“Bottom line is, love is not fair.”
Ashley Monroe is talking about the meaning of ‘If Love Was Fair’, one of the best songs on her new album ‘The Blade’. It could be the mission statement for the whole album. The singer-songwriter has never shied away from the complexities of romance and heartache, and she tackles them head on across these thirteen tracks.
“A lot of times women don’t want to talk about that, that we act out too. But we do - my gosh. I know I’ve made terrible decisions with a broken heart. I like talking about that. I just kind of breaks your heart to sing it, but I like that as well.”
Emotional honesty. Pedal steel. The artistic bravery to confront your worst impulses in a song. Fiddle solos. These are the hallmalks of traditional country music. Monroe’s authentic embrace of all these elements has made her a favorite amongst her fellow artists, long before her public notoriety caught up to her industry acclaim. One of her earliest fans was also one of her heroes – country legend Vince Gill.
“I’ve just been such a fan of Vince as a guitar player, as a singer - there’s just nobody like him and there never will be. I met him when I was around 15 years old. He had heard of me through my publisher I had at the time. I think they gave him a demo CD of some songs I’d written. He just took to me and took me under his wing.”
Gill became a friend and mentor to Monroe, and when it came time for Monroe to record her 2013 album ‘Like A Rose’, he stepped into the producer chair, along with Grammy-winning engineer/producer Justin Niebank (Keith Urban, Patty Loveless).
“Vince and I had written songs, but we hadn’t worked together until ‘Like A Rose’. Even though I’ve known him for such a long time, I still get butterflies when I’m around him, because I’m just really aware I’m standing next to Vince Gill.
Also, that helps when he’s producing me. Because when I’m singing, I’m also making sure I’m singing really good because I’m trying to show off for Vince Gill.”
Like A Rose was the album introduced Monroe front and center to a public that had been unwittingly benefiting from her talents for years. As a songwriter, she had birthed hits for Jason Aldean (‘The Truth’) and Miranda Lambert (‘Heart Like Mine’). The songwriting relationship with Lambert and fellow tunesmith Angaleena Presley led to the formation of Americana trio Pistol Annies. The group allowed them to indulge a slightly tongue-in-cheek rootsy redneck side of their musical personalities, across two albums to date.
All of this paved the way for an Ashley Monroe album that reflected the strongest facets of her artistic diamond – the finely textured voice (often compared to her idol Dolly Parton) that could make anything sound country, the affinity for neotraditional instrumentation, her ease with the messier side of love and loss.
The album was ‘Like A Rose’, and to an extent it represented a catching up process for someone who had been writing great, personal songs for years, without an outlet to release them herself.
“A lot of those songs I had written when I was 19, 20 years old, and I just hadn’t had the chance to record them yet.”
The album was released to universal critical acclaim. Reconvening with Gill and Niebank for The Blade, Monroe saw the chance express herself in a mature and newly evolved way.
“With this record, it was a lot of newer songs I’d written. I just wanted to show a different side musically, as well as traditional country of course, because that’s what I am. I didn’t overthink it, I just wanted to make something that I was proud of… and I did.”
Despite the acclaim and buzz around ‘Like A Rose’ and ‘The Blade’ and a strong momentum around her solo career, Monroe continues to write conscientiously, not knowing when she sets out if the song is destined as a #1 for a mainstream country star or a standout on one of her own records.
“Every now and then I’ll go ‘I’ll just save this one for me’, or if me and Miranda write one, I’ll just say ‘I’ll save this for Miranda’, but most of the time I know if it’s something I want to record or if it’s something I think would better fit someone else. But when it comes time around when it’s time for me to start making a record again, I’ll keep all of them. I get really stingy until I finish recording.”
We can she gets stingy, the stars’ loss is our gain. Nobody sings Monroe like Monroe.