The Devil Ashley McBryde Knows

Ashley McBryde knows she has a lot to live up to with her fourth studio album, The Devil I Know, which was released on September 8 via Warner Music Nashville. After blazing onto the country music scene with the critically acclaimed Girl Going Nowhere (2018), she won New Female Artist of the Year at the ACM Awards, and then New Artist of the Year at the CMA Awards. In 2022, Garth Brooks invited her to become a member of the Grand Ole Opry. In February, she won a Grammy Award for her duet with Carly Pearce, “Never Wanted to Be That Girl,” In other words, she’s set the bar about as high as it can be for a country artist. 

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But that doesn’t mean she’s going to start curbing her nonconformist streak in the name of pursuing success.

So, she says, The Devil I Know refers to “every version of me that ever existed. And the version that exists now wouldn’t have been possible without the me that drank too much, without the me that had never been to therapy and just punched people in the face if she thought that was the right thing to do.”

It’s also an honest assessment of her life as a touring musician: “The devil I know is that I love being on the road—I was built for it,” she says. “There have been years where I didn’t care if I came home for an afternoon. I just wanted to be out on the road. I’m really thankful for that. But I also know that this devil will take things from you: being present with your family, many relationships, and sometimes your mental health and your physical health.”

Though this album represents where McBryde is in her life now, it also contains elements of her past. That’s because every time she makes a record, McBryde and her band revisit all the songs that didn’t end up on their previous releases, seeing if they can rework them into a form that finally feels right to release.

For her last album, Ashley McBryde Presents: Lindeville (2022), she and a group of friends basically set up their own songwriters’ retreat in a secluded cabin. But her hectic touring schedule once everything reopened as the pandemic eased meant the songwriting process for The Devil I Know would be more complicated. “It was just a really strange year of trying to tour and write at the same time; it’s so hard to get things to line up…but the songs find their way to you,” she says.

She managed to set up co-writing sessions with, as she calls them, “an incredible group of writers… Every writer on this record, I would stand in front of a moving train for.” Then she laughs and amends that to “at least a car going real fast.” In the end, she completed various tracks with a “Who’s Who” of songwriters, including John Osborne, Lee Thomas Miller, Hillary Lindsey, Bobby Pinson, Jeremy Stover, Nicolette Hayford, Benjy Davis, and Andy Albert.

When she wrote “Light on in the Kitchen” with Connie Harrington and Jessi Alexander, they immediately knew they had something particularly special. “We started throwing ideas out, just seeing which dog’s gonna hunt,” she says, “and Connie comes out with the phrase, ‘a light on in the kitchen.’ We all thought, ‘Yeah, there’s always a light on at my mom’s kitchen, and Aunt Gloria’s, and mine.’ Probably not by accident or coincidence. What was the light on in the kitchen for? The more we talked and the deeper we were able to dive, we realized that that light being on meant so many more things than we ever realized.”

For example, she says, “My mom always left the light on in the kitchen because that was her way to tell me nonverbally, with no effort, ‘I love you, I am thinking about you, I am here for you anytime. The light is on.’”

Taking this seemingly simple gesture and uncovering its deeper meaning is something of a trademark for McBryde. Her lyrics can be heartrendingly tender one song, then unflinchingly biting the next—but either way, they’re always focused on the kinds of moments in life that everyone, at some point, will probably experience and understand.

“I think the relatability is just in the normalcy of it,” McBryde says of her lyrics. “If I feel this way about something, well, I’m not that special, I’m not unique. That means other people feel that way or have felt that way. That’s the thing that I want to write.” She adds that she also doesn’t want to spend too much time polishing her work: “I really hate slick.” 

“Learned to Lie” is another poignant new track, “where I literally talk about the fact that my father was not the most faithful man ever in his career of being married to the people that he was married to. And my father is a good man.” McBryde also wrote her 2016 song “Bible and a .44” about him, which also explores his dichotomous traits. “I think what makes it resonate so well is that I’ll show you both sides. I used to joke with my friends and say, ‘The difference between your demons and mine is, I’ll show you mine.’”

In this approach, McBryde was highly influenced by singer/songwriter Travis Meadows and his sometimes harrowing accounts of being a recovering addict, especially on his 2011 album Killin’ Uncle Buzzy. After hearing his work for the first time, she remembers thinking, “This is a songwriter.” (On The Devil I Know, Meadows co-wrote the track “Made for This” with her.) 

She wondered how she could emulate Meadows and other ultra-honest artists like him who wrote, as she puts it, songs that “tug at the meat that is between your ribs.” Then she realized the answer: “It’s because they were willing to be uncomfortable. They were willing to be so honest that it makes you a little bit uncomfortable.” She has followed their example ever since.

She has also maintained a steadfastly eclectic approach to her music. Though firmly rooted in country, her songs often feature aspects of rock, blues, and folk. She trusts her gut instinct when deciding which songs belong on a particular album—or not. “You go, ‘No, that doesn’t fit on this record.’ I wish there was a name for that feeling. It’s sort of like, you just put your hand down on the counter, and then you lifted your hand up and there’s something sticky on your finger and you don’t know why, and that’s a little bit icky. You’re like, ‘I don’t really know why, but I don’t want this here.’

“But when you have chosen the right songs, so far in my experience, you start to see why they make sense together instead of trying to force them,” she continues. “There’s a theme, whether you’ve meant to do it or not, that presents itself.”

McBryde recalls having a special talent for understanding the inner workings of music right from the start. Growing up in small-town Arkansas, her father was her first guitar teacher, but she quickly realized she could easily figure out how to play songs by ear. She took this as a clear sign that she was supposed to be a musician. “It never really seemed like an option not to, in my little heart and my little soul,” she says.

Still, she admits that, for a while, she considered becoming an educator instead—she thought she could be a good school band director because she loves to see young children pick up instruments for the very first time.

To that end, she went to Arkansas State University, where she studied the French horn. But she ended up dropping out and moving to Nashville because she simply couldn’t quiet the inner voice that kept urging her to give her country music dreams a shot. “It always chewed on me like a rat stuck in a trap,” she says. “I mean, it was just like, you have to do this. If you don’t do this, your chest is going to cave in on itself.”

In Nashville, she took any gig she could get, playing everything from biker bars to “battle of the bands” shows. After she performed at a festival with Johnny Lee and the Urban Cowboy Band, Lee pulled her aside. “He said, ‘You’ve got the bug, and I wanted to tell you that I noticed. You could try to do this the rest of your life and never make it big, and it won’t matter to anybody. But if you ever stop trying, it will matter to you for the rest of your life.’ It’s the best advice I’ve ever been given.”

With all the success she has achieved so far, McBryde herself is now in a position to give advice to aspiring songwriters—and she does, with her trademark straightforward honesty: “If you think you maybe should do this for a living, if you think maybe you could—go find something else to do. 

“But if you think that you might die if you don’t, [then] you absolutely should be doing this—but it’s got to be something that powerful because there will be things that will be your undoing if you aren’t. If it’s not really in you, missing weddings and surgeries and funerals and birthdays will eventually become too much, and you will have damaged those portions of your life in vain. But if you can handle it and appreciate it for the things it gives you, and respect it for the things it costs you, then welcome, and we are so glad you’re here.”

Calling all Ashley McBryde fans! Brace yourself for an electrifying experience at Ashley Mcbryde 2024 tour. Secure your spot today and create lasting memories with one of the industry’s brightest stars.

All photos by Katie Kauss

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