Ashley Monroe made the mistake of getting thirsty in Times Square.
“When we went to Duane Reade,” the 28-year-old Knoxville, Tennessee native tells me, “There was just a big bottle of Fiji, $10.25. And I was just like, I can’t do it. If I were choking to death, I don’t know if I’d be able to do this. $10.25, not even an even 10, you gotta put 25 cents too, after that?” she says, mock-incredulously.
We’re backstage at WNYC in Manhattan, where the highly sought-after country singer-songwriter is gearing up to perform several new songs live on NPR. She sends someone out for cupcakes, and adds, “I’ll take a skinny vanilla latté if you go to Starbucks.” Cold or hot?
“Hot,” she responds unblinkingly, even though it’s gross outside, even for New York in July. “I don’t like iced coffee for some reason. It throws me for a complete loop.”
Monroe is about to unveil her third solo album, The Blade, an affair that’s both lighter than the previous Like a Rose (see the cheerful bounce of opener and single “On to Something Good”) and much, much heavier (almost everything else). She’s surprised I think the new album’s much sadder; I’m surprised so many breakup songs came out of someone who married Chicago White Sox pitcher John Danks only three years ago.
“Just because you get married doesn’t mean it’s a fairy tale, that’s for sure,” Monroe reminds me. “I always say the sadness is just right below the surface for me. I think when my dad died that just kind of embedded itself, the loneliness.”
“Lonely Tonight” and her own “You Ain’t Dolly (And You Ain’t Porter)” from 2013 breakthrough Like a Rose, which was so variety-hour-ready they performed it together on Nashville. As her appointed journalist of the hour, I can’t not ask her about it, even though we both know what her answer will be.a popular judge on The Voice and country superstar in his own right. Shelton’s also been a Monroe duet partner on his country airplay number-one
“Oh I don’t want to talk about that. I won’t say a word,” she says blankly, before adding, “Got a heavy heart, that’s for sure.” (Later on, she’ll add: “Blake’s a good man, I tell ya. And she’s a good woman. Life’s just hard and it’s a hard life.”)
TV personalities or not – remember, Lambert was a runner-up on Nashville Star, wonder how Buddy Jewell is doing now – these are Monroe’s friends. Lambert first discovered her via Satisfied, a 2007 album cut when she was 18, which quickly made the rounds in Nashville even though it wasn’t released for two years.
“Miranda sent me a really long text saying, ‘I’m just bawling, your songs are so amazing and your voice is so amazing and how about we get together sometime and hang out?” Monroe recounts.
On a rare radio spin, “Hank’s Cadillac” from Satisfied also caused Jack White to pull over on the side of the road waiting to hear who was singing. But before that, Vince Gill bought her pancakes.
“I was 15,” she recalls. “He said, I really love your songs, kid, and I’d like to take you out to breakfast tomorrow. Will you meet me at Pancake Pantry? I was freaking out. And then when I hung up the phone I was like, I’ve gotta tell him tomorrow that I don’t have a car or license, so he’s gonna have to pick me up.”
Her only professional experience before meeting Gill was singing Patsy Montana’s “I Want to Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart” — the first song by a female country artist to sell a million copies, as it happens — at age 11, for a contest held in Dolly Parton’s hometown of Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. She won.
After Satisfied lingered in assembly-line purgatory, Monroe had a stint singing in the house band for Jack White’s Third Man Records, where she struck up a kinship with White’s own Raconteurs bandmate Brendan Benson, who co-authored The Blade’s “Mayflowers.” Monroe quickly points to the song as a rare hopeful moment on the record, and says she’s got 20 more Benson collaborations in the can for an as-yet-unnamed project she’d like to get out there in the not-so-distant future.
“I have hundreds [of songs] recorded,” she tells me. “On Like a Rose, we were just going to make a six-song thing and then we just kept going. And this one, we had it cut down to 15, so two that I really, really loved didn’t get to make the record, but I think they’re going to be bonus tracks somewhere else. There’s definitely some gems back there, [where] if I don’t record them, it’d be nice if someone else did. If I quit writing one day, if I just can’t write anymore, I’ll have enough to make records forever.”
Lambert roped in Monroe and the cagier Angaleena Presley for the Pistol Annies in 2010, an unexpected trio of uncommon ease, who cut the offhanded Hell on Heels. One of the decade’s best albums in any genre, it comprised ten modestly arranged, fork-tongued road anthems for bored and broke hunter’s wives who owe 400 quarters to a washing machine. It’s a record of uncommonly grounded beauty that doesn’t go near nostalgia; any heartstrings pulled are purely of its own contempo-traditional charms. And there isn’t a fast song in the bunch, which suits Monroe anyway.
“I’m so bad at writing uptempo songs. I’m not great at it,” she says.
This isn’t actually true, she just doesn’t do a lot of it. 2013’s blithe BDSM request “Weed Instead of Roses” (“Let’s put up the teddy bears / And get out the whips and chains”) is one of her signature tunes, and will make this evening’s encore sound like Bad Brains compared to the downtrodden lope of new album highlights like “If the Devil Don’t Want Me” or “The Blade.”
Another fast one is the new album’s Vegas-themed “Winning Streak,” which isn’t at all about winning. “I gambled once, and I did win like 300 dollars,” she tells me. “It was blackjack, which I couldn’t even play right until I’d had a few beers. I didn’t know what double down meant or anything like that. That’s the thing, you stop thinking and you start winning. It’s really a sad song to an uptempo beat.”
She sings a few bars of Roger Miller’s “Dang Me” to illustrate. “That’s why I love ‘Dang Me,’ Roger Miller, because he’s singing, ‘Oughta take a rope and hang me.’ People will be just dancing and then they’re like, ‘Wait…,’” she trails off amusingly.
Her heroes love her too; one of the nice things about Nashville is word travels fast. Monroe has a framed letter from Dolly Parton circa 2004, before she was even signed: “You remind me of myself in the way you phrase everything. Maybe someday we’ll have the chance to sing together. In the meantime, I would love to keep this CD for my own enjoyment if that’s okay with you.” Monroe was a puddle. She also got to perform at Willie Nelson’s 80th birthday party (“He was very high, I loved it,”) via her Third Man gig, and witnessed avowedly drug-free Jack White turn down Nelson’s request to toke up with him on his own birthday. Who does she still seek approval from?
“Tom Petty. I’m still waiting on his call,” she sighs. Prestigious session drummer Jim Keltner originally put Petty on the phone with her and invited him to sing backup on her session. “Oh, you don’t want me singing harmony,” Petty replied. “I’ll get his attention one day,” vows Monroe.
Her main collaborators first convened shortly after Lambert’s first album,Kerosene, in 2005. They’d never planned for the already-well-known Lambert’s interest to be in a band, or anything else, really.
“It’s just funny how you can plan and plan and plan life, how you think it’s going to go, and then it never goes that way. So it’s actually more fun just to enjoy the ride,” Monroe says. “You can’t be two places at once, and when it becomes added stress or obligation, then it’s not really the point of the whole band to begin with. I think there’ll be more records, I think there’ll be touring, but it I think that’ll just kind of present itself.”
Pistol Annies’ Hell on Heels was a surprise hit, reaching number five on theBillboard 200 and selling 488,000 copies with little promo. The 2013 sequel Annie Up wasn’t too shabby either. But they haven’t even talked about a third record, even though one may already exist in lots of little pieces.
“We always have a text thread and Ange sent us a song that was so good,” says Monroe. “She did all of it on her GarageBand! It sounded like a pop song, it was so cool, so beautiful. We always send each other song ideas, and there’s tons of songs we’ve written that haven’t been released, too.”
The moonlighting approach seems to work for them artistically as well as mentally: “The bond there is creepily strong. As with Angaleena too. It’s hard to find those friends that will tell you the truth, will stand by you through whatever, will have their intuition where they know something’s wrong. We might have been friends for a long time before I introduced Angaleena and Miranda, but I had a gut feeling that they needed to know each other. And soon after, we wrote Hell on Heels.”
Heels highlight “Beige” and Like a Rose masterstroke “Two Weeks Late” both touch on one of Monroe’s greatest subjects, unplanned pregnancies. You can imagine she’s quick to brush off any rumors.
“I drew that from girls I went to high school with,” she says. “Your mom comes in and says, ‘Okay, you’re getting married.’ In a small town, that’s [seen as] the right thing to do, even if you can’t stand who the father is. I always looked at that like, I don’t think that’s right. How many people have gotten knocked up with no money? That happens all the time.”
Monroe strides into rehearsal on the tiny NPR WNYC stage to soundcheck in a yellow, collared dress that kind of brims out into jagged petals, Wilma Flintstone-style, clutching a sunburst Gibson acoustic. First she tries singing in a half-awake murmur, like Ariana Grande euthanizing her consonants. Then she pipes up. Then she stops. It’s a soundcheck. She frowns about her choice of heels and shakes her head.
Then the six-piece band stomps lightly into the new album’s “I Buried Your Love Alive,” electric guitar sawing through the chorus. “Wish I could make it die!” she pleads, but she’ll settle for a premature burial as long as the thing is six feet away from her, one way or another. Lambert wouldn’t tolerate zombie love; she’d shoot it twice through the head. But Monroe leaves the possibility open, her honeyed voice a nervous wriggle. It’s that oscillating vulnerability that gives The Blade its title tune, about which end of the knife she catches. The last song cut for the album, and the only one she doesn’t have a writing credit on, it’s a good example of how she strays very little from traditional song tropes while turning them on their side and finding new crevices.
“My manager heard that song and put it on hold for me,” she’d told me. “I’ve never heard heartbreak put that way.”
They launch into the faster “If Love Was Fair,” its blunt snare cutting the hopeless jangle. “Love is patient, love is kind / But it wouldn’t change his mind,” she warbles, to maybe five seated patrons on smartphones. When it’s actually showtime later, influential NPR critic Ann Powers introduces Monroe as part of the Pistol Annies: “One of the best bands, no matter what gender” — “gender” zagging where “genre” would merely zig.
At the event proper, the singer enters with wine glass in hand, clad in gold heels that could probably buttress Hell. During Powers’ repartee-heavy interview, Monroe owns her image (“I knew what I wanted to look like”) and confesses, “Singing and songwriting is all I can do. I can’t dance, I can’t do anything else, I didn’t finish high school. All I can do is wait until I’m 80 years old and go ‘Wow’ when I look back at who I got to sing with.”
At one point, Powers starts, “One way that you remind me of Dolly…” and Monroe interrupts, motioning to her chest: “Not this,” which puts the crowd in stitches. Later, when someone shouts that she looks great, she ripostes, “Thanks! I paid someone to make me look great.”
She performs a large chunk of The Blade, including “Has Anybody Ever Told You,” a piano ballad that truly springs up live, before the tear-it-all-down encore of “Weed Instead of Roses.” Explaining to the WNYC audience that Vince Gill told her, “I won’t produce this record unless you use this song,” she reportedly shot back, “I don’t think [Gill’s wife, Christian artist] Amy Grant will like it.” She did. Willie would love it, too. And maybe even Jack White.