The third part of this piece will cover albums by Ashley McBryde and Brandy Clark.
I have likened the country music marketplace to a stall full of apples where there’s an apple for everyone but some will leave a taste that lingers long after the bite. When it comes to female acts, there are four notable acts (three solo singers and a duo) who have launched new releases (or apples) into the marketplace (or stall) in early 2020.
In the early stages of what will hopefully be a career to last as long as Lady A or Little Big Town, Ingrid Andress unveiled an eight-track LP called Lady Like which contained the top ten radio hit More Hearts Than Mine: ‘If we break up I’ll be fine’, she sings of how the split will really bite for her family members. Happily, the song has spent much of the last six months rocketing up the radio chart and is being positioned to hit the top spot some time in April or May, just after I Hope by Gabby Barrett. Things are looking better for the ‘girl singer’ in country radio.
What is Ingrid bringing to the marketplace? Solid songs like More Hearts Than Mine and Lady Like, a poppy song which namechecks the Mona Lisa and has a melodic bridge: ‘Controversial, so outspoken/ I’ve been told that I’m not lady like…but I’m a lady like woah!’
The album as a whole has the feel of Meghan Trainor, especially on opener Bad Advice, Life of the Party (‘I’m killin’ it, it’s 3am still going strong!’) and We’re Not Friends, which documents the transition from friends to lovers. I found the production a little too overwhelming (I would prefer an acoustic album) but the strings are excellent throughout. If you’re a young woman looking for a guide to life, Ingrid Andress can be it.
Also finding an audience of smart young women are Maddie & Tae, who finally put their second album The Way It Feels into the world on Good Friday 2020. It took four years to be released as a whole and, like Sam Hunt’s album, is almost a greatest hits collection of that period.
First single Friends Don’t, a poppy love song, came out as far back as May 2018, with the gorgeous Die from a Broken Heart going to radio at the end of the year. Both songs featured on the One Heart to Another EP, which entered the market in April 2019 around the same time as the debut album by trio Runaway June. Finally, women not called Miranda or Carrie were being given a chance on country radio, which acts still had to cosy up to in order to secure an audience. In any case, young people were streaming Maddie & Tae’s music.
Also on that EP were One Heart to Another (‘from one ex to the next lover’), the funky New Dog Old Tricks – on which the girls rap the line ‘trust fund beard like Moses’ and which was written by the super trio of Emily Weisband, Jesse Frasure and Laura Veltz – and Tourist in this Town. On that last tender song, the narrator avoids familiar places where they would bump into people and be asked about why she was single. It’s a country song.
The title track of the EP Everywhere I’m Goin opens the album. It’s a song about their husbands, much like Trying On Rings, with gorgeous harmonies, a singalong melody and smart lyrics that take the listener on a tour of the USA: ‘He’s as cool as California/ Homegrown like they do it in Georgia…Strong like a Tennessee hickory’ and so on, movingly. This sounds like a huge radio smash, but not these days. There are other audiences to serve, who are younger than radio’s key demographic of 35-54.
The younger person will love Bathroom Floor, an encouragement to ‘get up girl!’ over two chords, as well as Ain’t There Yet. Dierks Bentley is drafted in on the ballad Lay Here with Me but let’s overlook the fact that he’s duetting with a duo.
Of the ‘brand new’ songs, two are chirpy and three are slow. The former are: My Man, which asks listeners to ‘put your hands up if you’re crazy in love’; and Write a Book (‘I’m shook!’), which compares love to a ‘New York Times bestseller’. Both songs are perfect for Youtube montages of ‘relationship goals’.
The three new slowies show the same variety in tone that the pair displayed on their debut album: Drunk Or Lonely takes it down a notch as the girls complain of 2am phone calls from a guy who can’t move on; Water In His Wine Glass is a hymn to God (the girls are very religious) sung over plinking acoustic guitar, wishing sobriety on a loved one; and I Don’t Need to Know is an MOR ballad which would fit on a Radio 2 playlist alongside Kelsea Ballerini and Ward Thomas.
The album The Way It Feels has had a very modern rollout strategy, coupled with lost record deals and life changes. Maddie & Tae’s young audience will know all the songs through streaming them repeatedly and will appreciate the five new tracks. Spotify figures are impressive for an act with little country radio play: as of Good Friday, Die From A Broken Heart has been streamed more times than their smash number one hit Girl in a Country Song. Friends Don’t isn’t far behind. Teen county-pop, as heard on the likes of Radio Disney Country, is a viable genre.
If you know a girl under the age of 20, they would love this album but it’s likely they know who they are. Since 2015 the girls have opened for Dierks Bentley, Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood, who took them and Runaway June on tour with her in 2019. When life resumes, they will open up for Lady Antebellum on their Ocean tour.
For girls over the age of 20, Brandy Clark and Ashley McBryde are your best bets.
Brandy is revered in Nashville for writing the smashes Better Dig Two, Mama’s Broken Heart and Follow Your Arrow, as well as two solo albums full of gritty realism and gorgeous melodies. Soap Opera, Love Can Go To Hell, Stripes (‘I don’t look good in orange and I hate stripes!’) and Take a Little Pill are four of them. Shane McAnally, a fellow gay songwriter whose sexuality is only remarkable when remarked upon, said of his good friend: ‘I don’t know anybody better at telling a story with just a few words. She’s serving the song and the story and then she gets out of the way.’
On Brandy’s third album Your Life is a Record, her focus is on the break-up of her long-term relationship, placing the album in the long line of such albums in the rock and pop canon. There’s a mix of the jaunty and the melancholic, much like Brandy’s hero John Prine, who passed away a few weeks after Brandy put her new album into the world.
Because I prefer the jaunty to the ballad, the kiss-offs Long Walk and Who Broke Whose Heart grabbed me on first listen: the former imagines the addressee walking ‘off a real short pier’, while the latter places a swear word in the chorus following the words ‘all I know’s I loved you’. The funniest track is a duet with Randy Newman, which quotes the famous line from Jaws: ‘We’re gonna need a bigger boat.’ The final verse is the best: ‘We’re springing a leak, we’re coming apart/ We’re on the Titanic but we think it’s an ark’ must be the result of a brainstorming session coming up with ideas for famous boats.
The sad songs include album opener I’ll Be the Sad Song – country music is nothing if not literal! – on which Brandy sets out the album’s subject. ‘That last verse, you wanna change it’ is a wonderfully sad line, while Pawn Shop opens with the arresting line, ‘She pushed her wedding ring across the counter’, as Brandy trades jewels for a bus ticket. The elegant waltz Love is a Fire (written with the aforementioned Shane McAnally) runs with the motif of the title. ‘Kiss me like kerosene’ is another bumper sticker of a line.
Who You Thought I Was, released as a teaser for the album, seems autobiographical: Brandy wanted to be Elvis Presley, a circus performer and a cowboy ‘til I met you…now I wanna be the me I should have been when we were together.’ This is John Prine level stuff, or John Prine writing with Adele. On Bad Car, over a gentle guitar shuffle, Brandy mourns an old car which has ‘broke down’. No pop music (or indeed music that gets sent to country radio) does this sort of thing.
Can We Be Strangers, which sounds like a Muscle Shoals cut from the 1970s, contains real horns, strings, drums and lyrics as Brandy wants a complete break: ‘I don’t wanna hate you or even care enough to’ is the key lyric of the chorus. The album drifts off into the distance on The Past is the Past, with a gorgeous instrumental outro. This is a masterful album that deserves as wide an audience as possible.
Jay Joyce produced both Your Life is a Record and Never Will, the second album by Arkansas-born Ashley McBryde. The pair make a decent couplet, best enjoyed one after the other with a single malt whiskey in your hand. Once again, fans of Eric Church will find much to enjoy in Ashley’s catalogue, which is no coincidence as Jay also helps sculpt the sound of Eric’s records.
At 36, Ashley is one of the older acts to have won CMA New Artist of the Year, which she did in 2019 after a decade playing dive bars and biker hangouts. Her album Girl Going Nowhere was GRAMMY nominated despite the title track not doing much on radio. Not even her song Radioland gained traction, which proves something is awry on radio.
Nonetheless Ashley has taken the lead from Kacey Musgraves: throwing crumbs to radio but gaining fans one at a time, especially playing live. UK crowds have filled bigger and bigger venues to see Ashley from London’s Borderline on her first visit in 2018 to medium-sized venues like the Shepherd’s Bush Empire and, in Country2Country 2019, the likes of SSE Hydro in Glasgow and London’s O2 Arena. As things stand she is due to come to Britain in the autumn, including dates at the Camden Roundhouse and Glasgow’s mighty Barrowlands Ballroom.
Ashley trailed the album Never Will with a trilogy of music videos. The melancholic One Night Standards, a song about meaningless pickup sex in a motel room written with Shane McAnally, sounds like a cigarette burning gently in an ashtray. ‘Lonely makes a heart ruthless’ distils the whole enterprise in one line.
Album opener Hang In There Girl comes off as an older sister talking to a teenage girl: ‘I’ve been right there at the end of that drive…Tangled up in the small town weeds, dreaming of the day you leave’. It’s of the Born To Run school of rock.
The drums on Martha Divine set up the opposite of a murder ballad, as Ashley gets her shovel and sets about righting a wrong by bringing hard to ‘Jezebel’. This will be the highlight of her live set when the world becomes normal again.
Brandy Clark herself co-writes two tracks on the album. Voodoo Doll is driven by a stomping beat and bluegrass feel, over which Ashley sings of putting a curse on an ex-lover, it seems. It breaks into a guitar wigout halfway through which may push Ashley into the rock market. Sparrow comes directly after it and is a proper country ballad about being out on the road: ‘Jack and Coke, a sleeping pill/ Living a dream’ yet thinking of home.
Never Will picks up the theme but sets its lyric to heartland rock in the vein of Petty, Springsteen and Seger, music that nobody makes any more. It’s another song with fire in the lyric, a theme which unites the album and will be a decent thesis for someone working on the paper ‘Ashley McBryde: Standing Inside The Fire’. (Garth Brooks is a huge fan.)
Velvet Red begins with a few bars of a cappella, giving the song a classic feel which is sustained in the effect given to Ashley’s voice. I don’t know the technical name but it sounds muffled. The plot of the song is: Boy meets girl, girl goes ‘sneakin’ out’ to see boy, something happens in the third verse that I’ll spoil by telling you about. Stone, written about her brother, is another proper country song which lists how ‘there’s throwin’ ones and rollin’ ones….The steppin’ kind, the steady kind’ before concluding that she and her late brother are ‘cut from the same stone’. The song was written with Nicolette Hayford, whose brother died in combat.
Like Brandy, and indeed like the late John Prine, Ashley can be funny or wry. The toe-tapper First Thing I Reach For (‘is the last thing I need’) is in the tradition of morning-after songs, as Ashley wakes up after a heavy night with a stranger which served to ‘keep away the lonely’. On Shut Up Sheila, she sighs at a friend who is trying to console her with religious piety: ‘This here is a family thing’ will resonate with every Southerner who doesn’t follow the Good Book to the letter.
In honour of her late friend Randall Clay, Ashley performs his song Styrofoam as the album’s closing track. It opens with a spoken-word explanation of who invented it and why it’s useful, especially to keep beer cold in ’44-ounce cups’. It sounds like an idea on a Brad Paisley album and rounds off Never Will as a sort of bonus track; credit the record label for letting it sneak onto the tracklisting.
Thank goodness for Brandy Clark and Ashley McBryde, who have both made two great albums which will still be heard in ten years’ time.