Ashley McMillen was born in West Virginia. Now, she’s a resident of Nashville. But somewhere in between, Charlottesville helped launch the country musician’s accelerating career.
A rising star on the singer-songwriter circuit in Music City, McMillen will play a homecoming of sorts when she graces the stage of the Dogwood in Palmyra on May 16. It’ll be the first time she’s reunited with the band she formed while living in C’ville from 2010 to 2014. It’ll be the first time she returns to the area where she decided to take on music seriously as a career.
McMillen moved to Charlottesville five years ago to be closer to her sister and commute to and from VCU in Richmond for a graduate degree. A self-described “closet songwriter,” McMillen was immediately attracted to the singer-songwriter scene and started playing open mics.
“I was nervous as heck to play my music for people because I had never done that,” she said.
Still, it went well. She quickly formed a band—Bahlmann Abbot on pedal steel, guitarist Rusty Speidel, drummer Stuart Gunter, Jonathan Chance on bass—and they started booking shows. They ran a successful crowdsourcing campaign to fund the release of a five-song EP.
“It all kind of snowballed, and for country music fans in Charlottesville I was kind of a household name,” McMillen said. “It ended up sort of exploding in a really beautiful way.”
The closeted talent was suddenly opening for the biggest acts in country music as they rolled through local venues—Martina McBride, Gary Allan, Sara Evans.
At around the same time, McMillen happened into a day job that furthered her nighttime passion project. She started filling in for on-air personalities at country music station HitKicker 99.7. Filling in soon turned into her own show, where she highlighted local country musicians in the afternoon.
Things were going so well, McMillen thought it’d be a good idea to double down on her small market success and move to Nashville. She applied for a few social work jobs over the course of more than a year, hearing nothing back, then all of a sudden she landed one. The waiting game was over. Within a few months, McMillen was moving to the biggest country music market in the world, taking a shot she feared she’d never have a chance at.
“The clock ticks, and life goes on, and I never wanted to regret not jumping in,” she said.
What the girl from Morgantown said she’s found in Music City is a community of songwriters who have been more collaborative than competitive. McMillen’s been separated from her band, but she’s been able to focus on her songwriting craft, again playing open mics and gigging alone on stage, just her and her guitar.
Her focus in addition to songwriting for now is recording her first full-length album, McMillen said. She’s completed a single she co-wrote with Abbot, “Coming Through,” and shot a music video with the help of C’ville photographer Jack Looney. The video, released on April 21, is probably the fullest expression of McMillen’s chances at success yet. The songwriting is natural, the lyrics genuine and the songstress commands the screen like a born Southern star, her mountain-gal good looks and sweet singing voice a natural draw.
“My instrument is my voice,” McMillen said. “And as a singer-songwriter, the most important thing is connecting.”
When she and her band try to find a connection with the crowd in Palmyra on Saturday, they’ll do so with a mix of original tunes that fans will recognize, a few covers and the new stuff that’s already completed. McMillen said she hopes to start a new crowdfunding campaign in the next few weeks, record her first full-length record over the summer in Virginia, possibly at White Star Sound and finish the LP by the end of the summer.
After that, who knows?
“I think the goal is to just become a better and better songwriter, which almost happens by osmosis by being [in Nashville],” she said. “Then I would love to be on a major tour. The cool thing about being a songwriter and performer is I can go out on the road by myself or with a full band. And the beautiful thing about writing your own songs is I could be 50 years old and someone could pick up one of my tunes and I could shoot to the moon.”
McMillen didn’t stay long as a local, but it was this little home of Americana and other musical oddballs that embraced her as a country artist. She said she misses the scene here and is excited even for one night to get back to it. Small as it is, it helped her find a big voice.
What cover song do you want Ashley to sing? Tell us in the comments.