discarded, residue-laden tinfoil (“Livin’ Next to Leroy,” based on the experiences of a friend who resided next door to the titular character).

“The problem with addiction is worldwide. … What's happening where [my friend] was living in Florida was happening where I was living in the Ozarks, and it's still going on,” McBryde said. “The less you talk about something big and scary, the bigger and scarier it gets. So it helps when we can just turn even just the smallest desk lamp on it … to understand the human aspects [of addiction].”

McBryde has always considered herself a songwriter first. She initially moved to Nashville with the idea of writing for others, believing it a more realistic path to career stability than carving her own way as a musician, and she remains enamored with the mystery of the creative process.

“I'm always amazed how we songwriters can take a little bitty, teeny tiny event and make that into three minutes, or we can take a giant event that happened in our lives and condense it down to three minutes,” she said. “It's such a weird thing that we learned how to do.”

It’s a skill McBryde has developed over time, drawn to an authenticity she discovered in artists like Dolly Parton and Patty Griffin, and which she finally started to uncover in herself when she wrote “Bible and a .44,” a song about her father.

“I was sitting in the truck at my mom's house, and I was trying to describe my dad: … ‘He's got a Southern drawl like a redbone hound; and he's got hair as white as the cotton field; and he sometimes looks like a shirt that's still on the hanger,’” McBryde said. “And so I just started sort of piecing little sentences like that together, and then I said, ‘You know, he carries a Bible and a .44, and they don't make them like that no more.’ … So taking those little sentences and piecing them together, I stepped back and went, ‘Holy shit, I nailed it: the old man.’”