By Sarah Rodman
April 06, 2018 at 09:00 AM EDT
Alyssa Gafkjen

Do not believe Ashley McBryde’s album title. It may be called Girl Going Nowhere, but the country singer-songwriter is on the move, and all signs are firmly pointing up.

Seemingly every week, the Arkansas native experiences something she thought, and in some cases was told, she never would.

Whether that means finding herself onstage in arenas opening for Miranda Lambert, playing packed clubs where the crowds sing along to every word of her hit single “A Little Dive Bar in Dahlonega,” watching video of Garth Brooks playing one of her songs, or realizing the dream of performing at the Grand Ole Opry, McBryde, 34, has been living in a constant state of incredulity. After slogging it out for over a decade in dive bars and honky-tonks and self-releasing her songs, Girl Going Nowhere, her major-label debut, was released last week to critical hosannas. A few days later, she was beaming coast-to-coast on Jimmy Kimmel Live.

The album is cutting through the cookie-cutter clutter of contemporary pop-country, thanks to her gifts at combining classic storytelling specificity — including the autobiographical title track and the incongruously catchy meth lament “Livin’ Next to Leroy” — with pop tunefulness and swampy Southern rock and soul underpinnings. McBryde, who co-wrote all the tracks on the album, can inspire you to hoist your beer one minute and weep into it the next.

EW caught up with the whip-smart spitfire on her tour bus before a rapturous album release show at the Roxy on the Sunset Strip earlier this week to get the lowdown on Nowhere.

The bad advice that lit a fire: 

“I still feel the things that she said to me that day when I was in 10th grade,” says McBryde of the algebra teacher who told her, in front of the entire class, that she wouldn’t succeed, inspiring the album’s title track. While her emotions are visible every single time she plays it, McBryde says, “In all honesty, I owe her a thanks. Number one, for lighting a fire under my ass, that I would spend the next 15-16 years trying to prove her wrong, and also for my very first experience with the word ‘no.’ My skin became thicker that day. I would spend the next few years in college and then get to Nashville and hear ‘no,’ and the next ‘no,’ and the next ‘no,’ and she really prepped me for that. So even though she was a terrible algebra teacher, she was a really good educator in life.”

The heroes who inspire her pen:

“When it comes to songwriting, it was Guy Clark, Kris Kristofferson, John Prine,” says McBryde, ticking off a holy trinity of Americana and country titans, handed down by her parents. “As I got a little older, I discovered Lori McKenna and Patty Griffin and found out how many other tools we have as songwriters, that there’s storytelling and there’s ear candy, and that there is a place where they meet too, and both of those women are really good at doing that. Then, maybe five years ago, I heard a Travis Meadows record called Killin’ Uncle Buzzy, and I learned about honesty. I also love Brandy Clark.”

Writing with Miranda Lambert:

“I knew I would love writing with her, that we would probably really get along,” she says of the eight time CMA female vocalist of the year, who has signal-boosted McBryde both onstage and on social media. “She is as brilliant a songwriter as I’ve ever, ever sat down with. It was me, her, and [Lambert backing vocalist] Gwen Sebastian. So that’s three really strong female personalities in the same room, and we were actually making each other kind of angry. We were throwing so much out at the same time. So, Gwen’s typing, Miranda’s walking around, and I’m trying to write things in a notebook. We were just like, ‘Aaah, I want to know how to nail this idea down!’ It was awesome.”

Friends in high places:

In addition to Lambert, a murderer’s row of artists have invited McBryde to open shows, including Willie Nelson, Eric Church, and Chris Stapleton, while others, like Brooks, have literally sung her praises. (The superstar performed “Girl Goin’ Nowhere” at a show in Washington.) “Those are really good champions to have, and I’ve been really lucky that Eric was a fan of my songwriting,” McBryde says of Church, to whom she is often compared for her fierceness and individuality.

The key to playing biker bars:

McBryde says she had a number of “barometer” songs that helped take the temperature of any room. They included included “Amie,” by Pure Prairie League, John Mellencamp’s “Jack & Diane,” and “Should’ve Been a Cowboy,” by Toby Keith.

“Your job is to sell hot wings and beer,” she says of the many nights she and her band competed for the attention of the clientele with touchdowns and home runs on the bar TVs. “That’s what keeps you alive. So, it’s just not about you. It’s not about what songs you love to sing. It’s about what they want to hear. It’s not a science, but it’s a psychology.”

Where she’s going now:

McBryde recently made her first trip overseas, including shows in London that made her realize how quickly her fan base is growing. “The first day we were there, we probably took six or 10 pictures [with fans], and then I played two shows that day. We went back the next day to walk through the arena and … we probably took 300 pictures.” She smiles recounting a memory of one fan who approached her with his wife and daughter in tow. He told her how much he admired that McBryde says whatever she wants to say onstage.

Adopting a pretty solid British accent, she recalls that he said, “‘It made me realize, I’m not just a fan, but I want to have a beer with you at my BBQ in my backyard. Is that weird?’ I said, ‘No, that’s the best possible thing you could ever say to me,’ because I’ve always wanted to do music for a living, and there’s a certain amount of celebrity that comes with that, but there’s this pedestal thing that happens, when celebrity happens, and I think there’s this whole class of people now that we are kind of hellbent on the pedestal not being too big.”

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