Ashley McBryde: A Girl Going Everywhere And Doing It By Just Being Herself

Ashley McBryde
Katie Kessell for Essential Broadcast Media
– Ashley McBryde
After about a decade of driving her pickup truck across several state lines to play biker joints, sports bars and even a Target opening, Arkansas-born Ashley McBryde walked into Nashville’s 3rd and Lindsley for an industry showcase one May evening in 2016, and walked out knowing her career was about to completely change.
Just three months earlier, she strode into the office of WME Nashville’s Lane Wilson, who instantly recognized McBryde as a potential triple-threat of talent. The agent could see in her a musician, writer and entertainer, seasoned and yet authentic in a way that could only be forged from a lot of road miles and tip jars.
In a way, the road for the Girl Going Nowhere artist began in Memphis 11 years ago with a guy named Neil.
“One of the first gigs I played was after a game and there was a stage in the back of this bar. Me and my friends thought, ‘Why don’t I just get my guitar out, if they’ll let me?’ and just get out there and jam,” McBryde told Pollstar. “We would have been doing that in the back yard anyway, so we thought why not do it in this bar?  This guy comes out at this bar called Neil’s – it turns out he is Neil. I said, ‘Hey man, can I play on this back stage? I don’t need a PA or anything; we’re just going to hang out and drink beer.’”
Ashley McBryde
Jason Kempin / Getty Images / Essential Broadcast Media
– Ashley McBryde
Ashley McBryde returns March 20 to 3rd and Lindsley in Nashville, the same venue where she met future manager John Peets in 2016 and set a course for a bigger future.
Not only did Neil let Ashley jam and drink beer on his bar stage, he asked her to come back the next Sunday and he’d pay her $50 for three hours. That turned into $75, and more gigs at other bars.
“I wound up playing every place you could possibly play in Memphis,” she said, without mentioning that Memphis is some 70 miles and across the Mississippi River from her college town of Jonesboro, Ark., where she was majoring in music education on a French horn scholarship at Arkansas State. The college career didn’t last much longer.
By the time she rolled into Nashville, she was driving herself to as many as six gigs a week – sometimes in six different towns. She was using a gas can with the lid cut off and a handwritten sign that read: “$ – Gas Money” for a tip jar.
“I loved even the crappy, dangerous places,” McBryde says. “That’s a really good way to cut your teeth. There’s 
nobody behind a desk telling you if your song is good or not. You’re in a biker bar where nobody gives a damn if you’re playing guitar or not. And then you make them shut up and turn around because of something you made up.
“But you’d better have your Joni Mitchell and your Barbara Mandrell and your Lady Gaga memorized. Those bikers really like that stuff! They really liked when I would mash together Kenny Rogers’ ‘The Gambler’ and the chorus to Lady Gaga’s ‘Poker Face,’” McBryde said, laughing, before explaining why that is a serious point.
“It was a really good way to learn how to perform for a living. Performing in bars is really hard and I know performing in arenas is really hard, too. But I don’t think you could do it if you never figured out how to make 60 people who don’t give a damn pay attention.”
That’s what Wilson means when he says McBryde showed up at his office already a seasoned entertainer. She initially came to his attention through an EP, Jalopies & Expensive Guitars and a song, “A Little Dive Bar In Dahlonega,” that was getting airplay at The Highway on SiriusXM.
McBryde came to Nashville some time earlier and got a deal with Song Factory, a publishing house that paid her a recoupable advance that allowed her to draw a stipend as long as she wrote songs – sometimes even for herself.
It’s a bit of a twist from the old artist development model. In Nashville, particularly, publishers have replaced record labels as a means of support that allows artists to hone their crafts rather than playing 26 gigs a month or waiting tables in Glitter Gulch honky tonks.
But it can present a double-edged problem. When you are writing for others, and being given direction to write for the tastes of record labels or radio, it’s easy to lose one’s authentic voice. Fortunately, McBryde had begun to put together a team that helped her avoid that trap, including Eric Church producer Jay Joyce. But it also allows artists time to perform unpaid industry showcases, where sometimes magic happens – like it did at 3rd and Lindsley.
McBryde had neither a label deal nor a manager, but Wilson invited Q Prime South’s John Peets to take in an abbreviated showcase set.
“I don’t think it was many songs, six maybe,” Peets said. “I went backstage and introduced myself and said, ‘I think I know what this is and I would like to help.’ That’s where I always like to start.”
For McBryde, it was professional love at first sight. “John Peets comes in, and he walked up and he’s got this awesome salt-and-pepper hair that I could tell he’d combed that morning and hadn’t cared about since. He put off a really cool vibe when he walked in and introduced himself. He said, ‘I like what you do, I know what to do with it, I look forward to talking with you,’ and then he just walked off!”
McBryde knew immediately she wanted him to manager her; he had her come to his office for a meeting a few days later and the deal was done. “It’s been a really cool partnership because I trust him completely and he trusts me completely,” McBryde said of Peets. “Every time I hand him an egg, he gives me back a chicken.”
Ashley McBryde
Matt Cowan / Getty Images / Stagecoach
– Ashley McBryde
Ashley McBryde performs during Stagecoach Country Music Festival at the Empire Polo Field on April 29, 2018 in Indio, Calif.
Within another week, Wilson texted McBryde that he’d just booked her on a show opening for Chris Stapleton. Then came opening club dates for Jon Pardi, followed by dates with Willie Nelson and Hank Williams Jr. Within two months she’d gone from playing a Target grand reopening in Hermitage, Tenn., to performing in front of 23,000 people.
McBryde just got her first taste of Stagecoach, and she’s going to be spending much of the summer on festival lineups and one-offs around them. She’s been to the U.K. once already in 2018 and has plans to return. And there will be a fall headlining tour of North America.
As for those first few whirlwind months after her fateful showcase, McBryde says, “That was trial by fire, for sure. Is the band any good? I don’t know, let’s put them in front of 23,000 and see how they hold together!”