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.