Song Review: Carly Pearce & Ashley McBryde, “Never Wanted To Be That Girl”

Just when you think country music has run out of tricks…

Two days ago, I declared that “the chart’s descent into negative territory is now inevitable” “unless someone miraculously rides to the rescue,” and I specifically called out Carly Pearce and Ashley McBryde’s new collaboration as a possible savior to the Pulse score. I wasn’t sure what to expect from the pairing, as neither one has found consistent chart success (Pearce has a single solo Top Ten to her name after “Next Girl” had its plug pulled at #15, but it’s one more Billboard Top Ten than McBryde has after “Martha Divine” crashed and burned at #59), and Pearce in particular has thrown some seriously mediocre singles at the radio over the last few years. What we got in the end was “Never Wanted To Be That Girl,” a story of two people who find themselves caught up in an unwanted love triangle, and while it’s not quite on the level of Reba McEntire and Linda Davis’s “Does He Love You,” it’s a strong performance for both artists that does a nice job capturing the mixed emotions of the scenario, and might end up bailing out the Pulse as a result.

The production isn’t much to write home about, but it’s an understated, solemn effort that sets a suitably-serious mood for the song. We’re confronted once again with the usual guitars and drums, but the instrument tones are darker and a bit muted, keeping the focus squarely on the subject matter while also impressing the importance and significance of the issue upon the audience. The dobro is becoming a major part of Pearce’s sound, and it gets ample screen time here (including the lead role on the bridge solo) as a way of breaking up the guitar monotony and accenting the atmosphere that they create. (There’s a keyboard deep in the background as well, but it’s barely noticeable and doesn’t add a ton to the sound—in fact, it’s probably only here because you’re contractually obligated to put a keyboard of some sort in a “serious” country song.) It’s the sort of arrangement that favors simplicity and calm over overproduction and a high-octane sound, a wise move given that it wouldn’t take much to overwhelm both the vocalists and the story with volume and energy. The producer knows their role here, and they do just enough to provide support to the subject matter without becoming the center of attention. It may not be a terribly interesting sound, but it shouldn’t be, and given the pieces around, it doesn’t have to be.

The biggest contrast between “Never Wanted To Be That Girl” and “Does He Love You” is the vocalists that are involved: Frankly, neither Pearce nor McBryde are in McEntire’s or even Davis’s league in terms of sheer vocal power and presence (which translates into the sound as well: The producer on “Does He Love You” had the freedom to add a few more pieces and turn the song into a true power ballad, knowing that there’s no way in heck he could ever overwhelm the women behind the mic). However, that’s not to say that Pearce and McBryde drop the ball here: Instead of trying to make the song a super-emotional tearjerker, both artists use a more-plainspoken delivery to convey both their weariness and disbelief to the listener, as if they’re still trying to process the whole mess themselves. Much like the best of Tom T. Hall‘s discography, Pearce and McBryde approach the song as a story and they tell it like one, without excessive passion or judgment (except perhaps towards themselves). This sort of performance is second nature to McBryde, but we haven’t really heard something like this from Pearce since “Every Little Thing,” and I was pleasantly surprised (and even a little impressed) at how much vocal chemistry the duo demonstrated on the choruses (they’ve sung one song together and they’re already a better pair than Tyler Hubbard and Brian “Mr. Invisible” Kelley). In other words, I like Pearce and McBryde as a pair, and there’s a part of my brain that wonders whether a Brooks & Dunn-like pairing could reverse both artists’ lackluster chart results…

Unlike a lot of the team-up tracks on the radio these days, this song was actually written as a duet, with two distinct narrators who find out that they’ve been unknowingly romantically involved with the same person. I absolutely love how the song starts, as the “other woman” gives a detailed account of how they wound up in this predicament despite their best intentions (as they said, “they never wanted to be that girl”). The mentioning of the spouse’s family history in the second verse was a brilliant move as well, making their realization that they wound up in a situation they thought they were primed to recognize and avoid a real gut punch for themselves and the audience. Anger would have been the easy angle to play here (and it might have worked well in the story—remember what happened to Martha Divine?), but instead both narrators restrict judgement only to themselves, discussing how they feel on the bridge without ever discussing each other and making themselves seem more sympathetic in the process. (Their feelings towards the third person in this triangle are never explicitly mentioned, but it’s still pretty clear that they’re the bad guy. Also, when are cheating lovers in country songs going to wisen up and start buying burner cell phones?) It’s a really well-constructed piece that challenges your assumptions when it comes to who’s right and who’s wrong in a scenario like this, and it’s the sort of deep, thought-provoking track that I wish we had more of on the radio right now.

“Never Wanted to Be That Girl” isn’t quite “Does He Love You,” but it’s a strong offering from Carly Pearce and Ashley McBryde in a year that’s had far too few quality singles reach the airwaves. With a great story, some solid vocal performances, and production that sets the mood and then wisely gets out of the way, this was an easy, enjoyable listen that demonstrates the direction I’d really like to see country music go in. This genre needs to look beyond the beer, trucks, and Friday nights and give us more songs rooted in stories and experience, imparting lessons learned and providing hard-earned, mature perspectives that make us think about the world and the people in it.

Is this song going to keep the Pulse from going negative? Probably not…but at least it might delay it for a while longer.

Rating: 7/10. This one is definitely worth your time.

Song Review: Ashley McBryde, “Martha Divine”

There’s nothing like a disturbing murder track to get you in the mood for Halloween, right?

Ashley McBryde hasn’t quite broken the blockade on country radio, but she made her biggest impact yet with her last single “One Night Standards,” which topped my single rankings for 2019 and cracked the Top Ten on the Medibase charts (sadly, it only made it to #11 on Billboard’s chart). A safe follow-up single choice could finally be the blow that splits the stone, but “safe” has never been McBryde’s style (after all, her Eric Church-esque independence is part of her appeal), so naturally we’re getting “Martha Divine” as the follow-up single from Never Will, an edgy and interesting take on the ‘jilted lover’ story (as a famous villain once said, “don’t ever take sides…against the family”). While it’s not exactly the problem-solving approach I’d recommend for the task, there’s a raw, emotional energy to this track that allows it to stick in the listener’s mind and break through the October numbness brought on by the ongoing pandemic.

The ingredient label for this production is incredibly misleading: Sure, it’s using the same guitars and drums as everyone else, but they’re expertly mixed to create an atmosphere that is ominous and foreboding yet positively crackles with energy. The mix is all business from the jump, opening the track with a methodical-yet-forceful drum beat to inject a shot of raw, almost primal energy into the song, and expands on the first chorus to include some hard-rock, rough-edged electric guitars and the sort of creepy organ that might play over the opening shot of a haunted house. (A acoustic guitar is also sprinkled in at just the right moments to adjust the heat level, most notably on the third verse.) With the minor-chord-heavy structure and angry feel of the instruments, the listener is quickly put on notice: The narrator is not happy, and they’re about to do something really bad. While Dierks Bentley and Luke Bryan try to put us to sleep with their recent singles, this is the sort of mix that keeps you up at night instead.

Let’s be honest: Carrie Underwood destroyed property and Gabby Barrett enjoyed some serious schadenfreude at the imagined pain of her ex, but how many country music artists would you believe have the capacity to straight-up kill someone? Sure, Reba McEntire did it back in her day, but it felt like she was playing a character rather than playing herself. McBryde, on the other hand, has cultivated the sort of rough, outlaw-esque image that might convince the listener to squint and say “Yeah, I could see that.” Not only does she clear as high a bar as a song could possibly set, her decision to go with a colder, straightforward delivery instead of one boiling over with rage enhances her believability: She’s comes to terms with the idea of burying someone alive, and when someone crosses the family like this, the deed must be done no matter who’s fault it is. Despite its heavy subject matter, the technical challenges are fairly minimal, allowing McBryde to choose this appropriately haunting demeanor. It’s an impressive all-around performance, and country music is the main beneficiary.

We’ve had aggrieved spouses and protective siblings kill off cheating partners before, but this is the first time I’ve seen a child step up to do the dirty deed of murdering their father’s mistress (whose name “Martha Divine” feels a bit ironic). Novelty is one thing, however, but sympathy is another: How in the world do you humanize a cold-blooded killer and justify such a violent act? In the case, the writers do a nice job making it personal, and clearly lay out the backstory: The father is cheating on the mother, but the narrator’s Godfather-like devotion to family means that she can’t retaliate against their father (she even acknowledges his less-than-perfect on the third verse). They can, however, take out all their frustration on the other woman, and thus they are cleared by their conscience to bury said other woman alive. While I can’t condone such a vicious act (the lyrics gloss over the gory details, but to put it mildly, this isn’t the kind of agreement that’s made mutually or bloodlessly), I can at least understand the motivations behind it. No one comes out of this incident smelling like a rose, and to its credit the song makes no attempt to hide this fact. (It does, however, deliver some memorable and clever lines, especially “Honor thy father, honor thy mother/But the Bible doesn’t say a damn thing about your daddy’s lover.”)  These are flawed, emotion-driven human beings making bad decisions, and the audience at least understands the whats and whys of this gripping tale.

Violence is never the answer, but it certainly gets people’s attention, and that’s exactly what Ashley McBryde does with “Martha Divine.” Backed by superb production and thorough writing, McBryde delivers a message that “blood is thicker than water” the hard way, and the audience just can’t look away. It’s the latest is a series of strong singles that McBryde has delivered over the last few years, and while it’s the most radio-friendly song in the world, it’ll be the format’s loss if they ignore this one.

However, if there’s one request I’d make, it’s to keep this track on light rotation until after the presidential election has been settled. Political tensions are already too high, and I’d rather not give folks any ideas…

Rating: 9/10. Please enjoy responsibly.

Song Review: Ashley McBryde, “One Night Standards”

Dang, this new Terri Clark song sounds pretty good.

…Wait, what do you mean it’s not Terri Clark?

Ashley McBryde called her debut album Girl Going Nowhere, but country radio felt the need to take the title literally, and after three singles her Billboard airplay high-water mark is a mediocre #30, with the title track (despite its awesomeness) becoming the latest song to get ignored (it only made it to #40). With her second album, McBryde and her team faced the decision every new artist has to make: Do you bend to the will of the genre and release the sort of safe, samey material that gets you on the airwaves, or do you flip a long, stiff middle finger into the wind and continue doing your thing regardless of the outcome?

Come on, this is Ashley McBryde we’re talking about. You know which door she picked.

McBryde’s presumed leadoff single for her second project “One Night Standards” would feel right at home on her debut disc: It’s a classic cheatin’ song that peers into the dark side of romance, featuring a writer and an artist that perfectly capture the desperation and nihilism of someone who has fallen to this level.

The production opens with a serious (but not necessarily dark) organ and electric guitar combination (the guitar is the most sitar-sounding axe I’ve heard since “Kick The Dust Up,” and it fits much better here), and then quickly falls away to just an acoustic guitar and a bass drum to give McBryde plenty of space to deliver her opening lines. The opening instruments slowly work their way back into the mix (the drums kick it up a notch as well), slowly building a wave of volume and energy that crests on the bridge solo and crashes into the metaphorical shore on the final chorus. The instruments tones are pretty bright here and there aren’t any minor chords to speak, but while most songs would sound happy and optimistic with such an arrangement, this time around there’s a cold matter-of-factness to this mix, perfectly capturing the unfeeling, transactional nature of what’s about to transpire. Giving the sound that sort of vibe while still injecting enough energy to keep the listener interested instead of depressed is a tough tightrope to walk, and the producer did it masterfully here.

Of course, McBryde has to walk the same tightrope herself, giving the song life but stopping short of giving it passion (which would completely ruin the mood). To do so while also doing the best Terri Clark impression I’ve heard since Clark herself is pretty remarkable, and McBryde sticks the landing with impressive ease. Her technical skills aren’t really tested here (but still seem solid overall), but the emotional demands are pretty stringent, but McBryde proves herself up to the task with a strong delivery that feels tired and exasperated (she’s practically begging the other person not to make anything more out of the encounter) without feeling whiny or self-serving. This narrator feels utterly defeated and has dropped any pretense of love or long-term relationships in order to satisfy a short-term desire, and McBryde makes sure the audience feels every word of it. Not every artist could pull off a role like this, but an earnest, charismatic like McBryde makes it seem like a walk in the park.

So can the writing live up to the high bar the sound and singer have set? In truth, the writing is the major reason reason the sound and singer reach set such a bar in the first place. The narrator here is in serious negotiations with someone over a one-night stand, and is very clear that their only demand in their lack of demands: No lingering feelings, no over-sharing, and no record of the transaction. The hook works as both a call for a back-to-the-basics style of hookup and a sense of the (lack of) standards the narrator’s desperation has driven them to, and lines like “I don’t even care if you’re here when I wake up” and “Can’t you just use me like I’m using you” drive home just mercantile this whole arrangement is: This is nothing more than a business deal, and any inclination of it being anything else should be left “down in the lobby.” I wouldn’t call it an exceptionally-detailed song, but there’s more than enough here to paint a picture in the listener’s mind, and together with McBryde and the producer, it leaves the audience standing outside the room door, key in hand, wondering just what drove those inside to this point.

It seems weird to give out a perfect score after I just did so less than two weeks ago (after waiting over a year to do it), but “One Night Standards” is flat-out the best song I’ve heard all year. It’s the perfect marriage of atmospheric production, outstanding writing, and a great performance from Ashley McBryde. Frankly, with artists like McBryde, Ingrid Andress, Kacey Musgraves, and Kelsea Ballerini in Nashville right now, Music City needs to rethink its assembly line that keeps churning out faceless, forgettable male singers, because right now, the ladies are killing it.

Rating: 10/10. I’d say this one meets my standards. 🙂

Song Review: Ashley McBryde, “Girl Goin’ Nowhere”

Is a song about going nowhere what Ashley McBryde needs to finally get somewhere?

From a critical perspective, Ashley McBryde is doing quite well for herself: Her latest album Girl Going Nowhere has been nominated for a Grammy award, and the title track even earned a spot on Barack Obama’s “favorite song list” of 2018. For some inexplicable reason, however, country radio simply refuses to have anything to do with her: “A Little Dive Bar In Dahlonega” stalled out at #30, and her follow-up single “Radioland” didn’t make the airplay chart at all. Now, McBryde and her team are hoping the sentiments of the 44th President are widely-shared, as they have released “Girl Goin’ Nowhere” to kick off 2019. The song is a testament to the power of perseverance and positive thinking, with a strong message to never let anyone dissuade you from your dreams. In other words, it’s a well-written, well-executed track that stands out from anything else you’ll hear on the radio today.

If I have any problem with this song, it’s with the production, which takes a slight step backwards from “Radioland.” However, it’s not the instruments who shoulder the blame: The acoustic guitars give the song a good melodic foundation, the electric guitars and drums provide some texture and atmosphere, and the restrained, upbeat vibe of the mix keeps the focus on the writing (where it should be) while reinforcing the positive message of the song in the face of the narrator’s detractors. Unfortunately, calling this mix “restrained” is the understatement of the year, as the volume balance is substantially out of whack here. McBryde’s vocals are so loud compared to the production that the listener is forced to turn the song way up to hear the instruments and risk the vocals blowing out their eardrums, or turn it way down and not hear the instruments at all (the acoustic guitar is the biggest loser here: At lower volumes, it sounds like McBryde is performing the first verse acapella). Besides that, however, it’s a tolerable mix that suits the tone of the song well.

I have to say, I’m really impressed with McBryde’s vocals on this track. Neither her range and flow are really tested here, but it’s how she delivers her lines that makes this song so interesting. With the verses full of hometown doubters and wannabe coattail-riders, there are a ton of opportunities for the narrator to give in to the dark side and inject a lot of snark and bitterness into their delivery. McBryde, however, comes across as universally positive, almost thankful for all the negative comments, declaring that it was that skepticism and disrespect that pushed her to achieve her goals. More impressively, she’s so convincing in her delivery that the listener truly believes that she harbors no ill will towards her former colleagues, even as said colleagues come across as petty and mean-spirited. McBryde took a similar look-on-the-bright-side approach on “A Little Dive Bar In Dahlonega,” and just like her 2017 single, her incredible charisma takes a solid song and elevates it even further.

Lyrically, the song focuses on all the doubting remarks made by the people around the narrator back in the day (and even a few closer to the present), juxtaposing their negative comments with their large crowds and venues the narrator plays now. There aren’t a lot a songs driving in this lane, as the closest comparison I could find is Buddy Jewell’s “I Wanna Thank Everyone,” although it was an album cut that incorporated a lot of the snark that McBryde eschews. Instead, the narrator presents a much more positive message: Stick to your guns, chase your dreams, and not only should you ignore the haters, but you shouldn’t hate them either. That last bit is much easier said than done, because much like with Octopath Traveler, I’m very impressed by the song’s villain design: The doubters go from “She’ll never go anywhere” to “Oh yeah, I totally knew that famous person before she made it big” (while still saying she’ll “crash and burn” eventually), and while the narrator doesn’t seem to be bothered by the duplicity, the audience gets enough details to be annoyed by it, making McBryde’s taking of the high road even more laudable. Overall, it’s a distinct, positive piece of writing that everyone can take something away from.

Jason Isbell once said that “I do think there’s some kinds of art that make you a better person,” and I’d argue that “Girl Goin’ Nowhere” is exactly that kind of art. While I’m not completely thrilled with the sound, Ashley McBryde is in top form with both the pen and the mic, telling the world “Don’t get mad, don’t get discouraged, and don’t ever give up.” It’s a lesson she’ll need to keep reminding herself of in the face of country radio’s persistent stonewalling, but the genre won’t be able to keep her off the airwaves forever, and we’ll all be better off when they finally give her a chance.

Rating: 8/10. Definitely check this one out.

Song Review: Ashley McBryde, “Radioland”

Luke Combs: Dude, my new origin story is lit!
Ashley McBryde: Hold my beer…

I got some good vibes from McBryde when she shot out of the gate with “A Little Dive Bar In Dahlonega” last year, but *sigh* country radio predictably barely gave her the time of day, and she had to settle for a measly #30 peak on Billboard’s airplay chart. In response, McBryde shrugged, declared “Fine, I’ll release something even better,” and dropped “Radioland” as the second single from her Girl Goin’ Nowhere album. It’s a simple-but-high-energy track that discusses the impact of music on McBryde’s upbringing, and it’s dripping with enough charisma that I’m starting to think that despite my previous comparison of Combs to Garth Brooks, McBryde may actually be a better version of Combs.

The arrangement here is surprisingly simple (in fact, it may be too simple at times), but it punches far above its weight class and generates a lot of energy and momentum. While it may be yet another guitar-and-drum mix at its core, it’s got a lot rawer, rougher feel to it that most of the polished production coming out of Nashville these days (I’d compare it favorably to Miranda Lambert’s “Kerosene”). My only complaint with the mix lies with the electric guitar that drives the melody: While it does a great job pushing the tempo and creating a ton of positive energy, the riffs used are inexplicably basic and boring (even the solo is unimpressive), and they make the song feel a lot more monotonic than it really should. What the mix lacks in creativity, however, it makes up for in sheer momentum, and the bright guitars and in-your-face drums never stop pushing the song forward and reinforcing the good vibes that the radio brings. It’s not going to win anyone in the band a “Musician of the Year” award, but I have to admit, it’s catchy as heck.

As much as I hate the word “authenticity” (it’s become a buzzword in country music, and one that’s often thrown in the face of perceived posers), it’s the word that always pops into my head whenever I hear McBryde’s singles. There’s not a lot to talk about in terms of range or flow here (they’re fine, and that jump into her upper range on the “Jack & Duane” line deserves special mention), but it’s that genuine feel of her performance that really takes this song to the next level. In fact, as earnest as I found Combs on “She Got The Best Of Me,” I found McBryde to be even more believable, and she forges a strong connection with her audience as she takes them along on her trip to “Radioland.” She’s got a real knack for relating to other people, and in a just world, she’d be going to a lot more places then “nowhere.”

As shown by “She Got The Best Of Me” just last week, musical origin stories are not the most novel topic in the world. “Radioland,” however, covers a longer time frame than Combs’s track did, and it does so with much more vivid and detailed (albeit clichéd) imagery, especially in the opening verse:

Mama kept oldies playing in the kitchen
Turned up just a little too loud
Daddy was a rockstar riding on a tractor
Listening to Townes Van Zandt
I was 5 years old with a hairbrush microphone
Growing up in Radioland

Unlike “She Got The Best Of Me,” which seemed to keep the listener at a slight distance for the action, “Radioland” plops you down right in the middle of its rustic scenery, and really allows you to view things from the narrator’s point of view. (It’s also worth noting how McBryde expertly co-opts phrases traditionally used by male singers—when was the last time you heard a female artist talk about how she “got to first base?”) Things admittedly get a bit more generic as the song goes along, but McBryde’s delivery and the jubilant feel of the production are enough to carry the day from here.

Is “Radioland” coming to hit the charts like a freight train and rise to the No. 1 slot? I doubt it—the genre’s allergy to female singers and free sprits will likely doom this to the same mediocre fate as “A Little Dive Bar In Dahlonega.” Despite that, those good vibes I got from Ashley McBryde last year haven’t gone anywhere, and if the radio would actually give her some time in the spotlight, a song like this could really take off and flourish. Take my advice and reserve your seat on the McBryde hype train now, because this could be the start of something really special.

Rating: 7/10. Do yourself a favor and give this song a listen.

Song Review: Ashley McBryde, “A Little Dive Bar In Dahlonega”

Hold on…is this an ode to the downtrodden, hard-working masses that doesn’t feel like pandering garbage? Madam, you have my attention.

Ashley McBryde is an Arkansas native who’s been kicking around Nashville for over a decade, but is only now starting to gain some momentum: She released her first major-label EP last year, and received a high-profile endorsement from Eric Church last April. Now, her team is preparing to release a new non-EP single “A Little Dive Bar In Dahlonega,” and while it’s nothing terribly groundbreaking, it’s got a rawness and believability to it that most of the shallow “Here’s to the beer-drinkin’ real country folks!” tracks lack.

The production here has an organic and stripped-back feel, featuring very few instruments and restraining the ones that do appear. The heavy lifting is done mostly by an acoustic guitar, with a spacious electric guitar tossed in to fill time between the lyrics and an organ providing some atmosphere in the background. The drums are real, sure, but what’s surprisingly is how little they’re actually used: They don’t show up at all until the end of the first chorus, and unlike most modern country songs, they’re not a particularly prominent part of the mix. (The volume balance is tipped a bit too far towards the vocals, which are much more prominent than the sound, but it’s not a major issue.) The tempo is slow but methodical, and mixes with the bright tones of the instruments to create a warm, hopeful vibe that fits the subject matter perfectly. Take note, Miranda Lambert: This is how you create a non-studio feel on a studio track.

Vocally, I would describe McBryde’s voice as very similar to Brandy Clark, but with a dash of Wynonna-esque twang added to it. Her range isn’t tested much, and her flow feels a bit off at points during the song (in fairness, I’d struggle with my flow without a drum keeping time too), but there’s a raw power and earnestness to her voice that makes her believable in the narrator’s role and helps sell the song to her listeners. (It’s even more impressive when you look deeper into the lukewarm writing, which we’ll touch on a bit later.) It’s the sort of charismatic performance that makes you wonder what the heck took so long for someone to put her on the radio.

The song itself is a simple call for people going through times to keep their heads up and make some lemonade out the lemons life is throwing at them. It’s not really a new topic in country music, but at least the writers found some different ways to phrase things: The typical forty-hour hard-working person is “the worker bee that ain’t gettin’ no honey,” while the person escaping a bad relationship is “the bag packed, first love leaver.” Similarly, the song doesn’t explicitly endorse the shallow escapism of, say, Chris Janson’s “Fix A Drink,” but still encourages the listener to have a “making the best of the worst day kind of night.” It’s really a clichéd, platitude-filled song when you dig into it…and yet, the combination of McBryde’s empathetic delivery and the understated production elevates the writing to a point where it connects with listeners in a way I haven’t seen a song do since Alabama’s “Forty Hour Week.”

Overall, “A Little Dive Bar In Dahlonega” is a so-so song that became a decent one through well-executed production and the sheer force of Ashley McBryde’s talent. I’m getting the same good vibes from McBryde that I got from Carly Pearce earlier this year, and I’m very interested in hearing more from this artist.

Rating: 6/10. Give this one a few listens and see what you think.