Review by Andy Hawes for MPM
It is no secret that I am a huge fan of Ashley McBryde’s work. From the moment I saw the video of her solo acoustic performance of the title track of her debut album, Girl Going Nowhere performance at the Grand Old Opry, I was hooked.
Here was an artist who doesn’t look like all the typical female Country stars, being all tattoos, jeans and t-shirts rather than glitz and glamour, who doesn’t rely on the overly pop-oriented corporate Nashville ‘hit-machine’ sounds and styles and who writes quite stunningly real and honest lyrics about the darker and dirtier side of life: an artist who has dragged herself through the dive bars and hell holes because she wants this so much.
In short, she’s taking the essence of what Country music should be and is bringing it bang up to date for the 21st century.
I reviewed her 2020 Never Will album for this site and am stoked to be able to review this one, The Devil I Know also.
This might just be Ashley’s strongest album yet. Lyrically it hits even harder than previous albums and, given that she’s just celebrated a year of sobriety, I do wonder if some of the lyrics in here are worryingly autobiographical from her past life excesses. I guess only she will ever know the truth of it, but reading between the lines, I’m figuring that some of this album came dredged out of some dark places, but worry not, it’s not a depressing affair. Far from it.
Opener ‘Made For This’ is a sobering tale of what it means to be a performer on the road in 2023. All the joys and the pain of that nomadic lifestyle are lurking within the grooves of this monstrous anthem which combines powerfully rocking guitar riffs and Country twang to perfection.
The drum part beneath it is frantic, urgent and faithfully replicates the adrenalin-fuelled rush of the performer’s gigging life. Unashamedly autobiographical, it rocks out big time. Throw in a screaming Classic Rock-influenced guitar solo and you’ve pretty much got the perfect opener!
‘Coldest Beer In Town’ drops the big Rock sound and brings in some quite wonderful acoustic guitar and mandolin in a tale of the bitter realities of life. Yet despite this apparently negative theme, the melodies are quite wonderfully joyful and the chorus is absolutely huge! It’s almost as if Ashley is celebrating the imperfections that life can bring, which is itself a powerful message.
‘Light On In The Kitchen’ is next and is utterly stunning. The whole song is a list of ‘good advice’ statements such as one might receive from a parent. But more than that, it’s an uplifting, heart-warming message about how to live a good life and is absolutely brilliant in its simplicity and directness.
If we could all live like that, the world would be a better place! The production on this track (courtesy of one of the best producers in Nashville, Jay Joyce) is stunning, with every instrument having tons of room to breathe. Beautifully simple yet breathtakingly effective.
‘Women Ain’t Whiskey’ brings a Rock vibe back in amongst the acoustic instrumentation and is another lyrical masterpiece telling someone that he can’t treat his woman the way he would his whiskey. It’s another powerful message and the more Rock-oriented sound works perfectly. This song also showcases the brilliant backing vocals of mandolin player/acoustic guitarist Chris Harris whose voice blends so well with Ashley’s throughout.
‘Learned To Lie’ is up next and is a quite brilliant piece of modern Country detailing the impact of an unstable early family life. “I wish I’d learned to love the same way I learned to lie” being the punchline of the chorus. Powerful stuff indeed!
One of the great things about producer Jay Joyce is that he does not do the traditional Nashville trick of using the session giants on these records, but rather he uses the artists’ own backing bands. This means that you get a wonderfully real and almost ‘well-produced live’ feel to the songs and a totally honest interpretation.
This has been prevalent on all the tracks so far and is very evident on ‘The Devil I Know’ which starts off all acoustic and gentle before the huge Telecaster power chords scythe in. The first chorus in this one is also delivered in a genius fashion – everything dropping out to a lo-fi understated rendition which only serves to add more power to the song. This is gonna be a killer track live for sure!
“Single At The Same Time’ shifts gear completely. It is an incredibly delicate affair, with a laid-back beauty and gentleness that is so tricky to achieve. Lyrically it is a tale of two people who should have been together but never were and never can be. You’d think that it would be quite depressing, but it isn’t at all. Instead, there is a beautifully understated yearning and whimsical ‘what might have been’ about it. It is quite the most beautiful song I have heard in absolutely ages. Ashley’s vocal delivery and the harmony vocals are just perfect. Absolutely wonderful stuff!
‘Cool Little Bars’ is up next and is perhaps the weakest track on here. That said, it’s still a delight and talks about those lovely little gems of bars in small towns that are disappearing in the modern world and it bemoans this fact. Musically it’s another acoustic-led Country song with some interesting percussion effects behind the acoustic guitars and mandolins.
‘Whiskey and Country Music’ kicks in with a very cool Country Blues 6/8 shuffle vibe with some delicious Telecaster picking from guitarist Matt Helmkamp, while Ashley sings about the practice of using whiskey and classic Country to take the edge off heartache. Although this is an oft-heard lyrical theme, I can’t help but feel that there’s a lot of truth to this one and this is reinforced by the themes of the following track, ‘Blackout Betty’ who is clearly someone whose relationship with alcohol has gone way over the edge.
The hard-edged almost Hard Rock guitars and pounding drums accentuate the horrors within the lyrics. Lyrically, it’s not a comfortable listen but it is incredibly well-written and the infectious melodies and roaring guitars in the choruses and the searing solo drive the messages home. Powerful stuff indeed!
‘6th October’ closes the album with a classic Country track which seems to be about the death of someone close and the impact of that on the main protagonist. Again, despite the potentially negative themes, Ashley somehow manages to turn a positive spin on it and the gentle acoustic guitars and wonderful mandolin playing elevate this far, far above the ordinary.
This is one great album! It’s a brilliant example of what makes the best of modern Country music great. The writing is honest, real and powerful. The performances and production are sparklingly perfect without being soulless and dry.
There’s a life and energy to the songs that adds to the honesty in the lyricism. It also operates outside the typical mainstream, yet fits seamlessly within it – Ashley McBryde is one of that rare breed who can fly in the face of the Nashville corporate hit-machine and still sell bucketloads of albums, sell out tours and win awards.
She’s touring over here in early 2024 and if previous tours are anything to go by, that will be one awesome thing to witness. Essential album from one of the best Country artists out there right now.
New album The Devil I Know out now!
For tour dates and more information visit:
· Website: AshleyMcBryde.com
· Facebook: www.facebook.com/AshleyMcBryde
· Instagram: @ashleymcbryde
· Twitter: @AshleyMcBryde