NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Country singer Ashley McBryde has been hearing the critics since she was a kid.
“I am the youngest of six. There’s the smart one and the pretty one and I am the loud one,” McBryde said with a smile. “I was banging on a mandolin at 4 years old and trying to make songs out of it, and my brother would throw shoes at me from across the hall.”
Later on, it was an algebra teacher in her hometown of Mammoth Spring, Arkansas, who shot down her musical dreams. The teacher asked each student what they wanted to do after high school.
“I said, ‘I am going to make songs up, going to write music and live in Nashville,'” McBryde, 34, recalls. “She told me to remember where I was from and that wasn’t going to happen, so have a really good backup plan.”
When: 5 p.m. Saturday
Where: Windy City Smokeout, 560 W. Grand
Price: $55 (single day pass)
Now promoting her first major label album, McBryde has proven all those doubters wrong. She’s performing as part of the Windy City Smokeout, continuing through Sunday on Grand Avenue at the Chicago River.
“Girl Going Nowhere,” her Warner Music Nashville debut released in March, is the culmination of years of shouting over TVs in bars and hitting the road in a Toyota Tundra with a beagle.
“It’s all been guerrilla warfare trying to get my name out there,” said McBryde.
When she was releasing her own records independently, she would sometimes just hand out CDs to fans, telling them to burn five copies for their friends who would listen.
“It’s not a problem if 20,000 people heard my music for free, but it’s a huge problem if 20,000 people never heard my music,” McBryde says.
Eventually a sentimental song about her ailing father, a fire-and-brimstone preacher, called “Bible and a .44” that she released on an EP in 2016 caught the attention of other artists, including Eric Church, who invited her onstage one night during his Holdin’ My Own tour last year. Soon she was getting shout-outs on Twitter from Miranda Lambert, who has also booked McBryde on some of her dates for her 2018 tour.
One day, she was in her manager’s office in East Nashville when an unknown number sent her text.
“You know like if you text me and it says, ‘Maybe’ and then your name?” McBryde said. “I got a text from ‘Maybe Garth.’ I laid on the floor and started kicking my legs and laughing. Well, maybe I’m Batman.”
It was actually the real Garth Brooks, who had also heard “Bible and a .44” and wanted to know all about this curly-haired singer with a voice like Terri Clark.
In her standard outfit of a short-sleeve T-shirt and jeans, McBryde easily commands a crowd’s attention with her booming voice and her tattoo-covered arms in front of her band of bearded musicians. She jokes that people often think she looks a lot tougher than she actually is.
“I’m five foot, three inches. Even if I hit you, I’m probably not going to knock you down,” McBryde said.
“She puts on a great show and she’s a hell of a singer,” said country singer Luke Combs, who has toured with her. “She fits that mold for me. Someone who came here with a dream and wouldn’t let anything stop them.”
And every night that McBryde sings the album’s title track lyrics, “Where they said I’d never be is exactly where I am,” the crowd is singing right alongside her.
“Still to this day, I have not used algebra,” McBryde notes with a smile.