In the middle of her debut album Girl Going Nowhere (Warner Brothers Records), produced by Jay Joyce, Ashley McBryde draws you in with a memory of senior year in high school, rolling cigarettes on the hood of her Tacoma. But before you think it’s just another country party song, enter the neighbors and the intrigue–and the town “where people go to die.“
“When he asked me for a spoon, I thought he was in a bluegrass band or something,” she muses before describing a house turned drug den that’s like a scene out of Breaking Bad.
“On the dark side of America, it ain’t bonfires it ain’t beers,” she declares in the chorus of “Living Next To Leroy,” a kind of anti-party anthem that is like a soundtrack for the dark underbelly of America, a summation of everything that’s happened over the last decade from the housing crisis to the methamphetamine and opioid epidemics.
McBryde’s empathy for the downtrodden is perhaps informed by her own life story. First told by a teacher she’d never amount to anything, she reflects and weaves her Cinderella story and hard-earned victories over rejection against the understated arrangement and irony of the title track.
“Girl Going Nowhere” is one of this year’s best albums. Making her debut in her mid-thirties, McBryde’s rich narrative is drawn from a lot of life experience and small details. Casting herself in “El Dorado” as one of the troubadours rolling down the road, she’s searching for something almost mystical, the silver lining that you can’t find on a map. The deliberate fast pace of gives it an urgency that makes you want to come along for the ride.
McBryde’s open book and infectious energy will please both purists and country pop fans who like to turn up their car radio. The charms of McBryde’s song craft instantly grab you in the sing-along of “Little Dive Bar In Dahlonega.” She traces her family and generational history in “Radioland.” (Dad liked listening to Townes Van Zandt while riding the tractor.) But when she tries to construct an opus in “American Scandal” (Kiss Me like Kennedy and Monroe”) it sounds forced and bombastic. These days scandals are cheap. Much better is the demo-like feel of “The Jacket” and “Andy (I Can’t Live Without You),” a recitation sung to her partner of the realities of domesticity and the ties that bind.
McBryde’s drawl and rebuke to ex-lover in “Tired of Being Happy” is snarly and dripping in sassy retribution. By the album’s closing track, she serves up old fashioned soul music, a confessional that rises to the spiritual in “Home Sweet Highway.”
“Girl Going Nowhere” is a summation of McBryde’s collective life experience, an American anthology and generational scrapbook. In the end there’s the tale of Leroy that you can’t get out of your head. At the song’s climax there’s a fierce solo and this time it’s a solo that really means something. As Leroy’s plight becomes known, McBryde’s muscular voice devolves into an angry growl, a pained eulogy giving voice to one of the forgotten.
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