Ashley McBryde isn’t usually one to break down when life gets tough. She’s strong, she’s powerful and she finds a way to put on a happy face, even when her world is falling apart.
And in June of 2018, it truly was. Just as her country career was gaining stream thanks to her breakout single “A Little Dive Bar in Dahlonega,” the musician got the tragic news that her brother Clay had died unexpectedly at the age of 53.
“You keep your feet moving or you will completely fall apart,” McBryde tells PEOPLE during a recent interview in Chicago. “As women, we don’t allow ourselves the falling apart time nearly enough. Luckily my body and my psyche has decided to choose those moments for me now.”
She pauses for a moment, as if to contemplate what she is going to say next. And then, she continues.
“I developed anxiety really, really, really bad right after Clay died,” she admits quietly. “I mean, they were bad panic attacks. They are under control now, but I didn’t understand what was going on.”
It’s a common thread between McBryde and the over 40 million men and women who battle some sort of anxiety, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. And for McBryde, the timing was especially difficult to deal with as it coincided with her entry into the country music spotlight that she had dreamed of since growing up in Arkansas.
“I had to get through four shows before I was able to find out what was going on with Clay,” recalls McBryde, who will head overseas for a string of shows in September. “And at night [the anxiety] would come out in really weird ways. We were in Europe after he died and I got in such a weird place about what we were doing. The schedule was so hectic and I was like, ‘Man, is this what all of this is?'”
Indeed, it was. But deep within that realization was also the sad fact that no matter how quickly her star was rising, McBryde desperately needed to find a healthy way to deal with the cards life had suddenly dealt her.
“I had to pull my head out of my ass and be like, ‘Yeah, this is what it is. You are built for this life. I have to do this or I might die, but also someone in that audience needs you,” she remembers.
In the end, the ACM Awards winner found strength in her fans counting on her to deliver a show. The revelation inspired McBryde to change her entire mindset about losing Clay as well as dealing with the anxiety that plagued her afterward.
“I said to myself, ‘It’s not about you, so get over yourself,'” she recalls. “If someone is having a s—ty day and they need to be free for an hour, where their bills aren’t late and their husband isn’t mad at them and the dog isn’t sick … as long as I am there on stage, everything is OK for them. Nobody cares if I’m hung-over or if I’m sad or if I’m tired or if I got s—ty news this morning. They care how they feel. And in the end, that’s all I care about.”
But those feelings ultimately needed to go somewhere, and for McBryde — who is nominated for CMA new artist of the year honors alongside fellow country stars Cody Johnson, Midland, Carly Pearce and Morgan Wallen — they went straight into her music. As she worked on her sophomore album, McBryde found herself drawn to writing about her late brother. The song that eventually emerged is called “Stone.”
“I got with [co-writer] Nicolette [Hayford] one day in the garage and I said, ‘We are both members of a club that really sucks to be a member of,’” explains McBryde. “Her brother was an Army veteran as well and I said, ‘If anyone is going to write a song about being in the dead brother’s club, it’s going to be me and you.”
And after six straight hours, they had a song. “It was very therapeutic,” she tells PEOPLE. “I was going through all of the stages of grief I never expected to, and boy, I was angry that day.”
It’s an anger that she still feels to this day, and an anger that McBryde now says she realizes many people go through life trying to hide. But McBryde isn’t hiding anymore.
“You have an obligation to one another as humans to remind each other that if you feel that way, someone else might feel that way,” she says.
So what would Clay think of the song?
“He would be embarrassed that he is on a record,” she says quietly, slowing brushing a dark curl from her forehead. “And then he’d probably tell all of his friends.”
“He used to tell all of his friends, ‘My sister is a honky-tonk singer,'” McBryde adds with a laugh. “He’d be embarrassed, yeah. But he would be proud of me — and the song.”