photos by Glenn Cook
As she looked up and out across the sold-out audience at the Hamilton in Washington, D.C., Ashley McBryde had the smile of someone who still seemed to recognize the moment. It’s as if her eyes said, “Is this really happening?”
Here was the self-deprecating Arkansas born and one time “little ole barefoot hillbilly” now at center stage in the nation’s capital. Outside the government was shutdown but inside the Hamilton was packed three-deep in the upstairs bar rafters. McBryde came with the understated confidence that comes from believing in yourself and turned into a real-life storybook of a woman in her own country songs. With an air of humility, she mentioned that Girl Goin’ Nowhere had sold more than any other debut album last year.
If there was any doubt all of this was real, you just had to listen to the roar of the crowd when she hit the key line of the album’s title track and signature song. “I look around and I can’t find one empty chair.” McBryde’s ascent was born out of a high school class when a teacher called her musical dreams stupid. The wounds of that day were still felt this night. Now she was telling a story for the “thousandth time,” reciting the line she said that day was a lifelong affirmation. I’m going to move to Nashville and make a record and it will be played on the radio. It was as if you say it enough times it just might come true. The caveat to the story was that she didn’t realize it would take until she was 35.
But perhaps she had the last laugh, describing being invited back to her high school reunion and writing a song at their invitation. “Fat and Famous.” “You got fat, I got famous,” she sang making sure to emphasize in her story that she also got paid.
This was the first show of the new year for McBryde who now calls the road home. “Just came to thank you and decided to play a show while in town,” said McBryde who was back in DC for the second time. This time television cameras were there to capture the show for an upcoming CBS show.
McBryde’s authenticity makes her the anti-country pop star. She set the tone from the outset. In the song “Living’ Next To Leroy,” she sang about a next door drug den that was like an episode of Breaking Bad. “This ain’t no bonfire, this ain’t beer” she sang and forewarned. The veteran of dive bars and chronicler of “A Little Dive Bar In Dahlonega” invited audience participation in a few “holler and swallers” that were greatly appreciated by the food and beverage staff. Perhaps the show’s best moments were when McBryde had alone with her guitar, an acknowledgement and homage to all the bars she played in her past. After a heartfelt tribute to her father with its key line “When you ask me why it sounds so good, I’m playing more than strings and wood,” she received a standing ovation.
McBryde’s quick wit and one liners invoking Dolly Parton and Carol Burnett, the comedian who received a Golden Globe lifetime achievement award a few days earlier. Describing her as badass and saying whatever she wanted, McBryde said the influence has gotten her in a lot of trouble.
But she slipped in something deeper for thought. “I get asked if this is a love song or a cheating song. I don’t know and there might not be much of a difference, she said in a reflective moment after singing “American Scandal.”
McBryde’s four-man band began the night with Matt Moose riffing like Jimi Hendrix in some guitar calisthenics. At one point in the set, I felt like I was hearing the band channeling Lou Reed’s “Walk In The Wild Side” in a between-songs interlude. And when McBryde tried out a new song she’s planning to record come March it sounded rooted in Deep Purple. They had the most fun when she covered Michael Jackson’s “Dirty Diana” at nights end.
Throughout the night as she told stories, It was hard not to think of Bruce Springsteen accentuated by the way she, slung her Fender from her shoulder and embellished her band introductions. When she closed her eyes and put both hands over the mic, she channeled the transcendent power imparted by the Boss.
Meanwhile in the crowded aisles, women were up and dancing mouthing every word of songs like the show closer “Tired of Being Happy,” while McBryde slashed guitar chords like she was in a garage band.
On this night, McBryde’s words were less country songs than they were adopted anthems about not settling for less.
Opening for her was Dee White, the Alabama native whose Southern Gentleman (Side A) debut caught the attention of Rolling Stone which named him as one of the “10 Country Artists You Need To Know.” White brought with him a soft spoken, low key and appealing understatedness. At first it might have been easy to see his six piece band as just another Nashville bar band. But his soulful voice and subtle r &b grooves in songs like”Where You Go” and cover of “That’s The Way Love Goes” really resonated. There was a warmth and familiarity and feeling that Harris would sound great on an old AM radio. The best song of the night was “Rose of Alabam” with its immediate hypnotic chorus and geographic narrative, finally building into a sweeping and climactic finales that retraced the best of Southern rock past.