Ashley Monroe isn’t one to beat around the bush about the fact that her richly traditional new country album, Like a Rose, has been a long time coming. She pretty much spells that out during the title track, a single that boasts co-writing contributions from Guy Clark and Jon Randall along with sympathetic harmonies and production support from Vince Gill.
Monroe’s had her share of professional disappointments during her decade-plus in Nashville, but they’ve been outnumbered by the eclectic uses she’s found for her East Tennessee mountain soul singing and songwriting, not to mention the wide range of admirers she’s assembled.
Chosen as one of CMT’s Next Women of Country, Monroe connects the dots between her underage honky-tonking, prolific dueting, breakthroughs with Miranda Lambert and Angaleena Presley in the Pistol Annies and the solo album that finally showcases her undiluted musical identity.
CMT Edge: I first interviewed you in 2006 as you were preparing to release your first album, Satisfied. A lot has changed since then. So I’d like to try and place your entire story in context for those who have discovered you at various points along the way.
Monroe: Yeah, let’s tie it all together.
Were you 15 when you and your mom moved to Nashville?
I think it might’ve been at the end of 15, but I’m not positive. Sometimes it’s a blur because my dad died, a bunch of stuff happened and I just knew we had to get out of that town. I knew we had to get to Nashville. Looking back, we didn’t know anybody. It was just my mom and I. … We had no idea what we were doing, really. I was so dead set on it, on making it, on writing. I didn’t think anything of it, which looking back I’m like, “Wow, that’s pretty bold.”
How were you pitching yourself when you first got to town?
I think I just dove into writing. Also, mama would take me down on Broadway before they started carding [at the honky-tonks]. So I would get up at Second Fiddle or Tootsie’s and say, “Hey, y’all know ‘When Will I Be Loved’? Hey, y’all know ‘Rocky Top’?” Again, that was very bold. I wouldn’t do that now, and I’m a grown woman. Then this one man heard me singing “Rocky Top” and soon after introduced me to my publisher and [songwriter] Brett James right after that. Then I started writing with Brett, and he was in my corner.
After dad had died, I had started writing a whole lot, not because I thought you could make a living off of it — just because it had to come out. I had no idea when I moved to Nashville people just were songwriters. I had no idea. So I guess I was selling myself as a singer when I first moved here. But then right after I first moved, I started writing a lot.
Roy Acuff’s from Maynardville and that’s where a lot of my family’s from. So he’s, I’ve been told, a distant cousin, as well. So my dad’s dad, his name was Scott. … Scott and Carl Smith [also from Maynardsville] were first cousins. I grew up knowing Carlene [Carter] was my cousin as well. Wore her little tapes out. My dad’s mom, her name was Betty Carter. She was distantly kin to the Carter family. The same line, it just goes back a few notches. So it was definitely closer on Carl’s side. But, you know, Carl and June married. In East Tennessee, there’s just some relations. Everybody’s related, but nobody talks about it. Frankly, I think that my grandparents were kin. (laughs)
A few years after I moved to Nashville, I met Kix Brooks, and he knew Carl Smith real well. … I remember I went to some horse show that Kix was doing that Carl and Goldie [Hill, Smith’s second wife] were at. Then she got sick and passed soon after that. Then I would just go visit Carl at his house. He didn’t do music anymore at all. He had to dig around for a guitar. He went and bought a little CD player so he could listen to my Satisfied record. … He told me, “You’re carrying it on. You got it.”
Speaking of feedback from older generations, early on you got a complimentary letter from Dolly Parton and a request from George Jones to open for him on tour. Plus Vince Gill introduced you during your first Opry performance. Did it feel like you were getting the seal of approval from your elders, in a way?
For sure. Every single person you just talked about, I feel like my soul is their age. Sometimes I can talk better to people that are in their 70s or 80s — or a 4-year-old. I can talk to them better than my own age bracket. Dolly, that letter she wrote me, that was in 2004. She had heard a demo of “Hank’s Cadillac” and a few other songs that me and Brett had written. And for her to take time to write this letter, quote my lyrics … it was just so humbling.
That’s the reputation side of things. What happened on the commercial side that kept your first album from seeing the light of day?
When the labels merged, that’s obviously a frazzled time for everybody who works at the label. The new label head inherited all these acts. I just think it was the wrong time. But I think it was the wrong time perfectly because I feel like I made great relationships. … I don’t have any hard feelings about it. I feel like all of that needed to happen for me to grow, for me to realize how much my passion is wanting to do this.
When you were regrouping, did you actively pursue co-writing or singing with other acts?
No. They pursued me, which is the cool thing about my faith that God has a plan. Because looking back, I needed something to look forward to after it didn’t work out with Sony.
I’d hear of Jason Aldean recording one of your songs — or Carrie Underwood or Miranda Lambert — or of you writing with Guy Clark or Vince Gill or Dwight Yoakam, or of you collaborating with Trent Dabbs, Jack White, the Raconteurs and Brendan Benson, going on Ten Out of Tenn and Wanda Jackson tours and singing on Josh Kelley and Train albums.
Oh, my gosh! I have been everywhere.
Everywhere! All across the spectrum, from mainstream to way-left-of-center stuff. Is there anything I missed?
No, I think you got it. You know more about me than I do. It’s so weird to hear that in a list. I love music so much. I’ve got something going all the time. I’ve gotta be singing. I’ve gotta be creating music or I’m not happy.
When did you first cross paths with Miranda Lambert?
I think [Satisfied had] just been made, and [Lambert’s] Kerosene had just come out. … She texted this big, long message saying, “I just heard your record. Oh, my gosh. I’m blown away. Let’s write. I want to hang out.” Maybe a week or two later, I met up with her in Texas, and it was just like somebody I’ve known my entire life.
What’s been the ripple effect of the way people embraced Pistol Annies?
When we first started going out on the road with her, we would go and do two songs in the middle of a set. It was almost like everybody’s heads would tilt like, “What is this?” … So we keep on touring, and slowly but surely, the crowd gets louder. And the two mics would come out and you would hear these big screams before us. … We saw the crowd start to embrace us, and then we saw them start to sing along. Then we’d add more songs, and they would sing along to those, too.
It seemed significant to me that you were the first feisty female country trio to really grab people since the Dixie Chicks, and also that there was a strong, down-to-earth songwriting perspective, rootsiness and grit to what you were doing. And it worked!
It did. And it’s so great because it’s just given me confidence in my own stuff, as well, because I saw the reaction of fans to real music and to us just being us. There was no choreography. We just went out there and sang our hearts out.
You had success everywhere from indie rock to mainstream country and pop, yet when you got the chance to finally do this solo album, your traditional country identity was fully intact. Had you ever considered going in any of these other directions?
Anything that I play a part in, I sing the same. I’m me. The core of me is country. It’s what I love. It’s what I write. Even when I sing pop stuff, I’m still singing it countrily. I’m singin’ it my way. … Sometimes there are so many opportunities out there that you’re like, “Let’s do it this way. Let’s do it more ethereal. We won’t put any banjo, no country instruments, on it.”
I think I just was overthinking it at some points. “Just go in and don’t over-think it. Go in and make a country record.” And that’s where my heart settled as soon as [my manager John] Grady said that: “Why don’tcha just make a country record?” It was like all the thoughts in my head just went silent. “OK, yeah, you’re right. Calm down, Ashley. Just because you can do everything doesn’t mean you have to.”