Ashley McBryde has long excelled at painting portraits of small-town America. Her first two albums — 2018’s Girl Going Nowhere and 2020’s Never Will — were critically acclaimed for their stripped-down realism and effortless vulnerability. In song, McBryde is as easily able to relay a scarred tale of being doubted by her loved ones as she is to reminisce on how smoking joints eases the pain of life’s harshness. As she has made abundantly clear over the course of her short but fruitful career, she is principally interested in peeling back the layers and speaking the truth.
Now she’s taken things a step further. On Ashley McBryde Presents: Lindeville, the singer-songwriter has teamed up with some of her closest friends and collaborators, including Brandy Clark and Brothers Osborne’s John and T.J. Osborne, to create a fictional, small-town world full of liars, cheaters, and drug addicts (“If These Dogs Could Talk”),and home-wreckers doubling as babysitters (“Brenda Put Your Bra On”). The resulting project — which includes humorous jingles for funeral homes and pawn shops, and sees some of her co-writers including Clark, Aaron Raitiere, and Benjy Davis taking their turn at the mic — is a loose, joy-filled exercise in letting creativity, humor, and friendship serve as one’s muse.
On a recent morning, Vulture spoke with McBryde on her reasoning behind pursuing a project like Lindeville, why she’s totally fine no longer being Nashville’s shiny new object, and how small-town America is often inaccurately portrayed in country music.
After the success of Never Will, you could have gone ahead and released a more traditional third album. But instead you made Lindeville.
I think the reason it got to happen in such a cool way was because at no point had we planned to put it out. We had written a song one day — Aaron Raitiere, Nicolette Hayford, and myself — called “Blackout Betty.” Now Blackout Betty is my nickname when I party too hard. I have earned every syllable of the nickname without a problem. Nicolette’s alter ego when she parties too hard is Pillbox Patti. Aaron had a song called “Jesus Jenny,” and he and Nicolette had written “Living Next to Leroy.” “Shutup Sheila” also exists. I was like “My God, on accident we’ve made all these cool characters over the years.” And we didn’t mean to do it, but it happened. So what we should do is get together and give them neighbors and give them a place to live.
So what happens next to make that a reality?
A few weeks go by and I think, Let’s get six of us songwriters into a house. We contacted our publishers, we found some house near a lake; it wasn’t on the water and none of us can remember exactly where it was, which is very interesting to me. But we went there, we locked ourselves in this house for like six days. I think it was me, Nicolette, and Aaron, plus Connie Harrington. And we always love to have Brandy Clark around. And then I asked Nicolette to bring someone I’ve never met — a wild card — so she chose Benjy Davis, which worked out wonderfully. The goal was for all of us to just write things we felt like writing. Anything can happen on a writer’s retreat: You might split up three and three; you might split up two, two, and two; you might write with all six people together; and you might write a whole bunch of different songs you use for different projects. Best-case scenario: You end up with a batch of songs that all work for one project. And that’s what we did.
All the while knowing that I felt like we should call this town Lindeville — in honor of the late songwriter Dennis Linde — if we were able to create a town and characters to live in it. We were able to do it with no “shoulds.” There was no These songs should have a track we’re writing to. There was no Oh, we should write an up-tempo song today. I think the first song we wrote was “The Girl in the Picture,” and the second one we wrote was “Brenda Put Your Bra On” — two vastly different songs. “Brenda” is all about chaos and acting trashy and fighting a bitch, and “The Girl in the Picture” is pretty heavy: There’s this picture that exists that’s now being used as the missing picture for this girl, and how fucked-up is that. We just wrote what we felt like writing. And what we noticed was we were just having so much fun, like a bunch of kids in a sandbox. And we were just trying to make cool shit. That was the only goal.
I want to talk to you about this idea of community, which seems central to the album. I’d have to imagine it’s also super-essential in your own world; the highly competitive Nashville system seems lonely.
It does get a little bit lonely, and you can spend a lot of time feeling a little bit like an island. When you’re making something like this, it was such a completely community-driven thing. There were six damn writers on every song! Finding people like John Osborne that do understand me both musically and as a human being is really important. And you write with so many different people all the time — it’s important to write with mixed nuts — but to have people like Connie Harrington and Aaron Raitiere and Brandy Clark that we know that no matter what we get today we’re probably gonna like it, it’s a really nice way to keep yourself calm in any creative situation. That allows the pressure to be taken off of it.
How did you choose who should sing on each respective song?
I wanted everybody that was writing on the songs to be singing on the songs because that’s what expressed the characters the best. And then bringing T.J. Osborne and Caylee Hammack in to be those extra characters, I felt they expressed them the best.
Do you feel like country musicians are as supportive of each other as this little crew you formed is?
I’m glad you pointed that out, because even though I think in country music we’re all pretty much in each other’s corners about half the time — “You can do this! Yay!” — just like any pirate, everybody is ready to blow a hole in your ship at any time as well. Not everyone. But it’s a 50-50 shot on that. So that sense of community tickles me a little bit. We were just like, “Yay, let’s invite more people to the sandbox!”
One thing I love about Lindeville is how there are little jingles and commercials that flesh out the track list. It brings some levity to the project. Was that a reflection of the mood of the writing sessions?
I think so. You can’t write sad songs all day or you’ll drive on the curvy parts when you leave. Even though we love writing sad songs. But those jingles were all written when we were taking a break from writing a song. We’d go outside and all of a sudden we’d come up with a jingle. I guess it is a really nice representation of just the mood we were in and also everybody’s personalities. That’s just how we are. It’s a good representation of those six individuals: somebody’s making a salad, somebody’s shooting tequila, someone’s smoking a joint, and one of us is over here like, “I have a jingle for a funeral home!” [Laughs] We’re just a bunch of weirdos.
Another thing I love about this album is it’s about “small town” life but not the stereotypical small town we often hear about on country radio. There’s a lot more grit to Lindeville.
Yes, it is about a small town, but we need to remember that not every small town is as polished and slick as radio would make you believe it is. It’s not all beautiful red-dirt roads. There’s nothing wrong with those songs and those pictures of those moments. But also, sometimes Tina is tossing some spray-tanned orange girl through a window because she slept with her husband when she was supposed to be babysitting her children [Laughs]. That happens in those small towns too! And it’s okay to address it as well as laugh at it. Because that’s comical. We are human disasters.
People talk all the time about country music being the most honest genre, but by presenting small towns as this idyllic world, there’s some dishonesty there. There’s more honesty in the pictures you’re painting in a messed-up town like Lindeville.
I think we started that with my first record. Nicolette and I wrote “Living Next to Leroy.” Leroy was a real person in Florida and he was a meth-head. He wasn’t a bad guy … he just used a lot of hard substances. That’s why we referenced him on this album on “If These Dogs Could Talk” — “He’s a meth-head who smokes up his paycheck and that’s okay.” It’s a little bit of brutal honesty. Even the absurdity of “Gospel Night at the Strip Club,” I dreamed that title. I called Brandy Clark and said I had this dream and we walked into my house with all this cash in our hands and our friends were like, “What you girls been doing?” And I said, “Gospel night at the strip club!” In the bars that I played — I’ve been playing in bars since I was 19 —they’d have cowboy church. Some of them would have biker church. So even the absurdity of gospel night at the strip club I think is being honest. Because if a group of people were to gather there for that purpose, then that would be totally fine and not completely unprovable. It’s happening somewhere.
Your first two albums have both been critically praised. Does that empower you to draw outside the lines more with a project like Lindeville?
I’m working on the word empower with my therapist. I don’t know if it empowers you to draw outside the lines, but it definitely gives you permission a little bit. There have been times in country music — even though I think we are the most honest genre — where I’ve heard writers over the years say, “Our listeners are as smart as we tell them they are.” And this would be in moments when I’d come up with a line that they thought was too heady. And it may not have been the right line. But let’s not not use something because you just told me this about our listeners?! That’s the most insulting thing you could ever say to me! Remember, these are very intelligent people who are listening to your songs and they’re going to grasp the absurdity and the levity.
Nashville — and I suppose the music industry in general — seems to prioritize the shiny new object, which in turn puts added pressure on artists to maintain their success as they head into, say, their third and fourth albums. Does this idea of maintaining relevance cross your mind at this point in your career?
I wasn’t previously aware of the progression of your albums and what those were supposed to be. The first record comes out and it’s supposed to be an active snapshot of where you’re at. Then record two comes out and that’s proof that record one was not an accident. Now you have permission to grow a little. Of course, if you grow too much, the people are going to be super-judgy about it. I didn’t realize that was a thing. I don’t think it bothers me to not be the shiny new object; I do love our shiny new objects on the scene right now. I dunno. It’s such a weird thing to accept that as a reality. I guess I was just like, “Fuck it. I’ll make two records in two completely different directions.” To me, it’s weird that you either have to be the shiny new object or not. If you’re making music for enjoyment it will be audible in the record. But if you’re just doing it to stay relevant, that also will be audible.
You mentioned you’ve completed two new albums. So I assume fans can expect another in addition to Lindeville? Oh, it’s ready! In fact, we went back and forth of whether we put the third record out first or Lindeville. Until we said, “What is expected? Record three is expected. Then Lindeville deserves a shot now.” So I would say spring 2023. It’s all ready to go and we’re already trying some of those songs out live. We’re trying one or two per set to test them on audiences, to help us pick a single for when that record comes out. I think if you don’t test it out on audiences then someone behind a desk who doesn’t even listen to music regularly gets to try to tell you what your single should be. So I’d rather try it this way.
After listening to Lindeville, fans are surely going to want to hear it live. Do you have any plans to perform it with the people who helped create it?
That’s a hell yes! I’ve got my fingers in some things right now trying to make that happen. In my perfect world, this would happen at the Ryman. It would be done very Opry style, because of the jingles and the ads. I have no problem giving credit to where that inspiration comes from. And it would be all of us from the original record. I also think if that were to happen and we couldn’t get everybody, we could cast other artists as those other characters and there would be nothing wrong with that. That would be an interesting concept.