ASHLEY MONROE is the great hope of country music. In an age of ever-blurring genres and over-produced radio hitmakers, Monroe’s lilting, wounded voice and wise-beyond-her-years songwriting makes her sound more like a contemporary of Dolly Parton than Taylor Swift (it doesn’t hurt that Monroe is also one-third of the country female supergroup, PISTOL ANNIES). Her brand new solo effort, the Vince Gill/Justin Niebank-produced LIKE A ROSE, was released earlier this month.
So let’s get the important stuff out of the way. Which of the Pistol Annies would win a drinking contest?
Ashley Monroe: Miranda (Lambert.) The thing about her is that she can handle her liquor. She can drink and drink and she stays the same. Me and Angaleena (Presley) have our limits or else we’re in a bad place.
You have to be careful with those Mirandaritas (White rum, Sugar-free pink lemonade or raspberry drink mix, Diet lemon-lime soda)
AM: I had to get them to put vodka on the rider because the rum was tearing me up!
Ha! Good for you. Let’s start with some background, you grew up in Knoxville right?
AM: Just East of Knoxville in a little town called Corryton. And I moved to Nashville when I was 15 with my mom and brother. Back home we had a nice, normal family, but when I was 13 my dad died of pancreatic cancer. He was just 40. We moved to Knoxville for a couple of years but it was rough. We were just looking for peace and comfort any way we could aeverything reminded us of dad. I finally just told mom we’ve got to go to Nashville and start over. I’ll write songs, I’m going to sing. I promised her we were gong to make a living off of this.
Were you brought up around music?
AM: Oh yeah, I always sang. When I was 13, Dad bought me a guitar and my cousin that lived up the street would show me chords. And my family has always been musical. My dad could play piano by ear really well but he never did anything with it; he worked at the power company in Knoxville. You could say music was always in my blood. I never knew anything but singing and I never let it cross my mind that I wasn’t going to be a singer… That was just a fact from when i was a teeny girl. After dad passed I started writing songs. That was when I started channeling all that.
You were home-schooled in Nashville. Did that help you deal with the loss of your dad and let you focus on our music more?
AM: Oh for sure. I didn’t have to deal with the typical high school drama. I was far beyond all that stuff… I needed to be productive and not be distracted.
That’s a lot of growing up to do at such a young age.
AM: Yeah, the other day I was thinking that that part of my life is a blur. I think part of it is grieving, when something like that happens you go numb for a while. But I was set on music. My mom ran off for while to deal in her own way and I had to step up. I’ve always felt older even before my dad got sick. I remember being very aware since I was a teeny girl.
Did these life events result in more mature material that caught the ear of Sony?
AM: I think they did. That was when I was 17. We had finished my first album, ‘Satisfied,’ and we were out on a 6-week radio tour when I got the news that the label wasn’t releasing the album. The tour was a great time — it was hard but we were having the best time and then I got a call while we had a day off in West Palm Beach. The head of the Sony, John Grady (now Monroe’s manager), said ‘I have to have my stuff out of my office by the end of the day.’ My heart just sank.
How much did your early challenges help you through through this rough time?
AM: My attitude was ‘Just keep going.’ I don’t let something like that stop me. I look for other roads, other opportunities. Part of me would worry about it but part of me would have this feeling — and don’t know how to describe it — but I had this feeling in my stomach that everything was going to be okay. There was a plan.
There does seem to be a plan coming together for you. How did you come to met Jack White and work with his band The Raconteurs and back him working with Wanda Jackson?
AM: In 2006 I left Sony/BMG and started more songs. I was checking my email and I had a message with a Roman numeral 3 in the address. Well I thought it was spam. I almost deleted it but I opened it and it was from Jack White. He had heard me on the Opry and wanted me to song with his band The Raconteurs on this song ‘Old Enough.’ We just totally hit it off. He came to the Opry right before Christmas, just came in through the back alley and sat in my dressing room. It was surreal. He and Vince (Gill) where once both in my dressing room and I’m singing and Vice is laying guitar and singing harmony and Jack is there and I’m thinking ‘What in the world is happening?’ It was just so overwhelming.
Me and the Raconteurs’ singer Brendan (Benson) wrote some songs that we might put out some day. Jack and I stayed in touch. When the Wanda (Jackson) project came along he asked me to sing on that too.
Not bad company to keep.
AM: (laughs) Yeah, Jack’s passion for music is so amazing to watch. He’s so knowledgeable and he’s always looking to learn more. I remember there was a point when he pulled Ricky (Skaggs) aside and was showing him this mandolin that he got and Ricky was telling him the year it was made. Jack’s a sponge and he soaks up everything.
How was it working with Wanda Jackson?
AM: Oh she’s an angel! She was so protective of me and Karen Elson, we were the backing Do-Wop Girls for her. She was a doll. When we had a part coming up she’d look back at us and wink. She’s still feisty too which I love!
How’d the Pistol Annies come about?
AM: Miranda and I had been at sony around the same time and we had met briefly but it wasn’t a big deal, As she tells it now she thought i was ‘Just another blonde country singer. Great, just what we need.’ And then one night I got this long text that she heard Satisfied’ and she was complimenting me on it and saying she wanted get together. So I was on a plane to Texas the next week and we’ve been together ever since. So we wrote and travel together but never discussed creating a band. While we were camping in her Air Stream in Oklahoma we wrote ‘Bad Example,’ ‘Beige’ and ‘Boys From the South.’ We looked at each other and I said ‘Are these for you, or are these for me?’ Miranda said ‘I don’t think these are or me, but I don’t want to give them away.’ and neither did i. One day after that we were watching TV and out of nowhere Angaleena Presley’s name just popped into my head. I asked Miranda is she had ever heard of her. She said ‘Nope.’ So i went onto her MySpace page and played her some stuff. When she heard the songs miranda said ‘We’re a band. She’s part of our band.’ i got chills and said ‘She is!’
Then we called Angaleena at night and she asked if we were drunk. We told her no we were just excited and asked her to email us her whole record right now. She did and we met up with her the next week in Nashville and the rest is history. When we’re together it’s the strangest thing. We are literally like sisters. We talk almost every day and but hear songs. Like we’re plugged into a higher power because when we’re together songs come out of us that we can’t write down fast enough.
We just wrapped our second record while it was being mixed on the last day of recording and we were all holding hands and balling tears of joy. These were songs we had written on the road and they are very special.
Is it easier to be a member of group than a solo performer?
AM: It’s different because all the pressure is not on only you. But it’s cool to do both. I never imagined that this would happen but now I can’t imagine us (Pistol Annies) not being together. It’s really the best of both worlds.
How did you end up with the nickname ‘Hippie Annie?’
AM: Well I’m always the one that’s the peacekeeper and trying to get everyone to calm down. I’m not super earthy i just like everybody to be chill.
The pistol Annies cut a track, ‘Run Daddy Run’ for the Hunger Games soundtrack. Did you work directly with T Bone Burnett?
AM: Yes! We went in and did two songs back-to-back. One night we got together with T Bone to do a cut for the Chieftains (the Appalachian folk song ‘Come All Ye Fair and Tender Ladies,’ for the Chieftains’ 50th anniversary album Voice of Ages) and then we did ‘Run Daddy Run’ which we had written for the soundtrack. I’ve come to know him pretty well working with him and he’s a lot like me. Kind of always in his head. He’s a brilliant music maker.
T Bone is one of the Patron Saints of Americana and I’m glad he’s involved in this and other cross-over efforts.
AM: My manager John Grady and T Bone worked on ‘O Brother Where Art Thou’ soundtrack, that’s where they first met. T Bone doesn’t over think it, he just says ‘Alright, let’s sit down and play it.’
On the cover of your new release ‘Like A Rose,’ you’re on the cover in the rain looking in the distance for something. What are you looking for?
AM: Some piece of mind while being attacked by mosquitoes! (laughs) I think I’m looking for he next thing. The day we did that shoot it rained and I didn’t want any props or anything. But with the rain they handed me the umbrella and the photographer said ‘Yes! That’s it.’
I think the cover fits the title song well. That song has a real classic country feel. I was reminded of Emmylou Harris and Lee Ann Womack. It sounds contemporary but classic. How do you think it’ll play in today’s pop country environment? Is this a subtle act of rebellion?
AM: I didn’t make a record to prove something, it’s just what’s in my soul. I love, and listen to, all kinds of music but when I write and sing it’s country. I just made a record that was exactly like me. I love the sounds of old country music. It doesn’t make the other stuff bad, this is just what I think I do best.
Tell me about writing ‘Like A Rose’ with Guy Clark.
AM: I went in the first day and played him all my best ideas. He’s a hard dude to read, he’s so cool without trying. I repeat him so much i had no idea what I was even going to say to him. After i played him all these ideas he’s just kind of ‘Hmm’ make all these grunting noises and then he says ‘Tell me about you.’ So I tell him my life story in the shortest way I could. I don’t even know what I said i was talking really fast, band then I finished by saying ‘But look it came out like a rose.’ And he said ‘Huh, let’s just write that.’ And so we did.
We’ve spent many afternoons talking in his workshop where we write. We talk mostly, sometimes we write. I just love being in his pretense. He’s amazing.
Vince Gill produced and played on this album. Tell me about that.
AM: He treats me like one of his daughters. I’ve known him since I was 15 and met him as soon as I got to Nashville. I wrote a couple of songs on with him on his last record ‘Guitar Slinger.’ We never really talked about him producing me but when I went into Warner/Nashville I said I wanted to make a record and I wanted Vince to do it.
Kelly Pickler’s last album ‘100 Proof’ moved her in a more classic country direction, similar to ‘Like a Rose.’ Is this a trend?
AM: I love Kelly, she’s a friend and I love that album. A trend towards good music is something I’m in for. Sometimes the biggest risks are taken by not overthinking something. Do what you want to do and see what happens. If you sit there and over analyze it, you can talk yourself in or out of something 100 times a day.
Now for some questions from Twitter: Who would you most like to open for living or dead?
AM: Elvis! Elvis’ name is tattooed on my hip and ‘Love Me Tender’ is tattooed on my back. He’s my boyfriend, he just doesn’t know it yet.
What’s it like being a woman on Music Row? Is it still a good ‘ol boys club?
AM: Everything can kind of be a good ‘ol boys club in business. They’ve been very open to listening to me when I have strong opinions whether they like it or not (laughs) i learned through losing my dad to never let a man tell me I’m wrong or make me feel like I’m not good enough or smart enough. I grew up fast and learned I can be as strong as any man. There’s also a lot of woeful women in Nashville, so it’s probably ether than in was in the 50s and 60s.
What song have you walkways wanted to cover but haven’t?
AM: The Black Crows song, ‘Seeing Things.’ It’s a song my dad loved and when i hear it it shakes me up. If I could song that that would be great. Or maybe something by Tom Petty.
That would make a great CMT Crossroads, you and The Black Crows or Tom Petty.
AM: You’re right! Let me get more successful and see what happens.
What’s the best song you’ve written so far?
AM: That’s a tricky one. I don’t think it’s the best, they’re all different, but I think ‘The Morning After’ on Like A Rose moves me every time I sing it. I don’t know if it’s the best I’ve ever written but it always get to me when I sing it.
What goes through your mind when you stand on the Grand ‘Ol Opry stage?
AM: When I play the Opry I’m very aware of where I am. And I’m aware that’s all I ever wanted. When I first moved to town I would go and watch everyone and when I finally stood on that stage, thinking who else had been there before me, I knew my dream had some true. I know I’m very blessed to be there.
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