Ashley Monroe: Country, Not-Country, and Finding a Home in Between
Country music is riddled with opposing forces. Critics, labels, and everyone around them want to push its boundaries with one hand and play by the rules with the other, but where does that leave the well-meaning artist? Sometimes it seems that the only thing a country-leaning singer-songwriter can do is follow the lead of his or her musical heroes and keep it simple. “The real art of country music is that it can cross over to people who normally don’t listen to country music,” Ashley Monroe says. And she should know. A fair portion of her fans come from a quirky bunch who love Johnny and Willie and Kacey and Brandy, but not “country music,” or not as they would define it if you asked them. But the joke’s on them. “I’m singing about life,” she adds, “which is country music. And everybody who’s alive can experience that.”
Monroe, who writes almost all of her own material, has just come off a disappointing promotional tour that took her to country music radio stations around the country to ask them to play cuts from her captivating new album, The Blade. Despite having just seen her name next to Blake Shelton’s at the top of the country charts for “Lonely Tonight,” the radio powers-that-be have continued to withhold their full support for her work. Though her voice is weary and her head is wary, Monroe knows in her heart that those gates aren’t going to keep her from making and sharing her music. “I’m tired and I’m frustrated, but I still have faith,” she says. “Obviously, I don’t think ‘The Blade’ is going to be a number one song on the radio or anything like that, but I still have faith that my music will get heard. I don’t know how, really. I’ve kind of learned to be at peace with the not knowing and just keep on doing what I do.”
Since she was a kid growing up in East Tennessee, Monroe has made music — not because she chose to, necessarily, but because she felt she had to. Music spoke to her, beckoned her to it. And she couldn’t help but answer its call. “Even when I was a little girl, before my dad died, when I was two or three, I remember listening to ‘Desperado’ and weeping, crying, shaking,” she recalls. “My parents couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me. I remember it so clearly. I was trying to explain to them what I was feeling. Obviously, at three, I don’t think I really understood the words, but I remember feeling it.” When music is embedded that deeply in your soul, there’s no other path to take, so the youngster studied classical piano to understand and explore the connection.
“I remember going up and sitting in my room, doing the same thing at seven or eight. I would play these classical piano pieces and start weeping,” Monroe says. “My mom would be like, ‘What is wrong?’ I would just try to express … ‘Can you not feel that? When this note hits against this note, do you feel that?’ I guess, in a way, I was born with this really weird connection to music that makes me cry, apparently.”
At 11, Monroe sang “I Want to Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart” to win a talent contest in Pigeon Forge, TN, and the deal was sealed. Two years later, her father died of cancer — an event that shook Monroe to her core. In order to move on from that loss, her mother pulled up stakes and took them to Nashville, where Monroe’s stunning, twang-laden voice and strikingly mature songwriting wasted no time landing her a manager, a publisher, and a record label. Though her 2006 debut album is a solid effort by any measure — let alone for a 20-year-old — the experience surrounding Satisfied was anything but, well, satisfying. “We had so many plans,” she says, “and that’s the thing about plans. You think, ‘This’ll break you!’” But it didn’t. The label released two singles, the title track and “I Don’t Want To” which featured Ronnie Dunn of Brooks & Dunn, then bailed on the album as a whole because neither single charted.
“I had a great team around me and I was in the middle of I don’t know how many weeks — but a lot of weeks — of a radio tour,” Monroe remembers. “I’d been out just trying so hard and the bottom fell out. I don’t even think I realized, at the time, how let down I really was. Looking back, I kind of see it. But all I knew to do — which is all I’ve done because I learned this lesson early — was, ‘Okay. You gotta keep going. You have to figure out a way. You have to survive.’ That kicked in when that happened with the first record. It was, ‘Alright, you gotta keep writing. You gotta keep making music. You’ll figure it out.’ And that’s kind of been what I’ve done ever since, when things don’t work out.”
Regardless of how the album did, it earned her fans in high places. From a critical standpoint, it was easy to see where Monroe was going by looking at where she’d been. That’s part of what music journalist Jewly Hight caught a glimpse of early on. “The most obvious comparison would be Dolly Parton, which is what I thought from the very beginning with her,” Hight says of Monroe. “It’s something about her vocal quality — also I believe they’re from the same part of Tennessee — and a way of balancing traditionalism and pop polish. She’s really savvy and she’s been … writing her own songs from the beginning, having a point of view and sensibility that I was impressed with even when I met her back then.”
Hight first sat down with Monroe when she was 18 or 19 to talk about that first album, Satisfied. “She seemed young, but she already had so many bonafides,” Hight recounts. “She was talking about being related to Carl Smith, and she really had a working knowledge of earlier generations of country music — Golden Era country music. She was serious about songwriting and already seemed to be wanting to be a serious stylist. All the ingredients, really, to be taken … seriously.”
Despite the critical acclaim, in 2007 Columbia Records dropped her from their roster. Over the next couple of years, an undeterred Monroe turned to singer-songwriter — and neighbor — Trent Dabbs. The two had enough chemistry together as co-writers that they decided to record and release an eponymous, five-song EP in 2008. That same year, she got an email from Jack White about singing on a Raconteurs track called “Old Enough,” with Ricky Skaggs. Then, in 2009, Monroe issued a self-titled EP of her own and hopped on the collective Ten Out of Tenn tour alongside Dabbs, Joy Williams, Mikky Ekko, and others. On the side, she continued writing, landing cuts with Jason Aldean, Carrie Underwood, and Miranda Lambert and singing on projects by Will Hoge, Wade Bowen, Andrea Glass, and others. So, yeah, she kept making music, all right.
Come 2011, Monroe was one-third of the Pistol Annies with Miranda Lambert and Angaleena Presley. Their album, Hell on Heels, debuted at number one on Billboard’s country charts and number five on the Top 200. The set received nearly universal critical praise and racked up gold-status sales figures — all without the support of country radio. When she wasn’t busy as a Pistol Annie, Monroe was a Cherry Sister to Ruby Amanfu in the Third Man House Band that backed up Wanda Jackson in 2011. As Amanfu tells it, the two singer-songwriters relished their time together on the road because they just got to sing without all the fuss and muss of being a front-person. “Ashley and I would often stay up way past any reasonable bedtime while out on the road, girl-gabbing like we were 15-year-olds at a sleepover,” Amanfu says. “Sometimes we did each other’s hair or tried on each other’s clothes. Mostly we talked about boys. As artists, you don’t often get to expose your inner child because, more often than not, you’re supposed to be ‘on’ and professional. Those moments with Ashley were such a gift.”
With the musical camaraderie and momentum from both projects to buoy her, it seemed natural that Monroe would land another label deal. Sure enough, Warner Bros. came calling and Like a Rose dropped in 2013. Produced by long-time supporters Vince Gill and Justin Niebank, the album sounded the way country music used to sound — as pure and heartfelt as a summer day is long. Niebank credits Monroe with leading that charge. “The big thing in her craft is her songwriting and bringing a true performance to it, where she feels like she’s connecting,” he says. “In the studio, she’s one of the best singers, as far as pocket and pitch. It makes it a lot easier for everyone — the musicians and myself included — because you instantly hear the record the moment she starts singing. Everyone kind of knows where to fall in place because of what she does, leading by example. Once the music feels right and sets her up, she doesn’t worry about all the other stuff. She’s just communicating the song.”
Though he had followed her career from its earliest days, Niebank hadn’t worked with Monroe until he got the call from Gill for Like a Rose. He was all in from the get-go. “I was blown away on the very first song we ever cut,” he remembers, adding, “They used to have a standard that people didn’t get record deals unless they were as good as Ashley.” To hear Niebank tell it, the vocals Monroe lays down with the band on the tracking days are the ones that end up on the record without very much comping or overdubbing, if any at all. That immediate and intimate connection between the singer and the song is what makes Monroe’s recordings so special, Niebank says. “I always feel like singers are at their best when the room is still vibrating from the song,” he says. “Players play to her vocals, which is the greatest thing ever. You can hear it in the tracks.”
Monroe’s deftness at conveying emotion doesn’t only apply to songs she’s written herself. It carries over into any song she chooses to lean into. Amanfu gained a unique perspective on that after spending time side-by-side singing on stage with Monroe. “I believe that the skill of interpretation begins with empathy,” she offers. “Having the ability to feel another’s pain, struggle, or story even if it is not your own is not a gift that everyone has. Ashley embodies this gift. If you listen to her sing, say, a Willie Nelson song, you wonder if she co-wrote it with him. It’s apparent that she’s tapped into a personal place to be able to express the lyrics and melody of all songs so intensely.”
From the opening strains of Like a Rose, Monroe sets an empathic tone – one that delicately balances hardship and hopefulness. “I was only 13 when daddy died. Mama started drinking and my brother just quit trying. I’m still bouncing back. Heaven only knows how I came out like a rose,” Monroe sings on the superlative title track, which she co-wrote with Guy Clark and Jon Randall. It’s just one more indication of how everything about the album is spot-on, particularly in its support of Monroe’s tender heartache of a voice. Even on feisty cuts like “Weed Instead of Roses” and “Monroe Suede,” the ache is there — it’s just having a better time. In a 2013 interview with Taste of Country, Monroe described her voice by describing her heart: “I sing from my heart,” she told them, “and my heart’s got a little lonesome in it. I think being from East Tennessee you’re kinda born with a little lonesome in your soul, in your blood. You know you’ve got that Appalachian soul.” Those words come as close as any to getting it right.
“It’s not a small thing that she was, from the beginning, respected by respectable artists in country, like Vince Gill,” Hight says. “When I interviewed him about her one time, he said he remembered doing his first co-writing session with her when she was so young she didn’t have a driver’s license yet. He’s still working with her. She was writing with Guy Clark really early on. I don’t think those kinds of things were happening because they wanted somebody young to glom on to. It was that they saw something mature in her, already, with a lot of emotional intelligence and knowledge of tradition and something to bring to it.”
One of the best examples of that comes by way of “Weed Instead of Roses” which Monroe wrote with Sally Barris and Jon McElroy when she was only 19:
Give me weed instead of roses.
Give me whiskey instead of wine.
Every puff, every shot, you’re looking better all the time.
I don’t need a card from Hallmark,
box of candy, heaven knows.
Give me weed instead of roses and let’s see where it goes.
The honky-tonk hook came to her while she was driving and she thought maybe, just maybe, Gretchen Wilson would cut it. Instead, it ended up on Like a Rose and became one of the album’s focal points. The song’s video, which finds Monroe and her band gussied up in green eyeshadow and Nudie suits, makes it clear that she knows exactly where she came from. Indeed, with its skillful honoring and updating of tradition, Monroe’s songwriting strikes the perfect chord. It combines the contemporary whimsy of Kacey Musgraves and the classic thoughtfulness of Brandy Clark into a style that is refreshing, heart-rending, and relatable.
Even as she sidles up alongside her peers, Monroe also sets herself apart from them by putting so much of herself into her songs. Though they aren’t word-for-word accounts, to be sure, she’s there in “Like a Rose,” “Used,” “You Got Me,” and even “Monroe Suede.” Or, if she’s not there, her people are. To Niebank, being able to feel the heritage of her mountain roots in the music makes all the difference. “She’s one of the few singers, I think, that really sings so that you can hear her background in there,” he says. “She doesn’t just write them because she comes up with a clever title and then writes a song around it. She actually writes songs that mean something to her and tell the story of her life. She’s a true writer in that her songwriting is sort of her therapy in life. It’s an important part of who she is to balance out her life and that’s what makes her, in my opinion, different from a lot of other artists that I hear. That’s not taking anything away from people out there singing great songs, but in a lot of them, you can hear the songwriting in them. Her, you hear her heart in them.”
Monroe can’t help but agree. “The one thing that I haven’t done is recorded or written a song that isn’t me. And, honestly, I could’ve tried to write some half-ass song that I didn’t feel and recorded it, and it probably would’ve been a hit. But I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night if I did that. And that’s just me. I’m not bashing anybody who can. More power to them. They’re richer than I am. But I care so much about music, that’s been the one thing that I just make sure that I carry with me through my whole career — making sure I do what I want to do and that it feels right to me. If that’s in place, then I know that’s about all I can control of it. I can’t control how it’s received or anything like that. I can only control what I think.”
After the Satisfied misfire and the continuing lack of radio support, having a multitude of critics include Like a Rose on their Best of 2013 lists felt like both a validation and a vindication for Monroe. “That’s my audience,” she says. “I want to sing for people who will listen. I’d rather play at a festival for five people that are so into it they can’t take their eyes off me than play for an arena full of people that are talking and screaming.”
In the end, though, the only person Monroe aims to please is herself. “Honestly, when I’m in the zone of writing or recording,” she explains, “I’m not thinking about anybody or anything else but what I’m writing or recording. And that really is the truth. It never once crosses my mind that ‘This is a hit!’ or ‘The critics will love this!’ It never crosses my mind. I’m so 100 percent into what I’m doing and making sure that what I’m laying down is right. After the fact, sometimes, it’ll be, ‘Oh, I wonder if they’ll like this.’”
With The Blade, Monroe has expanded her musical repertoire and, once again, enthralled her fans. “On to Something Good” opens the collection with an infectious, summery groove that calls to mind Sheryl Crow in her C’mon C’mon era. Two songs later, “Bombshell” drops its soulful sway into the mix not long before “The Blade” cuts through with an instant classic of a metaphor to push back against a former lover who wants to be friends: “You caught it by the handle. I caught it by the blade.”
Further in, the shuffling boogie of “Winning Streak” could have easily come from an old Dolly Parton record, while the soft rock of “From Time to Time” and “If Love Was Fair” falls somewhere between Lee Ann Womack’s “I Hope You Dance,” KT Tunstall’s “Other Side of the World,” and Jann Arden’s “Insensitive.” No matter what radio programmers say, some of these songs are hits waiting to happen.
Still, an outsider looking in might wonder how all of those differing takes amount to “country music.” Monroe has the answer. “They’re talking about stories, talking about real life,” she says. “Just because it doesn’t have steel guitar in it, doesn’t make it not-country. I can’t sing and it not be country. It’s pretty obvious that I’m a twangy singer.” She laughs, then adds, “I listen to all kinds of music and I wanted to show all the different sides of me, musically. I’ve collaborated with the Raconteurs and with Vince Gill. I sang on Don Henley’s new record and with Blake [Shelton], so I cover a lot of musical ground.”
Niebank takes a more open-handed view on the whole subject of genres. “What is country music? What is pop music? What is rock music? I’m just old enough that I don’t see the lines,” he says. “When I grew up, FM radio played everything, so I can’t help but hear it as she’s just a great American music artist. It has some Delta stuff in there, some Cajun stuff, some mountain stuff. It has rock, blues, country-blues. Is she a right-down-the-middle pop artist? Heck no, because that doesn’t make sense. She could be Americana, if you wanted. I don’t know. I’m the wrong person to ask!”
Regardless of genre, The Blade stays true to Rose‘s roots, even while it gives loft to Monroe’s wings. And that’s exactly what the team was hoping it would do. “Like a Rose wanted to have a really strong footing in more traditional country and honky-tonk music, which I love,” Niebank says. “This record, obviously we didn’t want to do the same thing twice. … All the things that made that record so cool, we wanted to retain that, but we wanted to put in a little bit more edge, a few more elements. Some of the songs had a certain aggressive style to them that we wanted to mirror with the music and not limit it by just being strictly traditional country.” Mission accomplished.
As with the throwback styling in the “Weed Instead of Roses” video, Monroe carefully considered the visual representation for “On to Something Good” and The Blade as a whole. The ’60s-inspired fashion is yet another reflection of her classic, yet contemporary aesthetic. Unlike some artists in other genres, there’s no element of spectacle to her style. Rather, there’s a simple sophistication that is sexy without being sexualized, classy without being classist.
“Like a Rose was definitely the more hippie side of me, which, obviously, I don’t walk around the house wearing black eyeliner,” Monroe says with a laugh. “So I think the Like a Rose imaging was perfect. It was stripped-down to match the songs. It was the base of who I am. But I love fashion. I think about it all the time.”
She continues, “It takes age to kind of figure out who you are, and you change with age, but the imaging on this record is all me. I’ve gotten so many Edie Sedgwick pictures out and sent them to my stylist and said, ‘This vibe. This vibe.’ Sharon Tate. I love the ’60s. I love the thick eyeliner. I love bleached blonde hair, obviously. I love all that. And I finally feel like me all the way. You can be classy and sexy, in my mind. I think that’s one of the cool things about being sexy — there’s a little bit of mystery.”
With her band decked out in black suits, Monroe donned a tailored white shorts-suit to complement the thick black eyeliner and bleached blonde hair at a recent Nashville performance. Hight was there and took note of what she saw. “It felt like watching a countrypolitan supper club show, the way she and the band were dressed, and the arrangements and everything,” she says, adding, “For being as young as she is, still in her 20s, I think she’s pretty accomplished at matters of self-presentation and songwriting and being a true stylist as a singer. Just knowing every facet of what goes into it. There is such a throwback aspect to what she’s doing on every front, but I still have never seen her as a purist.”
Purist or not, by the time Monroe got to the solo encore of Gram Parsons’ “Hickory Wind,” those in attendance would have been excused for thinking they’d flashed back 40-some years to witness a legend like Bobbie Gentry, Emmylou Harris, or Dolly Parton in her prime. The moment, just like Monroe’s albums, felt very much like history in the making, with her voice, songs, and style coming together in perfect harmony.