Ashley McBryde, one of the premium-grade country stars of the 21st century, is at the point in her career where many country stars would be playing it safer than ever. She’s in-between the second and third releases in her album cycle, a time when many would be most fixated on grabbing for the brass ring. Instead, she’s got brass balls, opting instead to put out a beautifully quirky concept album full of guest singers and co-writers called “Ashley McBryde Presents: Lindeville.”
Please pardon the minor vulgarity in the preceding paragraph, but that’s partly the after-effect of listening to “Lindeville,” a character-driven set of songs whose protagonists tend to be on the straight-talking side, to the point of definitely including a few songs you will never hear on country radio. But “going for adds” is the furthest thing from the mind of an album that takes place entirely in a fictional small town where virtue is rarely the thing being modeled, and where even the local dogs are a little embarrassed about the array of sins they’ve witnessed.
It took a village to write and record “Lindeville,” ending with John Osborne of Brothers Osborne as the collection’s producer but starting with Brandy Clark, Aaron Raitiere, Pillbox Patti, Caylee Hammack, Benjy Davis and TJ Osborne as her co-writers and/or co-singers. That latter component is a huge part of what makes the album so different, and risky — McBryde isn’t even singing lead on a majority of the tracks (although she’s proud to say she does move up front for every one of the faux radio jingles interspersed through the album). It sounds like the beginnings of a solid country music musical, except that every song is its own self-contained short story, most of them taking themselves seriously only by accident, if at all.
The very existence of an album like “Ashley McBryde: Lindeville” is enough to restore your faith in Nashville, however far afield it might have wandered. Variety sat down with McBryde at Q Prime’s offices in Music City to talk about the devil-may-care creation of the album, why she named it after the late songwriter Dennis Linde (of “Goodbye Earl” fame), and what this small-scale but crowd-pleasing side trip means for a “proper” third album in her career.
The song titles on this album hook you from the start. Having “Brenda, Put Your Bra On” as the opening track sets a tone right at the start.
And “Bonfire at Tina’s,” even just on a track listing, I would click on that. But you know me, I’ve always had titles like “A Little Dive Bar in Dahlonega,” where it’s entirely too long with words that are hard to spell. And now I’ve got a record called “Lindeville,” which no one can pronounce already. Yeah, putting the names in there I thought was cool, for illustrating the small-town stuff — and not in the tailgate, tan leg, Solo cup kind of way, but in the “somebody got their ass beat in the trailer park” kinda way. [Laughs.]
Do you have a thumbnail sketch you’ve been giving people to explain what this record is?
If they’ve heard it already, then they definitely get it. But when people are like, “Tell me about what is about to happen here”… Six friends and I decided to lock ourselves in a house during what we lovingly refer to as the Great Separation. I guess one of the gifts we can thank the pandemic for is that none of us were on the road at the time. We locked ourselves in this cabin with this idea of, “Wouldn’t it be cool if… “ — and then we did the exact thing that would’ve been cool and came out with 13 songs, in all, that could be used.
What happened was, me and Nicolette and Aaron had written a song called “Blackout Betty,” which is actually on my third record — my proper third record [that will be released in 2023; more on that below]. The day we wrote it, I was like, “Man, y’all, we’ve got ‘Blackout Betty,’ we’ve got ‘Living Next to Leroy’ [from her debut album], and we’ve got ‘Shut Up Sheila’ [from her second album]. We’ve got all these characters from over the years. We should give ‘em a place to live and give ‘em neighbors.” Nicolette’s from Florida, Aaron’s from Kentucky and I’m from Arkansas, but we’re all from small towns. I thought we should develop some more characters, give them some more actions and give ’em a place to live. And we did.
We have ideas like that all the time, and you just don’t do anything else with it, because it doesn’t get on radio, and that’s fine. But then I thought, “Well, we should do demos of it” and everybody’s reaction was like, “Yeah, you should — you should spend money on it.” And then that became, “OK, well, what if I wanna make it a record?” And they were like, “I think you should.” “OK. What if I want John Osborne to be the band leader?” “Ask him.” “What if I want him to produce it?” “Ask him.” And John was like, “Hell yeah man, I’m in,” and it was just all downhill from there. I knew it’d be weird to put a record out that’s my record, but it’s all of us singing on it — the songwriters and some other vocalists that I wanted to pull in on it, like TJ Osborne and Caylee Hammack. But I didn’t care if that was what was expected or or not. It’s what needed to happen for these songs.
You had done some of this kind of writing before with your frequent co-writer Nicolette Hayford (“One Night Standards, “A Little Dive Bar in Dahlonega”), and “Shut Up Sheila” was a real highlight of your last album. Hayford now got her own deal under the nom de plume Pillbox Patti, right?
I would say Pillbox Patti is kind of her alter ego, but it’s not. That’s Nicolette — just like how, in our circle of friends, I’m Blackout Betty. And I earned every inch of that nickname, sadly. Sometimes it was funny and cool, and sometimes it definitely was not. [Laughs.]
How would you start out with the ideas for the songs?
We didn’t decide anybody’s story ahead of time on any of the songs. We didn’t say, “Let’s write a song about this, and the storyline is this.” At a certain point one of us would just be saying, “I knew she shouldn’t let that bitch watch her baby,” and then it’d be us cackling at each other, being like, “What is happening? Oh, she’s gonna whip this girl’s ass. This is hilarious.”
You have the phrase “Ashley McBryde Presents…” in the title, to distinguish it from a proper solo album. Was there any thought that it’d be confusing to people, or that it needed to be billed as a Various Artists record, knowing there is a limited amount of lead singing you do on it?
Yeah, it’s my name on the record and I don’t sing a whole bunch on it. But I am singing all the jingles, and almost all of the harmonies. We could have done it with me singing all the songs, and we thought about that. But I loved the way we sang on the work tapes so much, and to really do what was right by the characters that had developed, it needed to be different voices, and it needed to be people that were involved in creating these stories and developing this town.
I know it’s a little weird and a little bit outside of the box to put a record out with my name on it that’s not me singing. I love performing “Gospel Night at the Strip Club,” but Benjy Davis just slays it — when he sings “hallelujah,” there’s a little tug in your heart. With “Play Ball,” when TJ Osborne sings anything, we’re all paying attention. It makes me want to call my mom when I listen to that song, but when TJ Osborne sings it, everybody’s calling home. I knew Caylee Hammack was the perfect person to cast as the voice on “Brenda Put Your Bra On”…
Having spent some time with Caylee as well, I imagine you and Caylee would be an interesting pair to be around.
We get along so good, and that’s all Miranda (Lambert)’s fault, because I met Caylee on the “Fooled Around and Fell in Love” (group-sing record) in the studio, and we hit it off and never did stop hitting it off. We check on each other. She’s got a green thumb — and she’s basically a Disney princess. There’s always woodland creatures and birds flocking around wherever Caylee is.
How did you come to name the town — and essentially the album — after songwriter Dennis Linde? That’s quite a tribute on your part.
I only found out just a few years ago about Dennis Linde and the scope of what he did. And when you tell somebody now and you’re like, “Bubba Shot the Jukebox” and “Goodbye Earl” and “Queen of My Double Wide Trailer” and “Hunka Hunka Burnin’ Love” were all written by the same guy — by himself!… He drew a map and he invented characters, and then he wrote songs about them. What we did was kind of opposite of that. We noticed that we had characters and then made more and then invented a town. But that was when we were like: What would we call it if we got to do this? We should name it Lindeville! And for people that don’t even know why that’s important, it won’t matter. But if it makes them curious at all, there’s a possibility that some of Mr. Linde’s stuff will get re-looked at, and that would be cool. I just thought it would be a good way to tip our hats to someone who was so genius. And I don’t know what else we would call it besides Lindeville. He just really was the O.G. at character-driven songs.
Do you have any particular favorite songs of Linde’s?
I really love “Queen of My Double Wide Trailer” [a 1993 hit for Sammy Kershaw]. In the second verse of that one, he says, “A few nights later I run into her with some stranger on a park bench. She said he rebuilds engines and his name is Earl; he’s the Charlie Daniels of the torque wrench.” That Earl is the Earl he killed in “Goodbye Earl”! That blew my mind when I found out. I was like, you’ve gotta be kidding me. And they’re like, “Oh yeah, this guy, he was kind of a hermit. He didn’t like to be around crowds. He just wrote songs, and then those characters would reoccur.” And I’m like, “Holy shit. This is genius.” Yeah, I think “Double Wide Trailer” might be my favorite. Well, “John Deere Green” [a 1993 hit for Joe Diffie] is one of the most popular country songs probably of all time. And so that would definitely make my top listing.
Given that Dennis Linde was a guiding light, are there other character writers that have also been influential on you in that way?
No. But when we were writing “Gospel Night at the Strip Club,” I did want to make that song feel a little bit like one of the spoken-word (Kris) Kristofferson songs. Hashtag #goals, I think is what the kids say — that’s somebody I could really lean toward.
As you mention, Linde was a guy who wrote by himself, and Kristofferson, too. These are not the types of songs that pop up in the writers’ room nowadays.
No, definitely not. But they can, and sometimes they do.
Because you had a writers’ room and still managed to make it the opposite of generic.
Thank you. And it was just the six of us sitting at a kitchen table. And usually when you rent a house like that, sometimes you’ll change your environment — like maybe write in the basement or maybe write on the porch or whatever. But we just sat there at that kitchen table the whole time. We couldn’t pull ourselves away. And the fact that none of us can remember exactly where we were in Tennessee when we wrote this is kind of cool and just kind of speaks to the magic of it.
The milieu of the songs is very trailer park. You’re not getting too far into mansions on the edge of town or anything like that. I’ve talked with some of the participants on this record before and know that some of you have pretty humble origins. Are they this humble, that this felt like something that was real for you and not just a clever affectation?
Oh, definitely. I mean, both sets of my grandparents were in their mid-80s and mid-90s when they went on, and they still were living in single-wide trailers at that time. So yeah, we all have pretty humble roots. And I still don’t live anywhere above my means, and I still drive a truck that makes sense. So it is very real. And not that you can’t write about and execute things that you have to fully imagine — but I don’t have to. [Laughs.]
As far as the people you work with on the management or label side, was it easy oe challenging getting them on board and explaining why this should be the next Ashley McBryde project?
Surprisingly, I really expected a lot more pushback. But the upside was, I was like, “Listen to this.” And they’re like, “Well, this is really cool.” I’m like, “It is really cool. We should make this a record.” And then they were like, “Yeah, we should.” It probably was a little more difficult getting Warner to want to release it. And I’m like, “Don’t worry, I’m gonna do my third record too. I’ve got that too, but this needs to come out,” and then they were surprisingly supportive and said “We’re here for you.”.
I know that I should put my proper third record out before I do this, because a love project like this, I’m pretty sure, according to the rules, is something you need to do this later in your career. But that’s not gonna work for me. This deserves to be out now, especially in a time when we can all be together and do it. Who knows where we all all live at record seven and record eight?
Were there any precedents at all in your mind in terms of people doing kind of oddball side projects — later in their career or at all?
When I talked about making this a record, it was brought to my attention that Bobby Bare might have been the last one to do it, with some of his work with Shel Silverstein. I want to say it was in the late ‘60s [editor’s note: also the 1970s], and I’m not in touch with those projects, but it was good to know that this is not a brand new frickin’ idea — that it is part of our country music tradition. It’s just a rare part of our country music tradition. That’s the only thing I could draw a line to.
So there is a third proper Ashley McBride record, with Jay Joyce producing, that is done?
It is done. It’s been a really fun time watching and discussing what comes out first. And then we decided “Lindeville” comes out first, and then we’re just champing at the bit to get it out too. But “Lindeville” needs to have its day and then as soon as they say pull the trigger, I’m ready.
Anything you would say about directions you took on that third solo album?
Yeah. We’ve been told that we’re a little bit on the rock side for some people’s tastes. So we turned that up. And as tender as we’ve been with things like “Girl Going Nowhere” and stuff like that, we turned that up on the record. So as rock as we’ve ever been, and then as bone-country as we’ve ever been, and as tender and sweet as we’ve ever been, we decided to turn all of that up, to just see how that stretches and what that feels like all on one record. … And I love that I get to cut (in the studio) with my band. I know not everybody gets to do that or wants to. It’s a cool thing to us.
When did you record the two albums?
It was this last December and January when we cut “Lindeville,” and then in February we went in and cut proper record three.
Maybe you’ll be modeling this kind of chance-taking for others to follow in mainstream country.
Nicolette and I had a show together in Savannah not long ago. She wrote me a note and left it in the dressing room that said, “Thanks for doing what you said you do. Because most people don’t.” And that just makes me so damn happy. Like, that right there — that needs to go on the award shelf, you know?
So what’s the radio single from this album? … I’m just kidding.
I know. When people are like, “You’re not gonna work this to radio….” I’m like, “Really? Do you think we can’t work ‘God damn it, it’s Monday night / You’re fucked up on vodka and Sprite” on radio?” I think that freed us up quite a bit to know that we didn’t need to chase any of that, because the whole goal was just to have fun and make something that we wanted to make.
But “Bonfire at Tina’s,” I don’t know, could [get airplay]… And “Brenda, Put Your Bra On,” I say it’s radio-friendly, except for the first line, which has the word “bitch” in it. But it doesn’t have to be pretty to be true.