Ashley McBryde on Keeping Country Music Honest With New ‘Devil I Know’ Album: ‘I Don’t Sing Anything That’s Not True’

“I don’t know when we decided to let people write songs about things that they don’t do,” says country star Ashley McBryde. “As far as the singer-songwriter sentiment, I don’t know when we stopped demanding that of ourselves. Because I don’t sing anything that’s not true. And if I talk about having hoed a row, it’s because I have hoed a row.”

There is not much row-hoeing, mind you, on McBryde’s new album, “The Devil I Know” — but there is a lot of bar-hopping and road-dogging, and more importantly, a lot of tender and tough emotions that ring up as thoroughly authentic. Only five years into her recording career, she has come to be seen as such a hero in the country that it feels like she’s been around as a bulwark for at least twice that long, fortifying the music’s realness. “The Devil I Know” is only her third official release for Warner Nashville… not counting the conceptually ambitious various-artists side project she led last year, “Ashley McBryde Presents: Lindeville.” But the faithful already knew it would be one of the genre’s most satisfying efforts in 2023 even before she actually delivered on that promise with emotional ballads like her current single, “Light in the Kitchen,” pure barnburners like “Made for This,” or actual heart-destroyers like “Learned to Lie.”

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Prior to the album’s release Variety talked with McBryde (who just picked up four CMA Awards nominations, including her fourth straight nod for female vocalist of the year) about some of the highlights of “The Devil I Know” and her standard-bearer-ship in country music.

To talk about your current single, “Light on in the Kitchen”: There are not a lot of songs on country radio right now that are about women’s intergenerational family relationships. So you have to know that that’s going to stand out thematically, and you must feel good that that fills a void.  

Yeah. It’s nice to have that point of view represented, for sure, because this song was written by three women about a conversation had between an older woman and a younger woman. And I’m not gonna burn my bra or anything, or be like “Only women matter.” But it is nice to have that represented in a time where mostly what is represented is a guy in a ball cap that screams about beer all the time. Although we have to have that represented, too, because it seems like it must be the vast majority of our listeners.

But what’s been interesting to me is playing this song live and watching men’s reactions. This could easily be a song from a father to a son or an uncle to a nephew. And so the vast reach of it has been really fun to watch. I love looking out over the crowd every night. I saw it recently in Nevada where it was just very noticeable, very tangible, that this mom had her arms around her daughter, all the way wrapped up around her, and was singing the words into her hair. And just the visual of a mom with her daughter in her arms, singing loud, “Trust yourself and love yourself,” it’s just really fucking cool to watch that conversation happen — not just at her kitchen table, right?

The video for “Light on in the Kitchen” is striking, too. It at least creates the illusion of all being shot as one take.

It’s one take. It is. It took all fucking day, because it’s one take. When (director) Reid Long was like, “Yeah, I’d like to shoot it all in one continuous take.” I really didn’t understand what that was gonna require of us. And we’re in this big sound studio, and on one corner there’s a bedroom, and on one corner there’s the kitchen setup, and on one corner there’s the projector… Ee had to rehearse it over and over and over, and then I think we did 14 passes. Because everything would be perfect, but I got half a syllable late to a word, or the mandolin player moved over a little bit and so it wasn’t consistent. And it was really impressive. If you could just hear what was happening in the background…  The song is so serene and so peaceful, and here we were, trying to execute it as if it were a military drill. But I loved everything about making that video.

The video has the twist at the end where your real mom is there.

It was great. I called her one afternoon, maybe a week and a half before we filmed the video and I said, “Hey, I was just wondering would you have any interest in making a cameo in the video of ‘Light on in the Kitchen’?” My mom is such a wonderful person, and she’s the most gentle human I’ve ever met in my whole life. But after one of the takes, I sat down at the table with her and was just like, “How are you feeling, mom?” She goes, “I’m pretty hangry, honey.” Is that the term? Hangry? [Laughs.] I was like, “All right, I’m gonna get you some snacks.”

Another really impactful song on the new album is “Single at the Same Time.” Maybe it’s not a completely universal emotion for everyone, but it’s got to be close to it — that feeling people have where they feel like they could have been romantic with a friend of the opposite sex if only one or the other of them hadn’t been already hooked up or married or otherwise entangled. It’s one of those songs that describes something so common, you think: How did no one write that song before?

That one’s fun to watch people react to, too, because especially if it’s in an intimate setting, you can tell if the person listening has one of those people in their life. We talked about this yesterday among the band. Three bandmates and I were designing the fall show in the front of the bus, which we do with Post-It notes — which I think is adorable — and we were talking about “Single at the Same Time.” And one of my bandmates said, “I could name probably two female friends of mine that I’ve been friends with for years and will continue to be friends with for the rest of my life. And if they called me right now and said, ‘I want to be with you,’ I would be like, ‘Absolutely.’ And it’s always gonna feel that way.” So, it’s really interesting to watch people listen to it, because there’s a certain look on their face, or a certain depth of the breath that they take when they hear “Single at the Same Time” for the first time. And I’m like, “Oh, my. Got you! You have one.” It’s precious.

Another one that will really get people emotionally is “Learned to Lie” — just really kind of a country song that hits the heart. It will have some resonance for anyone who’s learned to live with little white lies — which is probably most of us — let alone somebody who is maybe an inveterate denier of something that is fundamentally wrong in their life on an ongoing basis. You have described it as being pretty much 100% true about watching the unhealthy relationship between your parents, and the kind of bad modeling you took from that. You’ve mentioned played it for your mom and your stepdad with a little bit of a warning. What was that like, playing that autobiographical of a song for your mom?

That was tough. I FaceTimed her and talked her through the lyrics, and I said, “This one’s gonna sting quite a bit, but there’s nothing that’s untrue in the song.” And she kind of put her chin down a little bit — not in defeat, but like, “OK. OK.” When I said, “He said he was working late, but he was working late fogging up the windows of an ‘89 Sable,” Mom was like, “Yeah, that son of a bitch.”

My stepdad is just such a hilarious guy, and at every turn he’s making you laugh. He’s been the most wonderful example of what a man should be like in your life since I was about 19. And as Mom is feeling very heavy and breathing very deeply, I looked over at him, and he just kind of smiles and nods or does some sort of hilarious gesture. And he just says things like, “That’s good, baby.” Which I didn’t have a lot of in my life. My father never really referred to me as his daughter or his baby or his princess or anything even remotely close to that. And my stepdad has always done that.

So that was tough, but I think it does what country music does so well. It opens up space for healing, just to acknowledge that. And I’m literally telling my parents that what was modeled for me was how to be a gifted deceiver and how to completely ignore your needs for the sake of someone else’s. But in acknowledging that, I gave my mother the opportunity to say, “Yeah, that was what was modeled for you. That son of a bitch. And shame on me, too. I love you. And I’m sorry that it was that way. I hope now that I’ve taught you other things as well.” And I’m like, “Oh, for sure, for sure.”

And that sentiment is just: “God, I wish I was as wide open and good at loving as I was at deceiving my whole life.” And there is only one thing in the song that is not entirely accurate. I don’t know if my dad’s car was a Sable or if it was a Camry —  I cannot remember. But we did make sure that Sables were alive and well in 1989.

On a slightly lighter note, let’s talk about “Cool Little Bars.” It’s a literal prayer that not everything in the world gets redeveloped, especially our favorite dives. Lainey Wilson is a co-writer on that. Can you talk about that song, about the sentiment of it and how you ended up co-writing with Lainey?

I’ve been writing with Lainey since she got to town (about a decade ago). I think the first one we wrote together was me and Lainey Wilson and Kasey Tyndall, and we wrote a song, “Bar That’s Open,” where the sentiment was, “For every heart that’s broken, there’s a bar that’s open.” It was a ton of fun, and I think Kasey released that as a single. Now, after two friends decide that they’re both going the path of the artist, the days of you getting together every other week are gonna be over. But we managed to get back in the room — me and Lainey and Trick Savage, who I’ve just written a ton with. He lives in Tulsa and comes to town every couple weeks and just murders it the whole time.

I think I might’ve said, “I’ve got this idea for ‘the last of all the good ones are gone, and I don’t mean men and I don’t mean cowboys…’ I meant every place that I hung when I moved to town in 2005, when there were all these amazing places to go. After you’d been at a co-write all day, around 3 or 4 p.m., you’d go to one of these little shitholes that were amazing, to talk about your day. That was networking, and it was just part of the job, and it was wonderful. And I’ve watched those all disappear, whjere they’ve put two more stories on ’em and made ’em a rooftop, and then made ’em a destination for bachelorette parties, which is the same thing as the electric chair for the vibe of any place. It’s just the death of it for anybody who has any hope of having an authentic, regular go-to-a-bar experience. They’ve done that or they’ve knocked them down.

So we talked about that just a little bit. Where I was living in East Nashville, there was a really cool bar, Pike — very small, very narrow. I love that place. It’s kind of dark and it smells kinda weird and the tables are kind of sticky. And then we were thinking about Losers in midtown, before it went the way of the bachelorette party. There was still a physical cigarette machine where you could put your money in and pull the thing out and buy cigarettes. Then we talked about bars that Lainey loves in around the regions that she first started playing music in. And I spent a lot of time in Kentucky, and there are still these bars that are just so awesome. We need to celebrate those while we still have ’em. And I don’t get to go and find these places locally as much as I would like to while we’re on tour now. But anytime we get to, I go and I have whatever their signature cocktail is. Normally my go-to is, whatever bar you go into, to have their old-fashioned. That’s not because I’m snotty; it’s just because it has (basic) ingredients and steps to make it. It’s like judging a pizza place by its cheese pizza, right?

But Jay thought it was a sad song when we were trying to cut it in the studio, and he just kept getting mad. He was like, “I don’t like this song and I don’t get it.” We had tried it in August of the previous year, and then we were gonna try again in February to cut this song. And he said, “Man, I just don’t get it. Can you just sit down and play it, (instead of) the work tape?” So I just sat down and started picking and he told Chris (Harris, her guitarist), “Go grab a bouzouki and play.” This is the second day ever in his life that Chris has played bouzouki! And then Jay’s like, “Bring me a guitar and we’ll just jam like we would on your porch, and then eventually, I’ll fucking understand this song!” The next thing I know, my drummer, who is a big caveman-looking guy, is walking around with the tiniest djembe I’ve ever seen in my life tucked under his armpit, and he’s tapping on it. And this is how that track gets built. Lo and behold, holy shit, now we’ve captured by accident, sonically, the way it feels to be in those bars. Even though it doesn’t make any sense for a bouzouki to be in a song about a bar; this isn’t medieval times. I just love the sound of bouzouki; it’s basically just a large mandolin. But, I’m listening back to it going, holy shit, I love this.

That is what it feels like to be in one of those places. And when we play it live, by the second time we say “cool little bars,” everyone is singing along. And what’s the old advice? I heard it in the Hall of Fame one time: “Say whatever you want in the verse, and give ’em a chorus they can sing along to.” I think we nailed it on that one.

OK, I had wondered if that song stemmed from thinking about Nashville redevelopment specifically crowding out the cool old places, even though it could ring true almost anywhere.

Yeah, I can’t speak for Lainey, because she moved to town after I did. But it’s just all of the reasons that made Nashville wonderful and so real for people like myself, because they just got sold, and that’s sad. So it’s up to us now to be those things that make Nashville actually still Music City.

So many people consider you a hero of country music. And there are others, even among some of the people you’ve been associated with, like Lainey or Carly Pearce, who are also seen as heroes in their own fashion in terms of really keeping an artistic level of country music alive. You’re able to bring this embedded singer-songwriter sensibility, along with rocking things out. Do you think about how people hold you up as an exemplar of what it should be about, and is that either a burden or a joy?

It feels like a big responsibility. And I’m not constantly aware of it, because I’m always trying to get a crowd’s attention during the show. I’m always trying to create a cool space for everybody to have a good time. I’m always trying to prove that we’re worth listening to constantly. And according to my therapist — who I’ll speak to in about 30 minutes — I don’t have to do that anymore. She was like, “How many Grammys do you have to win before you’re like, ‘I am this’?” And I was like, “Whatever — I gotta go write some songs.”

But I do really enjoy getting to do some mentorship and meet even more fresh, new upcoming artists and sit around and talk to them. With Lainey, she was like, “Well, what advice can you give me… just, like, immediately?” And I said: “Never, ever, ever run out of baby wipes. There will be days where you’re at festivals and fairs and you don’t get to shower, for days at a time. Please, honey, never run out of baby wipes. Once the bus smells like feet, it, it smells like feet.”

But it has been really humbling… and I don’t say that in like a social media way, with a hashtag. It has been a really humbling thing to be placed in that position from time to time. So to think of that as someone eventually saying (they were inspired to do this) to me and Lainey and Carly, that feels like we’re carrying on the best part of tradition.

And I don’t know when we decided to let people write songs about things that they don’t do. As far as like the singer-songwriter sentiment, I don’t know when we stopped demanding that of ourselves. Because I don’t sing anything that’s not true. And if I talk about having hoed a row, it’s because I have hoed a row. I think it’s really interesting to hear somebody who was born with a silver spoon in their mouth talk about how hard it is to grow tobacco, when you couldn’t identify a tobacco plant if I showed it to you in a lineup, sir. And I don’t have any specific grievances there. I just think the singer-songwriter portion of what we do is the most important part of what we do in country music.

You do a good job of upholding that — even though, as you said, it’s at least equal responsibility to know how to whip up a crowd. It’s like a lot of things to hold in balance, where you’re going to bring the party and you’re also going to break some hearts.

Oh, I’m gonna write that down. I’m going to say that to my band tonight before we get on stage: Let’s bring the party and break some hearts.

You’ve got it intuitively down. Thank you — hope this helps provide a segue into your therapist in a half-hour.

Yeah, it’s beautiful. I’ll be in a great mood. She’ll be like, “This is nice!”

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