On the recent September morning when the Country Music Association announced its latest round of award nominees, Ashley McBryde awoke to texts from her team. She’d racked up five nods, one for female vocalist of the year and the rest for a chart-topping collaboration with a fellow star, all of it recognition of recent achievement according to her industry’s established benchmarks.
Two years out from her second major-label album, Never Will, McBryde was due for a third. If she followed convention and continued the musical approach she’d made her calling card so far, presumably, she must be at work on a full-length elaborating on her consummate, red-blooded blend of country’s tough and tender extremes. That was only part of the reality, she clarifies: “You write all year and you make a record — in this case, we made two different ones.”
McBryde did, indeed, complete the sort of album people now anticipate from her, but decided that its release could wait. Another project had to come first: Ashley McBryde Presents: Lindeville, a mischievous, and mightily pleasing, departure from the prescribed progression of a mainstream country career. It’s titled more like a grand, group production than a solo album, and for good reason: It’s a heartily witty concept album about a fictional hamlet and the untidy intricacies of its working-class residents, performed by half a dozen singer-songwriters in addition to McBryde, who happens to be one of contemporary country’s most sumptuously natural singers with a fine sense of when to make her gestures vivid or subtle. Fully half of the tracks she chose to sing lead on are riffs on old-school radio jingles, each pitching a made-up diner, pawnshop or funeral home.
Even if it’s been largely forgotten in the two decades since “Goodbye Earl,” there’s a rich tradition of lusty, character-driven tales in country, folk and bluegrass songwriting — one to which the album’s namesake, and the author of “Goodbye Earl,” Dennis Linde, contributed for decades, as did Tom T. Hall. McBryde’s own catalog has been peppered with memorably earthy personalities from the start, too. She included “Livin’ Next to Leroy” on her 2018 major-label debut, Girl Going Nowhere, but it got a bit overshadowed by broader fascination with how charismatically the title track reflected her own heroic underdog story. McBryde quietly ventured a little further into character-driven territory on Never Will with “Shut Up Sheila,” a salty scolding of someone who drops self-righteous platitudes at the worst possible moments. She sat down with NPR Music to talk about why going all in on downhome personality studies was well worth a professional detour.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Jewly Hight: There’s this perception of the country songwriting community as a homey, close-knit world, but it sounds like the writing retreat you held in a lakeside cabin, where you came up with a lot of this material, took that to a whole other level.
Ashley McBryde: Lindeville was all written around a kitchen table [with Nicolette Hayford, Connie Harrington, Brandy Clark, Aaron Ratiere and Benjy Davis]. For some reason, we kept the same seats the whole week we were there. The only agenda was we wanted to write stuff that felt good. The worst thing that could happen is that we write a whole bunch of songs that we have to use for different things. And the best thing that could happen is we write a whole bunch of songs that are really good for this one thing that we have this idea about, and that’s what happened.
So you went in with this vision?
I’d written “Livin’ Next to Leroy” with Nicolette, and she wrote “Shut Up Sheila” with Park Chisholm, and then Nicolette and Aaron and I wrote “Blackout Betty,” and that’s when I was like, “We’ve accidentally developed all of these characters over the years. I think we should put them in the same zip code and give them some neighbors.” It’s like we were like a family on family vacation, trying to put a puzzle together.
I love the artist portion of my life, but it can be a little confining. And you do need to do what’s expected of you a fair amount of the time. This is how me and my friends blow off steam: by writing a verse and a chorus of a song about a strip club, and then going fishing for half an hour and then coming in and making a ham sandwich and taking a shot of tequila. And now there is a song about a brawl.
Dennis Linde is in the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, thanks to iconic songs like “Burning Love,” “Goodbye Earl” and “John Deere Green,” but he died over a decade and a half ago and was fairly reclusive before that, so he’s kind of receded from memory. He seemed like a folkloric figure, the way he created this map of a fictional town and came up with all of these ingenious, earthy songs about its colorful occupants. What was it about that template that captured your interest?
I kind of dove in [to Linde’s catalog] and just realized how cool it was that all these songs were connected. Then I found out that there was a map and that he had created these characters. Then I find out that he was on the hermit side of things, and no one really knew what he looked like for a long time and he didn’t like to go out and do things. He just became this magical, magical man [to me]. That was the only way I had gotten to know him —through his songwriting. So I did feel like it was the right thing to do, if we’re going to build a town, to tip our hats and say “thank you” to Dennis.
Sense of place is really important to contemporary country songs, and the writing often puts an idealized gloss on rural or small-town settings. But you’ve painted a portrait of a place, and people living in it, who aren’t exactly upstanding citizens. They’re acting up, talking trash; their home lives are in shambles. Did you miss that kind of songwriting, and the class-consciousness of it?
Definitely. I have nothing against our modern songwriting tendencies and techniques, but we do polish an awful lot, and not everything is beautiful back roads and things like that. People are disasters. For much of our lives, we are just utter disasters. And it’s OK to watch that and then celebrate the good moments — like the song “Lindeville” at the end [of the album], which is just the [chance] to go, “Everything’s kind of a wreck, but sometimes things are OK for a minute and we should really pay attention in those times.”
It’s common practice for artists to ask their peers to sing duets or harmonies with them, but not so much to cast other singers as the leading characters on your own album. Aside from the jingles, you have others singing lead on more songs than you sing yourself. Why were you so willing to distribute the lead singing around?
It is interesting for an artist to be like, “Here’s my new record and here are a bunch of other people singing.” I opened the record. And then I wanted to sing the jingles. I wanted to sing harmonies on all the songs. And I knew that I wanted to [sing] the “Lindeville” track and be the voice of the clock tower, and [the Linda Ronstadt cover] “When Will I Be Loved?”
It might be kind of boring to hear me sing all of it. [The song] “The Girl In The Picture,” that has to be Nicolette Hayford’s voice. That’s got to be delivered by [Hayford’s performing persona] Pillbox Patti. I can sing it, but it’s so correct when you hear it come through those pipes and that throat.
I dreamt the beginning of “Gospel Night At The Strip Club,” the song idea. I bring that to the retreat and Benjy Davis ends up [recording] the work tape of it. There’s nobody that can deliver that the same way as Benjy did. When he says, “Hallelujah” in that first chorus, that very first one, you feel it in your rib cage.
And with “Play Ball,” we got all choked up once we figured out that this individual is going to say, “The only life advice I have for you is go to church, love your mom and play ball.” And then I thought, “T.J. Osborne could sing anything and make you feel it.”
So casting the characters wasn’t a hard decision. I love that we’re getting to use the term “casting,” because that is completely what we did. That was what was right for those particular characters.
You worked with Brothers Osborne‘s John Osborne as producer, and you both have a bit of bluegrass in your background. He gave the album a loose, loping groove and featured a lot of acoustic picking. He got a lot of playfulness out of the musicians too. What were you looking for from John?
My fear would be if you’re going to make this into a record and then it comes out slick. Slick is not something I’m interested in. We sent the work tapes to John and [asked] “Hey, would you consider producing it?” And he got it immediately. What I needed from John was his ability to understand what I had done with my friends in writing the songs and translate it into other human beings on their instruments.
In “The Missed Connection Section of the Lindeville Gazette,” we had done a couple of passes and then John comes across the [studio] talkback [system] and says, “Forget everything I said. Everybody overplay for an entire pass.” That solo section in that song is one of my favorite things on the record, because you’re just listening to the keys player do really cool stuff at the same time that there’s slide guitar, or whatever else is happening right there. It required a certain level of playfulness. If these songs take themselves too seriously, then we don’t want to listen to this record.
You mentioned that you’ve also completed another album. How different is it from Lindeville?
I would say apples and oranges, but it’s more like apples and like pecans. It’s just completely different. I was so excited to make the Lindeville record. We did that in December and January. And then in February we worked with our producer, Jay Joyce, and made our third proper release. And I’m really, really excited about it. I don’t know if I’m allowed to talk about it, but it’s my record. I’ll talk about it when I want to.
My [band] guys and I went in and decided that as rock and roll as we’ve ever been, it’s OK to do that more on purpose and turn that up. As tender as we’ve ever been, it’s OK to turn the volume up on that; as front porch jammy as we’ve ever been, it’s OK to turn the volume up on that. And it’s OK if it all lives on the same record.
That seems a whole lot more like the step that people would have expected you to take next. And it also seems like that would be an easier sell to your label.
You’re like, “OK, we’ve got both of these records. What order do we release these in?” And then the next thing that pops in your brain or gets spoken in your ear is, “You should do this. It’s what everyone expects.” But then when we got to thinking about it, we wrote these songs and recorded [Lindeville] without any “shoulds.”
I think that came into play here: “Yeah, we should release [the counted-upon, Joyce-produced] record three, so let’s not. Let’s do this.” And if that’s a little uncomfortable and a harder sell, cool.
There is a considerable amount of non-FCC-approved language, and so many songs with others singing lead. None of that is radio-friendly. So if the goal isn’t sending singles to radio, where do you go with a project like this?
It’s interesting to have a record [where] nothing about it is crafted to be on a chart. That doesn’t get to be a factor. Hopefully the impact of it is a record that you listen to that you call somebody and tell them about.
In the country world, an artist is often well into their career, no longer considered a commercial contender, by the time they can finally do the things that they want to do that break the mold. Why is it important to you to do this now?
I’m taking notes from my father, who is terminally ill. He used to be this guy that would ask, “Are you working hard?” And you’d say, “Yes.” And he’d be like, “Good. People will respect someone who works hard.” And then eventually that became, “Are you working hard?” “Yes, sir.” “Don’t.” He said, “I had all these projects and I waited all this time, because I was going to do these projects when I retired. And then I got sick and I can’t do any of them. So do it.”
He could care less about me being wildly successful. He just doesn’t care. And that’s all right. But to see him be so sad because he didn’t take the time to do those things, Lindeville has to come out. I don’t want to wait ’til I retire. I don’t wait ’til I’m sick. And I want these songs to have the life they earned. They busted out of the ether at that kitchen table. They deserve to be on a record.