Two days before the official release of her critically-acclaimed new album, The Blade, singer-songwriter Ashley Monroe launched her third solo LP with a glittering performance at an East Nashville club. Throughout the evening, the Tennessee-born chanteuse invited several of her Music City friends and collaborators to share the stage. Among them were Jessi Alexander, co-writer of four cuts on The Blade, Justin Davis and Sarah Zimmerman, better known as duo Striking Matches, who penned two tracks on the LP, and Vince Gill, who (as he had with Monroe’s brilliant 2013 album, Like a Rose) co-produced the disc with Justin Niebank and also wrote a cut with Monroe.
But what quickly had the room, and the Internet, buzzing was the presence of Monroe’s longtime pal Miranda Lambert, making her first stage appearance since announcing her divorce from Blake Shelton just days earlier. Although the two co-wrote the album’s stone-cold country closer, “I’m Good at Leavin'” (with Alexander), not surprisingly they chose another to perform for the show’s encore instead – Lambert’s Number One hit, “Heart Like Mine,” which the friends penned with Travis Howard. The collaboration was the most poignant example of just how powerful and cathartic both friendship and music can be.
Monroe was born in Knoxville in 1986, although the depth and maturity of her songs certainly belie her years. At 13, she faced grown-up heartache when her father died of cancer. Still in her teens, she relocated to Nashville and soon signed a music publishing deal, followed by a developmental deal with RCA Records, then a full-fledged contract with Sony Music that yielded one project, the remarkable 2006 album, Satisfied, which would go unreleased until 2009. In addition to two albums with Pistol Annies, the trio she formed with Lambert and Angaleena Presley, a Kentucky coal miner’s daughter and a gifted songwriter in her own right, Monroe released the outstanding solo LP, Like a Rose, to resounding acclaim in 2013. A few months after the album debuted, she married pro baseball player John Danks, and in 2014 had a Number One country hit, singing on Blake Shelton’s “Lonely Tonight.”
As a solo act, Monroe has yet to crack mainstream country radio’s narrow – and decidedly male-centric playlists, an unfortunate reality of the current climate and certainly not a reflection on the new album’s songs themselves. In a perfect world, “The Blade,” an absolute stunner of a tune and, surprisingly the only one Monroe didn’t have a hand in writing, would be a multi-week Number One and a CMA nominee, and other tracks on the album, in particular the clever and devastating “Bombshell” and the biting “Dixie,” would follow in its footsteps. Regardless of The Blade‘s chart accomplishments or critical praise, Monroe’s songwriting is as pure and unvarnished as her heart-piercing voice, making The Blade an instant classic, and cementing Monroe’s status as a top-flight writer and a country legend in the making.
Rolling Stone Country sat down with Monroe to talk about the songs on her Like a Rose follow-up, including one that emerged as a combination birthday/wedding gift and another that sums up her feelings about country radio. She also revealed why her manager waited a whole month before playing her “The Blade” and why she finds it challenging to write positive songs.
What do you remember about the first time music had an effect on you?
I grew up in the Southern Baptist Church with the shape note hymnals. The first time I got chills when I was singing, I’ll never forget it. We had just started going to church and the church was so small. I was the only kid in the choir because they would say, “Does anybody want to come up and sing?,” because it was that kind of church. There wasn’t a pre-selected choir. I remember singing, [sings first lines of “Have a Little Talk With Jesus”], I got chills from the very tip of my head all the way down to my toes. It caught me off guard. I was four. I remember after I got through singing with the choir I ran down to my mom and I said, “Mom I got chills.” She said, “That’s the spirit.” That’s when I first associated that you can sing the songs and have that feeling. It happens a lot now!
One of the songs on The Blade that has a bit of a gospel feel to it is “Winning Streak.” It also has a bit of a tribute to the Jordanaires’ quartet singing.
That’s actually the Superlatives, Marty Stuart’s band. One of the things Vince does when he produces is find a reference. For one of the songs on Like a Rose, he played [Emmylou Harris’] “Boulder to Birmingham” to just get us all in a particular zone. For “Winning Streak,” he played an old gospel quartet from the Forties. The song reminds me of Elvis, too. I get into it because I love rockabilly!
It’s an upbeat song, yet it doesn’t really have a positive message to it. Do you find it more challenging to write uptempo, positive songs?
I find it extremely more challenging to write uptempo, positive songs. It does not come naturally to me. “Winning Streak,” songs like that I can write better – ones that have sad lyrics to a fast beat. Roger Miller’s “Dang Me” had that, and I love that. He’s singing, “They ought to take a rope and hang me” to a fast beat. The melodies I hear that come to me the best are slow ones, beautiful melodies or waltzes. It’s hard for me to write a happy song, something that just says I’m happy. I don’t know how to say that.
Yet there is a sense of hope in several of the songs.
I think hope and heartbreak go hand-in-hand. “On to Something Good,” “Weight of the Load” and “Mayflowers” are all hopeful songs. In just my life alone, I look back at things I’ve gone through personally and in the business and I’m starting to see a reason for all of them. Even the things that didn’t make sense at the time; even if I don’t see a reason, I can be grateful that it has led me here. Did I think this is how my career was going to go when I first signed at Sony when I was 17 years old? No, it was like, I’ll put out a record and it’ll be on the radio and I’ll get to tour. [Laughs] It never happens how you think it’s going to happen. But I think hope is very important and having faith that there is a reason for everything. You’ve just got to trust it and go with it.
It seems like this album, as opposed to Like a Rose, has a few more radio-friendly songs on it. Was that intentional?
I don’t disagree that some of them sound a little more radio-friendly than others, but I didn’t do anything intentionally to make a song just for radio. Like “On to Something Good,” that’s a positive, uptempo song that moves me and reminds me to keep going. That didn’t work for radio, ironically. I went on a radio tour and everything in it still didn’t work. I’m still proud of that song and I’m so proud of “If Love Was Fair,” which leans a little bit more that way. If none of them ever see the light of radio day, I’m still proud of them. And that’s important to me, that I don’t put songs on the record just for radio. Because then it’s not your record anymore.
Jessi Alexander is a co-writer on four cuts from The Blade. Why do you think the two of you work so well together?
We are really, really, really close friends. She’s from west Tennessee and she just has this soul. She’s been through things in her life and you can hear it in her songs. She has so many hits, but every one of her hits means something. Even [Blake Shelton’s] “Drink on It” is a fun song but it’s got meat to it. I love writing with Jessi because she can deliver these beautiful melodies that have meat to them. I’m a big fan of writing like that.
We wrote “If the Devil Don’t Want Me” and “Winning Streak” with Chris Stapleton, and we wrote those two back to back. He’s another one I’ve known for years. I listen to him sing and I just melt. [His wife] Morgane Stapleton and I were on a developmental deal at RCA at the same time before I was signed to Sony. I forgot I even had that deal until the other day. I can’t keep up with the chapters. [Laughs] But Jessi, Chris and I have written a few times. There’s the line, “If the devil don’t want me, where the hell do I go,” and in “Winning Streak” there’s a line, “Damned old devil won’t buy my soul.” One of those led to the other song, but I can’t remember which one was first.
One of the most beautiful songs on the album is “From Time to Time,” which you wrote with Striking Matches. What inspired it?
I got married in October 2013, and it was right around that time I was on tour with Hunter Hayes and planning the wedding. There was a lot of high stress, a lot of activity going on. I was missing my dad so much. I always do, but I was about to get married and I was missing him like crazy. I kept having these memories and I would just cry. So I was making this deal with God, “Please just send me a sign of some sort. Send me a dream. Dad, come to me in a dream, tell me you love me and you’re proud of me. . . something.” But there was nothing.
I had dozed off on the couch one evening. The melody was what woke me up. I sat up straight and it was almost like someone was playing the melody in my head and the words: “Hush little darling, celebrate, today’s going to be your birthday even if it’s not the 10th of September.” Well, the 10th of September is my birthday. All of that was there. I couldn’t write it down fast enough. I heard the melody but I was trying to figure out the chords. I think my dad was trying to challenge me or teach me new chords. It was so clear; it was something from my dad which I love: that it’s all right to remember from time to time. You can relate that to someone who’s lost or to just a memory, someone who’s no longer around.
Another one written with Striking Matches is “Dixie,” although it’s not exactly a loving portrait of your birthplace, with the line, “I’ll be damned if I go down to Dixie when I die.”
Justin Davis from Striking Matches, that was his idea. He had started that and I said, “Please let me record that!” It’s so funny, when I sing “Dixie,” I have a little angst in my voice. Maybe I’m thinking of country radio a little bit. When I sing, “When I cross that line, I’ll get what I deserve.” It’s something about getting rewarded for something that you’re not appreciated for. It can be twisted like that. But I used to write those old-fashioned melodies when I was 15 and I would tell my manager I think I was a 90-year-old man working on trains in my previous life. I would write about this really old content and people were like, “How do you even know what you’re saying?” So there’s a little of that mixed in that song, too. Every time I sing that song I envision somebody working on a train and thinking, “I’m gettin’ outta here.”
The only song you didn’t write on the album is the title track. What was it about “The Blade” that made you want to record it?
I think it will go down in history as being one of the best-written songs. I’m just shocked at how good it is every time I sing it. When I first heard it, I knew Allen Shamblin was on it and I knew Marc Beeson, but I didn’t even know there was a girl on it. I started YouTube-ing clips of her singing it and I was like, “Man, she can sing her ever-lovin’ butt off!” I love those two writers, obviously, but I love that a woman was in the room because she nailed the feeling. I get completely lost in it. My heart is breaking when I sing that song. It’s hard for me to get lost in songs I didn’t write. I’m just as attached to it as if I had written it. I’ve been in that position of having my heart broken and the other person being OK. We all have. Every detail of that feeling is described in that song. The timing of me even finding that song – there were some hard times in my life and my manager even waited a month before he played it for me because my heart was still too fragile.
The sweetest moment of your album release show was the hug you shared with Miranda after the two of you sang together. What was it like for you to have her there?
I didn’t even remember that until I saw the video. I kissed her on the head! [Laughs] I’m always happy to sing with her. Of course, I knew she’d be there for me but I didn’t know whether she’d get up and sing. She hadn’t planned on singing just because she didn’t have glam and all that stuff. But when Jessi got up on stage she whispered in my ear, “Miranda’s going to come up and do the ‘Heart Like Mine’ for the encore.” It was just kind of a spontaneous thing. I love singing that song with her. I was like, “What a perfect ending.” Music is healing.