How blessed we are to have a woman at the top of mainstream country who is so discriminating when it comes to songwriting. When Ashley McBryde looks up the food chain, she doesn’t see arena stars like Luke Bryan or Jason Aldean, she sees songwriters like Lori McKenna and Hank Cochran. Her goal may still be to play to arenas full of adoring fans and to entertain them. But she wants to do so with songs that actually mean something.
McBryde doubled down on her commitment to songs and songwriters with her last album, the collaborative Ashley McBryde Presents: Lindeville. It sold terrible, and her label approached it as more of a side project despite critics raving over it and the Grammy Awards giving it a nomination. The day before this new McBryde album The Devil I Know came out, Lindeville was nominated for the CMA Album of the Year, and McBryde was nominated for Female Vocalist of the Year.
Lindeville was a career achievement for Ashley McBryde, and a landmark release for modern country music. Why it wasn’t taken more seriously and promoted feels like a travesty, but apparently her label sees The Devil I Know as the album with better commercial prospects. It probably is, but McBryde’s insistence on quality songs does not waver.
Ashley McBryde’s strong suit is taking snapshots from the everyday lives of average working people, and gracing them with unadorned, plainspoken, but deeply potent songwriting poetry. Country wisdom and colloquial truths is what she deals in, making songs like “Coldest Beer in Town,” “Cool Little Bars,” and the album’s lead single “Light On In The Kitchen” work without resorting to flash or formula.
There may not be any $700 words or riddles to unwind, but Ashley McBryde’s “Learned To Lie” co-written with Nicolette Hayford and Sean McConnell is a killer testament to the kind of songs McBryde writes and champions. They’re songs that make you realize things about yourself you may have never reflected on before, including sometimes things that are scary and dark, but are worth bringing out of the shadows to expose and reflect upon.
The producer for The Devil I Know is Jay Joyce, who is famous (or notorious) for shifting country projects more into the rock territory. His work with Ashley McBryde has been no different. At one point McBryde said about this album, playfully mocking her critics, “‘Y’all are too country.’ We leaned into that – more country it is. ‘Y’all are awfully rock leaning for a country artist.’ Is that so? You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”
The Devil I Know definitely has some country songs like “Women Ain’t Whiskey” and the 3/4 time “Whiskey and Country Music.” But where McBryde’s last solo studio album Never Will (2020) seemed surprisingly country compared to other Jay Joyce productions, the rock attitude is really ratcheted up on this new one, at times rendering it interruptive to what’s supposed to be the centerpiece of Ashley McBryde: the songs.
“The Devil I Know” is written to be a great little country song and starts off that way. But by the end of the song it succumbs to so much wank off rock guitar, McBryde feels like she’s pushed to the backline. Even on “Whiskey and Country Music,” it ends with a weird devolving diminuendo because they just couldn’t let it be a straightforward and unencumbered country track.
Jay Joyce made sure to get his licks in and leave his stamp on The Devil I Know, perhaps to the album’s overall detriment. But to play a little devil’s advocate, it also infuses the album with some unmistakable energy. “Blackout Betty” is a pure rock song, but it’s also arguably one of the standouts in the set because it leans into Ashley’s rock influences. It’s when the songs don’t know if they want to be country or rock when it can confuse the mood of the song, and the audience by proxy.
Ashley McBryde has always had a rock and roll heart to go with her more country writing, and that’s cool. But one of the great things about Ashley McBryde Presents: Lindeville produced by John Osborne is that it always centered the song as the most important element, and took a more measured approach to adding rock components.
The Devil I Know is a great album by all mainstream standards. Lindeville was arguably even better though, and probably included some better overall songs. There’s just a lot of reliance on alcohol in the lyricism of this new album. So why was Lindeville seen as a side project to woo the critics, and The Devil I Know the heavily-promoted solo album? This speaks to the skewed priorities of mainstream country. But both albums speak to Ashley McBryde’s earned spot as one of the top women in the mainstream who delivers the goods when it comes to good songs, along with a good time.
1 3/4 Guns Up (8/10)
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Purchase Ashley McBryde’s The Devil I Know