Having had an amazing run through to the Grammys earlier this year with Girl Goin Nowhere, Ashley McBryde had some really strong momentum to build on heading into this new album Never Will. Sure there has been limited success at country radio (which is insane considering how good her singles are) but she hasn’t let that stop her. In the end it is the live show where an artist can build an audience of fans who buy records, merch and make careers. And live is where this artist shines. Most of these country chart toppers will soon be forgotten and Ashley will still be out there playing to big crowds in the decades to come. Talent, grit and songs will always win out.
It’s such a shame then that much of the touring promotion for this album is in doubt. Ashley was thrown into the live-streaming promo trail immediately, knowing that she had to do everything she could to get the word out. I think, like her last record, these songs were written for the live full band setting and also as a driving record so sadly they run the risk of being kind of lost without those outlets. I hope not as a song like Hang In There Girl is the kind of hopeful anthem that we all need to hear right now. I’ve had it on repeat since I first heard it and I know it’s going to be one of my favourites of the year.
There’s loneliness steeped in many of these songs but she never wallows in it. Life happens and she assesses her lot with an unsentimental eye. One Night Standards says ‘Lonely makes a heart ruthless’ and that streak elevates these songs above the usual genre cliches. First Thing I Reach For admits that this way of living probably isn’t how she should be but it’s the truth all the same.
It’s hard to tell exactly if these opening songs are autobiographical and maybe that’s the point since they have a universal appeal in their well worn boots. Still two of the best songs on the album are the more obviously personal ones. Sparrow is a gorgeous epic about the emotional sacrifices of touring. However the real gut wrencher is the ballad Stone, a tribute to her brother who sadly died by suicide. Such deeply felt, brave songwriting is what makes this artist special.
Elsewhere on the album she pushes her sound towards a kind of 80s rock sound which almost verges on hair metal a couple of times. Martha Divine is the most successful of these style of songs and despite its violent streak she gets away with it because it’s so damn infectious. Title track Never Will doubles down on the sentiments expressed in her last album’s title track – spitting a tough, uncompromising attitude to those who ever doubted her. Voodoo Doll stretches this hard rock style a bit far for my personal taste. But it’s not the worst song on here as Shut Up Sheila is strangely produced and I’m also at a total loss to explain ‘Styrofoam’. Sometimes joke songs work but unfortunately this one flew right over my head.
Velvet Red shows us her traditional country side and it’s gorgeous. Maybe she will always want to rock out but this song shows her bluegrass roots are strong, and I would be happy to hear her explore this style further.
Despite a couple of mis-steps Never Will has enough great songs, emotional moments, fun hooks and in your face guitars to be an album that you’ll want to blast as often as you can. I’m hoping to see Ashley live in September at the Barrowlands – a place made for songs as loud and brimming with personality as these. Until this pandemic is over all we can do is keep listening to the livestreams and hoping for a miracle. Hang in there.