Five years ago, the country singer Ashley McBryde came out with “A Little Dive Bar In Dahlonega,” her first major-label single. The song wasn’t a huge hit, but it was an immediate critical sensation. Part of it was the way that McBryde sang the song — a tough, warm, lived-in twang that sounded like it belonged to a character in the song. And some of it was the way the lyrics painted a picture. You don’t kneed to know anything about Dahlonega, a small town in Georgia, to imagine the dive bar of the song or the people who find some tiny but crucial bit of sustenance there — the ones going through the hitting rock bottom, smoke ’em if you got ’em, nothing’s going right, making the best of the worst day kinda nights.
Ashley McBryde could sing and write about that little dive bar because she’d been there — because she’d been living her life in dive bars like that one. Years before she released that song, McBryde, born into a repressively religious Arkansas family, had moved to Nashville in hopes of making a name for herself. She’d struggled. She’d played dive bars, open mics, talent competitions. She’d worked a Guitar Center day job and self-released an EP. McBryde’s big break was the stuff of movies. Eric Church, a country star with a rebellious streak, heard her self-released CD and invited her onstage to sing one of her songs at one of his shows. A video of that performance made the rounds, and that video got McBryde a label deal. By the time McBryde released “A Little Dive Bar In Dahlonega,” she was in her mid-thirties. Maybe nobody expected her to become a star. Sometimes, though, people recognize greatness when they hear it.
McBryde’s 2018 major-label debut Girl Going Nowhere is about as good as a mainstream country album can be. She sang the softer songs with hard authority, and she sang the rockers with the creaky grace of a Tom Petty. Two years later, McBryde followed that album with Never Will, which was a tiny bit more polished but which also showed a playfully restless sensibility developing. McBryde ended that album with “Styrofoam,” a weirdly funky little ode to “extrudent polystyrene in a closed-cell foam form that was resistant to moisture.” McBryde sang about the physicists who invented the stuff, toasting them and the cheap coolers that she uses to keep her Natty Ice cold. A song like that is a big, blinking neon sign: Here’s someone who loves and respects the age-old storytelling traditions of country music and who wants to find strange new ways to honor those traditions.
A song like “Styrofoam” isn’t just a sign; it’s also a promise. On her third album, Ashley McBryde makes good on all that promise in a way that nobody could’ve expected. The title of McBryde’s new album isn’t technically Lindeville. It’s Ashley McBryde Presents: Lindeville. McBryde isn’t the star, then. She’s the presenter, the party host, the Rod Serling of the whole deal. You could say the same thing about McBryde’s other albums, too. Nashville country albums generally aren’t singular auteurist visions. They’re the work of entire communities of writers, producers, and musicians. Ashley McBryde did not, for instance, write “Styrofoam”; it came from the Nashville songwriter Randall Clay. McBryde merely picked the song out and sang it as if she’d written it. On Lindeville, McBryde puts the spotlight on that whole community, and she does it with a concept album about community. It’s like she and her collaborators have decided to make a whole panoramic Robert Altman film about the little dive bar in Dahlonega, and maybe even about Dahlonega itself.
Lindeville is named in honor of the late country songwriter Dennis Linde. Linde wrote “Burning Love” for Elvis Presley, and then he kept working in Nashville for decades before his 2006 death. Linde wrote a generous handful of hits, but he was also a beloved figure among songwriters because of his sense of unified vision. Linde would write about characters, and he’d imagine the world that these characters inhabited. If you paid enough attention to the songs that he wrote, you might start to notice certain characters reappearing in certain songs, recorded over the decades by different singers. Even if you didn’t notice that process at work, you’d still understand the finely observed character details of a song like “Goodbye Earl,” a huge hit for the Chicks in 2000. That sense of detail came from Linde’s process. On Lindeville, Ashely McBryde and her collaborators aim to create their own version of that process by envisioning the lives of the people in a whole fictional town.
Lindeville is not the idealized small town that only exists in country songs. It’s a place where people struggle and fall off wagons and fuck each other over. The album opens with “Brenda Put Your Bra On,” a song about some shit going down in a trailer-park neighborhood. A woman has come home to find her husband cheating with the babysitter, and the different women in the neighborhood gather around to watch the fireworks like it’s entertainment: “I knew she shouldn’t let that bitch watch her baby/ I used to work with her at the Krystal/ She always got them good shifts just cuz she had good tits and cut her shirts off at the middle.” Ashley McBryde isn’t the only singer on “Brenda Put Your Bra On.” The song is structured as a conversation among three different women, and different singers portray those women.
In fact, Ashley McBryde doesn’t sing too many lead vocals on Lindeville. The album comes from a bunch of different viewpoints, so she brings in a bunch of different singers to handle those parts. Some of those singers are famous, like Brandy Clark or the Brothers Osborne. John Osborne, one of the Brothers, produced Lindeville, picking all the musicians and bringing back musical motifs throughout, while Osborne handles the lead vocals on “Play Ball.” In the album’s press materials, John talks about working to produce the songs differently, with sounds varying according to setting and character, while keeping the LP’s sense of cohesion. Some of the album’s other singers are mostly known to the people who pay attention to the liner notes on country records. An album like this is a powerful reminder that Nashville is a town full of talented people with vision and that the prevailing pop-country winds don’t always let those people indulge those visions.
Lindeville, with its meth addicts and strip clubs and sharp little character sketches, stands in opposition to a whole lot of pop-country, and you can practically hear how excited everyone is to be involved in it. But that same Nashville system also made an album like this possible. People spent money to make Lindeville. The musicianship is immaculate, and the hooks are sharp and polished. It’s the kind of thing that could’ve only been made by true professionals.
On Lindeville, Ashley McBryde and her collaborators build a cinematic sense of place. The album has a few 30-second radio jingles for fake local businesses — a diner, a pawn shop, a funeral home. In between, we hear telling details about the people who live in this town. Here’s the guy who does maintenance on the local baseball field: “He lost his wife to cancer and a thumb in Vietnam/ Jokes he used to be a hitchhiker, but not for very long.” Here’s one of the strippers at the local club: “Patti’s got an upper to get her through her shift/ And a downer so she can lay down with the kids.” Even the dogs in the town, like the three-legged beagle who lays there spread eagle on the driveway outside Patti’s trailer, get to be fully developed characters: “They could sniff out the cheaters and point out the liars/ Shit on their lawns and piss on their tires/ They can smell kindness, so maybe be kinder/ And don’t even think about kickin’ one.”
There’s a whole lot of beautiful writerly vision at work on Lindeville, but it wouldn’t matter if the songs weren’t great. Guess what? The songs are great. It’s slightly disorienting to hear a cohesive country album with so many different singers on it, but those singers all know what they’re doing, and they all fit into the ensemble. The songs themselves are precise and beautiful. “If These Dogs Could Talk” is a soft-glowing honky tonk lullaby. “Brenda Put Your Bra On” is a mean little bar-rock vamp. “Gospel Night At The Strip Club” is a total showstopper, a soulful hymn about a whole lot of people who are trying their best. Near the end, we get a great cover of the Everly Brothers classic “When Will I Be Loved.” If you want to deep-dive on the album, then you can understand that this is the women of this town taking a golden oldie and adapting it as their own anthem. But if you just want to listen to Lindeville as a collection of country songs, not worrying about how they all interact with each other, then it’ll serve that purpose beautifully, too. When you do that, it’s like: Oh, hey! “When Will I Be Loved”! Great song!
Parts of Lindeville are funny in a trashily self-aware way, and parts of it are just unspeakably sad. Sometimes, those parts are one and the same. On “Bonfire At Tina’s,” the album’s penultimate track, the characters from “Brenda Get Your Bra On,” the ones who were just gossiping about each other, come together to get drunk and support each other. Right after that, the album ends with “Lindeville,” where Ashley McBryde plays the album’s narrator. She’s not a person; she’s the clock tower in the center of town, looking down on all these people and wishing them well: “I’ve been keeping time on the courthouse square/ Since their daddies’ daddies put me here/ And tonight, I wish I could just stand still/ ‘Cause look at those stars over Lindeville.”
A song like “Lindeville” — hell, an album like Lindeville — is a writing exercise, and you can look at a work like that from an academic lens if you want. But when those writing exercises really work, they can move you. They can fuck you up. Lindeville fucked me up. A lot of people put a lot of work into this record, and they made something that resonates on a deep, emotional level. Give it up for them.
Lindeville is out 9/30 on Warner Music Nashville.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Cool It Down.
• Björk’s Fossora.
• Titus Andronicus’ The Will To Live.
• High Vis’ Blending.
• Freddie Gibbs’ $oul $old $eparately.
• Shygirl’s Nymph.
• City Of Caterpillar’s Mystic Sisters.
• Kid Cudi’s Entergalactic.
• Tyler Childers’ Can I Take My Hounds To Heaven?
• Lambchop’s The Bible.
• Shannen Moser’s The Sun Still Seems To Move.
• Melody’s Echo Chamber’s Unfold.
• Bladee’s Spiderr.
• Dropkick Murphys’ This Machine Still Kills Fascists.
• Brandi Carlile’s In The Canyon Haze.
• Regulate’s self-titled LP.
• Disheveled Cuss’ Into The Couch.
• Autopsy’s Morbidity Triumphant.
• OFF!’s Free LSD.
• Slipknot’s The End, So Far.
• YG’s I Got Issues.
• Pixies’ Doggerel.
• 2nd Grade’s Easy Listening.
• The Big Pink’s The Love That’s Ours.
• The Bad Plus’ self-titled LP..
• Sam Prekop’s The Sparrow.
• Blancmange’s Private View.
• Snarky Puppy’s Empire Central.
• Office Culture’s Big Time Things.
• Free Time’s Jangle Jargon.
• Pretty Sick’s Makes Me Sick, Makes Me Smile.
• Kolb’s Tyrannical Vibes.
• Upchuck’s Sense Yourself.
• Buddy Guy’s The Blues Don’t Lie.
• Fujiya & Miyagi’s Slight Variations.
• Joss Stone’s Merry Christmas, Love.
• Rita Wilson’s Now & Forever: Duets.
• Richard Marx’s Songwriter.
• Sammy Hagar & The Cirlce’s Crazy Times.
• Denzel Curry’s Melt My Eyez See Your Future: The Expanded Edition
• Drowning Pool’s Strike A Nerve.
• Candy Apple’s World For Sale EP.
• RL’s Be True EP.
• Bodysync’s Big Woof EP.
• Karate’s Time Expired box set.
• Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot Deluxe Box Set.
• Boldy James & Nicholas Craven’s Fair Exchange No Robbery.