by Julian Spivey
It was a homecoming for Ashley McBryde on Sunday, October 15 at the Robinson Center Music Hall in Little Rock, Ark. as the native from the unincorporated community of Saddle, Ark. brought the house down in front of a packed house of adoring fans, that included family and long-time friends.
McBryde just released her third solo studio album, The Devil I Know, on September 8 and her set on Sunday night was very heavy on tracks from the album, which seemed just fine with the audience – much of which already knew all the lyrics by heart and sang along. The Devil I Know is probably McBryde strongest effort from top to bottom thus far of her ACM, CMA and Grammy-award-winning career that still feels like it could skyrocket at any moment.
McBryde began her set around 9 p.m. with one of the more raucous numbers off the new album, “Blackout Betty.” She was in complete control of the stage from the very beginning of the show oozing an effortless cool about her the entire way through.
Amazingly, McBryde was able to fit the entire 11-song album into her 20-song set on Sunday night, something you rarely get from an artist. Among my favorite performances from the new release were “Whiskey and Country Music,” “Made for This,” “6th of October” and “Cool Little Bars.”
McBryde basically made the almost always in my opinion stuffy venue and crowd at Robinson Center feel like a cool little bar crowd on Sunday night for the first time making me able to focus on the terrific music on the stage completely and not some dumb nuisance that can come with a crowd forgetting concerts are supposed to be about the music. Kudos to McBryde’s fan base in her home state for that.
While fitting the entirety of The Devil I Know into her set, McBryde also found time for some fan favorites from her previous albums like the raunchy “Brenda Put Your Bra On,” off last year’s collaborative album Lindeville that she kind of over-sought. Never have I seen so many bras tossed on a stage in my life and McBryde was sure having a helluva time with it, picking one rather large one up and hanging it on the neck of guitar player Matt Helmkamp’s guitar.
I was thrilled she performed what’s still my favorite song of hers, “Girl Goin’ Nowhere,” from her 2018 slightly different titled Girl Going Nowhere debut. I had been perusing through previous recent sets of hers and hadn’t seen it on any of them, so I was worried she might not play it on Sunday night, but if you’re going to break that particular song out anywhere it’ll be at your home state show. The massive reaction from the crowd still seems to choke her up after all this time, which is incredibly moving and you can tell isn’t just a put-on for us.
It was probably around the quarter-to-halfway mark of her set when McBryde let us into a little bit of a secret that my wife and I in attendance hadn’t noticed at all – she was a bit under the weather and losing her voice. This was quite shocking as her performances up to that point had sounded about as close to the albums they are on. As the show went on, you could tell she was indeed losing her voice as her speaking voice in between songs got coarser and coarser as the night went on but miraculously, at least to my untrained ears, it never showed once in any performance.
McBryde’s few selections from her sophomore studio release Never Will from 2020 were impeccable, as if she asked me, “Hey, Julian, what do you want to hear from that album?” Those songs included “First Thing I Reach For,” likely my favorite from the album, “Sparrow” and “One Night Standards.”
Toward the end of the set, she performed “A Little Dive Bar in Dahlonega,” which was the first song I’d ever heard from here toward the end of 2017 and immediately piqued my attention as both a voice and songwriter to pay attention to and six years later she’s stood out as one of the best (really one of the few) from country music who can be among the mainstream acts (though radio still doesn’t quite do her justice – “One Night Standards” is her only solo top 20 charter) and still perform by-God country music.
The final two selections on Sunday night came from the new album, including her current single (and my favorite track on the album) “Light on in the Kitchen,” which she told the Robinson Center audience was the highest trajectory of any of her singles to date – it’s currently No. 22 on the Billboard Country Airplay chart and based on what she said is hopefully still climbing.
McBryde and her supremely talented band – which incredibly includes two musicians from my hometown of Mountain Home, Ark., shout out to Quinn Hill on drums and Wes Dorethy, who mostly was on keys but also played guitar, harmonica and fiddle during the show (no, I don’t know either personally) – finished the night up with the title track “The Devil I Know,” capping off a night of truly terrific music from a home state girl who made her dreams come true.
McBryde mentioned during the show that she and her band handpicked their opening acts when they had the opportunity to play headlining shows like on Sunday night and her choice for the Little Rock show was another amazingly talented Arkansas artist – J.D. Clayton from Fort Smith.
Clayton put out his debut album, Long Way from Home, in January and it's been a highlight in my country music of 2023 playlist for sure.
Clayton performed many of the standout tracks from the album during his eight-song opening set on Sunday evening, including the title track, “Gold Mine” and “Heartaches After Heartbreak,” which has been my favorite from the album.
He also performed a couple of beautiful songs written for his wife, whom he told us he met as a senior in high school in Fort Smith, “Beauty Queen,” which opened his show, and “Brown Haired Blue Eyed Baby,” which he had released on an E.P. in 2018 and of which he and his talented bandmates mixed with Steve Miller Band’s hit “The Joker.”
While “The Joker” certainly got the crowd singing along, it was actually Clayton’s amazing cover of Tracy Chapman’s 1995 top-five hit “Give Me One Reason,” which truly showed off his voice and range. Between this cover and Luke Combs taking “Fast Car” to the top of the country airplay chart, it’s damn nice to see country dudes giving a black, queer songwriter in Chapman some love.
Clayton finished off his opening set with a performance of “Arkansas Kid,” which is a slightly reworked version of Ronnie Van Zant/Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Mississippi Kid,” which was the perfect way to send him off.