Ashley Monroe, ‘Like a Rose’ Album Is Thorns-and-All Approach to Country Music (Exclusive Interview)
One of the perks of being a music journalist is the opportunity to hear a new album sometimes months before it is ever available to the general public. While the best possible result of that perk is being able to rave about the music when you have the chance to sit down with the artist to talk about (let alone telling absolutely everyone you know -- or don't know -- how great you think an album is), it's rare, in this journalist's case, anyway, to react to something so positively that raving about it simply isn't enough. But what kind of gesture to show an artist your appreciation is simple and meaningful without seeming insincere, or worse, downright creepy? Those were some of the thoughts I struggled with right before I met up with Ashley Monroe at her record label's offices to talk about her stunning masterpiece, Like a Rose, out today on Warner Bros. Records, and produced by country legend Vince Gill with Justin Niebank. I thought about it, then, naturally, it hit me. What woman wouldn't like to receive a rose? Being a music journalist, however, such grand gestures are a bit out of my price range. Plus, I wouldn't want to give the 26-year-old the wrong idea. She is, after all, engaged to Chicago White Sox pitcher John Danks.
I toyed with another thought, remembering that another of the songs on the album is the hilarious "Weed Instead of Roses," in which Ashley asserts that she'd rather receive the former instead of the latter. With a job I preferred to keep, and no desire to write from a jail cell, I suddenly spotted on my a desk a single, solitary rose. Not a live flower, but a bacon-scented synthetic one. Knowing Ashley's gift for humor, something that shines throughout the album, her first since coming to the attention of country fans as one-third of the trio Pistol Annies (with Miranda Lambert and Angaleena Presley), I thought, "Why not?" And so, as we sat down to talk, I handed her my token of appreciation for creating what has quickly become simply one of my favorite albums of the past decade. She smelled it and realized what it was then let out a hearty laugh saying, "That's awesome. It's 'like' a rose."
I take it you're pretty used to things that are sort of unexpected, considering the kind of career you've had so far?
Yeah! The first record I made when I was 17. Labels merged and plans didn't work out, but plans never work out as planned. But I never stopped making music. I never had a backup plan. I never thought maybe I should just write, or maybe I should ... I just kept going. I thank God that I didn't overthink it because there was a plan after all, for me to make another record and for it to be with Vince Gill, and here it is. And for the Annies. That was the most unexpected, unplanned, magnificently, beautifully-timed thing ever.
Do you write on a pretty regular basis?
Yes, I've always described it as my bucket filling up. Right now I'm in the emptying stage of the bucket. I go live life and absorb all these things whether it's song titles or melodies, then all at once it'll just come spilling out of me. I've been in a spilling-out stage for year. Out with the Annies, we wrote our second record on the road. Literally, I can't even stop myself. We wrote one last week. The record's done and I hear this melody but I can't stop it. I love it though, it's such good therapy. It feels so good when you've written a song you listened back and you can't believe it.
No! Because he's so [raises hand way above her head] up here, to me. I hold him so high up on my dream list. His publisher was like, "Yeah, he'll write with you." I was like, "Oh gosh, now I've got to bring in a great title! I've got to show him I can really write. I can't just go and sit in front of Guy Clark and stare at him." Guy is just cool. He doesn't try to be cool. It's intimidating to be around him. He's this tall guy and he's just got this thing about him. I started to get nervous and when I get nervous I talk even faster than I normally do. So I was like [speeds up her voice], "Well, Guy, I got this one idea ... da da da da da." As soon as it got silent, he'd say, "Hmmm." Not in a mean way, he was just taking it in. So I would say, "Well, I've got this other idea." He said, "Well, just tell me about yourself. So I start telling him my whole story."
Ashley's "whole story" is, in fact, a mixture of sad circumstances, missed opportunities and, ultimately, sweet redemption. Born in tiny Corryton, Tenn., just east of Knoxville, Ashley grew up on the same street where most of her family members lived. A cousin to country legend Carl Smith, the youngster received a Patsy Cline cassette tape in her Christmas stocking, not long after she first learned to talk. It cemented her love for emotionally-charged country music and gave her the desire first to sing, then to start writing. At age 10, Ashley was singing "Amazing Grace" in church when she forgot the words and ran off stage. She recovered quickly and it wasn't long before she was a regular performer at a theater in Pigeon Forge. At 13, however, Ashley's life was turned completely upside down by the death of her father, Larry, from pancreatic and liver cancer. Retreating into her own world, one that included songwriting as a way to work through her grief, the teenager didn't spend much time with kids her own age, mainly because they couldn't relate to her situation or understand her sorrow. She admits that her relationship with her mom, Kellye, who also had a son five years older than Ashley, suffered as well, although today the two are the best of friends. Mom and daughter moved to Nashville when Ashley was 17. A songwriting contract quickly followed and two years later, Ashley signed to Sony Music. Radio programmers (some moved to tears after hearing her deeply confessional songs), however, couldn't fit her music to their format. Her one album for Sony, the boldly traditional Satisfied, remained largely unreleased and Ashley and the label parted ways in 2007. [In 2009, the disc was made available via digital retailers.]
After sharing many of the details of her young life with Guy, Ashley summed it up by saying, "But look at me, I came out like a rose." Guy's reply: "Well, let's write that." Although some of the details, like transplanting the song's main character to North Dakota from east Tennessee, are decidedly fictional, the first song and title track of the album sets an autobiographical tone that distinguishes the collection. And although she has also collaborated on other projects with rocker Jack White and his band, the Raconteurs, as well as with the group Train, and singers Wanda Jackson, Chris Isaak and Mat Kearney, among others, gained an entirely new audience when Pistol Annies scored a critical success with their debut album, Hell on Heels, in 2011.
Have you ever written anything other than songs, like short stories?
I make up stories in my head all the time but I've never written them down. But I write a lot of story songs. Any song I'm singing, I sort of see it like a movie in my head. That's why a lot of times I close my eyes when I'm singing. I've had people tell me before, "Open your eyes." I do, but sometimes when I'm so deep in a song, like "Morning After," when I'm singing it, it almost physically hurts because I feel it so much and I see the same scene in my head every time. So if you see be closing my eyes, it's because I'm living it.
"You Got Me" is one that has some darkness to it. But you've got Little Big Town singing on it so there's a sweetness to it, too.
That one means a lot to me because it's depending on something that's no good for you. Whether it's drugs or relationships or whatever. The melody and the first verse came to me in my sleep. The next day I was writing with [LBT's] Karen Fairchild, so it made sense for them to sing on it. I'm so happy they got to because of like a choir of angels ... singing about addiction. [laughs]
Is it ever tough for you to write so honestly?
Now it's actually harder not to. Once you get everything out of your head about what everybody else is going to think, will radio play it -- and I hope they do, I really do -- once you shed all of that and just be who you are, that's who I am. That's taken a lot of growing up. I've come into myself musically and as a woman and I hope to keep growing. If you don't grow, you die.
But you do talk about a few things that people don't normally talk about in songs, like in "Weed Instead of Roses." Let's see, there's weed, whips and chains ...
Teddy bears and whipped cream, boxers and sexy underwear. [laughs] When I wrote that song, I was 19! We were laughing that whole co-write, with [writers] Sally Barris and John McElroy. I was saying, "Let's just go there." And Vince said he wasn't going to do the record unless we recorded it. People are either going to love me or hate me for it. But I'm going to sing about what I'm going to sing about. If people can't laugh at it or take a joke, they can listen to something else. [laughs]
Will you be taking these songs on the road by yourself or with Pistol Annies or both?
Pistol Annies go on tour in June and I'm doing some dates with Train in July and August. To just get in front of different kinds of audiences is important for me. I do think it's important for music to be a big family. Whether it's country or not.
I know that you haven't always an ideal relationship with your mom, but obviously the two of you remain very close.
Well, yeah. My mom lost my dad when she was 38. She was a widow when she had a 13-year-old girl and an 18-year-old son. She and my dad owned a house. Everything was set, her life was set. She'd been married since she was 18. Now that I'm a woman, I see how she would've gone crazy. And she did, she'd be the first to tell you. When things got settled, after daddy died, we're like this [crosses her fingers]. You can ask anybody. She is truly my best friend, and I'm very thankful for her.
How far along on wedding plans are you at this point?
Well, I'm going to get through this year and let him get through baseball season and we'll hone in on that. There's a little too much going on right now to focus on that. But very happy and very much in love so that's all that matters.
How is your knowledge of baseball these days?
Whew! I'm trying to figure it all out. I remember when John and I first started dating, he was pitching and I said, "Do not let them score any more points!" He was like, runs! But I am learning and I definitely keep up with him. He knows enough about music and I know enough about baseball. It's two different worlds but it's kind of in the same realm. We're both successful and love what we do; we're both happy with that.
Is there a married couple that you really look up to?
I look up to my Granny and Poppy. That's not being cheesy, that's really true. I talk to them almost every day. They laugh and they've been married, gosh, 52 years, I think. To see them still communicate and still go on walks together every morning, I love seeing that. And they flirt still. I love seeing that. They're funny.
I absolutely love "You Ain't Dolly (and You Ain't Porter)," the duet with Blake Shelton. But it did make me wonder since it's mentioned in the song ... have you read "Fifty Shades of Grey?"
Yeah! On an airplane. In one sitting from L.A. to Nashville. Vince came up with that line, the little knucklehead!
Does the book live up to all the hype?
Oh, once you get to the middle it's all the same thing. It's a cool story but there's other stuff I'd rather read. [laughs] But it was an easy read for a flight. I laughed, I giggled a lot when I was reading it.
What do you think you've learned about yourself in the time between your last record and this record?
One thing I learned was in watching the audience reaction to the Pistol Annies. It reassured me that it's OK to talk about honest things. They're like me, they want to hear it. I've grown up a lot in many ways; I'm not a little girl anymore. But I've also learned that my dreams are coming true and any time I complain about too much going on, I just have to remind myself that this is what I wanted and I couldn't do anything else ever in the whole world but this. So I really hope it works. But if this one doesn't, I'll keep going.