When Ashley McBryde enters a room, it's like the world stops.
In the presence of such a revered tunesmith and, let's be honest, one of the truest badasses in country music, you can't help but drop everything and gawk.
That was the exact run of events when McBryde glided onto the grounds of Pilgrimage Festival on a picturesque Sunday afternoon as the hustle and bustle came to a halt.
Before taking to the festival's main-stage for her dazzling early evening performance, the Arkansas native, who proudly wears her heart – and a stunning collection of tattoos – on her sleeve, looked back on the creation of her third record, The Devil I Know.
Since releasing her little song that could, 'A Little Dive Bar in Dahlonega,' in 2017, the Arkansas native has become a strong and steady mainstay in the country genre.
From her Grammy-nominated debut record, Girl Going Nowhere, to her celebrated sophomore effort, Never Will, and the critically acclaimed concept project, Ashley McBryde Presents: Lindeville, McBryde has spent the last seven years forging her own artistic path and racking up her fair share of accolades while she was at it.
Though she’s never scored a solo No. 1 at Country Radio – or even a top 10 (‘One Night Standards’ peaked at No. 11) – the stars seem to be aligning for the seasoned entertainer as The Devil I Know and its contemplative, guitar-soaked lead single, 'Light On In The Kitchen', continue to permeate the country charts and the hearts of fans far and wide.
While another artist of her caliber may have churned out a series of polished answers to questions surrounding their “creative process”, McBryde offered Holler an authentic and insightful peek behind the curtain, delving into some of the song's gut-wrenching origins, as well as the introspective discoveries she and her collaborators made along the way.
With the utmost charm and sincerity, and without an ounce of fear around exposing the heart behind these songs and her craft, our chat with the Grammy-award winning vocalist left us in awe.
As we said in our review of The Devil I Know, she opens the album by explaining that you have to be 'Made For This,' and at every turn Ashley McBryde effortlessly proves that she is.
Tell me about the writing process behind The Devil I Know. When did it start and how did it come together?
I think we started with 90 songs and I needed to get that down to about 15 before I went to my band. Then we went to The Purple Building in East Nashville and arranged everything ourselves. We went in and recorded it over two weeks.
There were songs that I thought, “Well, these are so country, this is probably a record [in] itself”, or “These are so rock leaning, this is probably a different record.” We eventually just said, “What if they all belong on the same record? What does it look like if we put all of these songs in the same live set?” And it works!
We really doubled down on the ‘too country’ thing, and the ‘too rock ‘n’ roll’ thing, and the ‘too tender’ thing. I even got shit from songwriter peers that said, “We all know you do the fingerpicking thing. You don't need to do that on this record.” I was like, “I'm pretty sure that's how I got to make records!” You always have to honor that.
You can really hear that on ‘Single At the Same Time’.
Holy shit! That song is so vulnerable and you're telling on yourself.
I wrote that one with Benjy Davis and Andy Albert at the kitchen table. As we were writing it, we could tell that each of the three of us has someone who applies to that song.
We love and respect each other enough not to ask, so now when people ask who it’s about, I say, ‘“You gotta be out of your mind.” Even if I wasn't one of the writers of that song, if I was an artist who interpreted that song and felt the connection to sing, I still wouldn’t tell you!
Like you touched on, the album feels like equal parts you; it’s got country, rock, vulnerability, all of it. I think there's something special between you and Jay Joyce, as he was the producer behind your last two albums. What is it about him and his style that draws you in?
I love that Jay is a rock ‘n’ roll guy, and if I bring him something that's rock-leaning, he's not going to try to neuter that in any way. He's not going to try to over-countrify something that's not country.
If I am on the fence about if a song is right for a project, I’ll just play it for Jay. If his reaction is, “I don't know if I want to cut that song”, that frees me up to trust myself on where my instincts are and where my compass is.
I don't think I ever expect Jay to act other than the way Jay acts, and I don't think he ever expects me to act other than the way I act, which results in a lot of trust.
You’ve mentioned that ‘Light On In The Kitchen’ was one of those songs that you loved so much that you didn't think it was going to make the record. Why is that?
That's what happens. You get these songs that you just treat so precious, and it was that way on Never Will. I had two songs that I knew I wanted to build that record around, and those are the only two songs that aren't on that album.
I wrote ‘Light On In The Kitchen’ with Connie Harrington and Jessi Alexander. From writing to recording it was over a yearlong process and I'd been in love with it the whole time, but I knew it was going to be the one that we sat down, listened back to everything and went “That one doesn't belong. It's too tender, too soft.”
However, not only did it stay on the record, but it became the lead single, which of course is the best life that a song can hope for.
Why do you think that one has such a special place in your heart?
Connie threw out that phrase, ‘light on in the kitchen’. We were examining that and writing all around that idea, but we were trying to figure out how we were going to land on that phrase. We had said things like “boys are dumb” and “always have a place to do some cryin’ and some bitchin’ that's why I leave a light on in the kitchen”.
The way it felt once we got to the hook at the very end of the song, it was like “Oh, God! All this time, that's why the light has been on in my kitchen!”
We were just writing a sweet song of things that we had been told and that we would love to tell other young ladies and gentlemen. It was a little discovery and I love watching it happen with live audiences now, too. I call it the ‘oof’ because the very first time that comes around in the song, you can see the crowd go ‘oof’ in such a good way.
‘Learned To Lie’ is a tough one. What was that one like to write and record?
That one was harsh. Nicolette Hayford came in that day already with the first stanza. She said, “I was channeling you last night. Here's what I came up with.”
When she got to the end of that phrase – “She said she was tired because babies make you tired / But deep down, she was really unhappy” – I was like, ouch! If that’s the ballpit we are about to play in, then we owe it to whoever else has ever felt this way to go all the way in and just peel your skin back.
It hurts to sing it live, and it hurts to listen to it on the record, and that's okay.
Would you say that was the hardest or the most compelling song for you to write and then put on the record?
Yeah, because when you put it on the record, you're committing to singing it almost every night for the next however many years. And depending on if it's widely consumed, heavily streamed or used in a film or something like that, you're gonna have to perform it extra.
When you're singing it, that song feels like someone is prying each rib just a little loose from where it should be. You have to make sure that you're willing to go through that every time you sing it, and I was.
I noticed in the album credits that you have a co-write with Lainey Wilson on ‘Cool Little Bars’.
I would love to talk about that because Lainey is a terrific writer!
On this day, it was me, Lainey and our buddy, Trick Savage. I've had this phrase in my little notebook forever that said, ‘When the last of all the good ones are gone’. We're discussing whether that means cowboys, guitar players or what, and I said, ‘All the bars that made me who I am here in Nashville are all gone. They're all virtually useless now because they're just full of bachelorette parties’. Then I thought that makes the places that are still super unique that much more important and that much more special.
We started talking about the places I like to be rowdy at in Kentucky, and I asked Lainey about Louisiana and Trick is from Oklahoma. I asked, ‘Is there a place where the tabletops are still sticky and there’s literally still a pickle jar? Do those places still exist?’ We thought we would celebrate them before the last of all the good ones are gone.
You might show your cards, but where are your cool little bars in Nashville?
It used to be Losers and Blue Bar, which literally doesn't exist anymore. I also loved The Rusty Nail in Hermitage.
In the last two or three years, it's been mostly Mickey's in East Nashville. I love everything in East Nashville, because it isn't the big box store version of anything.
That’s true. No one goes to Mickey’s for a bachelorette party.
If they did, they would be asked to leave immediately. Or they would say, ‘You can stay, but you have to take your stupid sashes off and you can only drink beer. Here's the menu, your choices are ham sandwich or turkey sandwich’.
The day we wrote ‘Cool Little Bars’, most of what I was pulling from was the cigarette machine that still exists in Losers and the vibe inside Mickey's.
You recently opened for Dierks Bentley at Red Rocks.
Yes! That was my second time at Red Rocks and I will play anytime because it’s just magical.
Can you explain why?
It's spiritual. These rocks are just jutting up out of the ground, and I don't care who you believe put them there, but something put them there and it just happens to be perfect for live music.
You're in the midst of all these giant rocks and you feel so tiny and yet so seen at the same time. It's not an eerie feeling, it's just kind of an out-of-body feeling.
The Devil I Know Tour is keeping you busy for the next few months. What are you looking forward to from that trek?
We have been designing this show for months in different stages, which we do with post-it notes on the walls of the bus. We write all the songs down, including everything from this record and then everything we want to make sure we keep in the live show from the other two records.
Then we thought, ‘Well, how many of the songs from the new record will we put on there?’ I said, ‘11. Let's work it out’.
I've never designed a set that, arc-wise, went in this direction. Normally, you can look at any setlist and see what that arc is. You can see where the energy needs to dip and where it needs to rise, and I just thought, ‘What if we pay no attention to the rules that we've created for ourselves? What are the other possibilities?’
It might be backwards as hell, but we will find out!
Ashley McBryde's third album, The Devil I Know, is available now via Warner Music Nashville.
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