Ashley Monroe Is on a Winning Streak

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.”

Her point is driven home with the news earlier today that her Pistol Annies bandmate Miranda Lambert was divorcing Blake Shelton, 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 “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.

“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.” Continue reading

90 Years In The Making: Q&A With the Grand Ole Opry’s Radio Show Runner Pete Fisher

Originally posted on Billboard.com written by 
Phyllis Stark

Lady Antebellum

Come Nov. 28, the Grand Ole Opry will celebrate 90 years on the air at WSM-AM Nashville.

Pete Fisher has been the show’s vp/GM for 16 years — his anniversary was June 28 — and in that time, the Opry has expanded from two nights a week to additional shows on Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday, depending on the season.

The challenge, of course, in an era of great technological change is to ensure that the show does not become a historical artifact. Thus, in addition to bringing in new members who are making current hits — such as Dierks Bentley, Little Big Town,Blake Shelton and Rascal Flatts — the Opry is taking steps to put a new face on the brand. The ABC-TV drama Nashville has helped. Trace Adkins inaugurated an Opry circle throwdown, a marketing effort that brings a little Opry magic to a remote location.

Also new is Opry 9.0: Discoveries From the Circle, a new-artist series that will present live Opry performances from three acts per release. The first volume, featuring Chase Bryant, JT Hodges and Drake White, arrives June 30.

Fisher discussed the Opry’s unique past and hopeful future in a recent interview.

A 90th birthday is really interesting. How do you celebrate something that old — or that established — and have it not seem like it’s dated?

I’ve been in this job 16 years now, and I remember uttering the words, “Legacy can be an anchor or an asset.” I think one of the real testaments to the team here at the Opry is that we celebrate legacy, but we strive for relevance each and every day. We love celebrating the rich history of the Opry and country music, but equally we love finding ways to grow the Opry’s value composition to the music industry and thereby growing a value proposition to the fans that come and see the Opry or listen to us.

In terms of the value to the artists, the weekends are the best time for them to hit the road and maximize their earnings. How do you make it attractive so somebody like Carrie Underwood or Brad Paisley will make the Opry part of their ongoing plans?

It’s really a variety of things. We especially try to develop deeper relationships for the artists who share kind of a common set of values with the Opry, and Carrie Underwood, Brad Paisley, Rascal Flatts, Keith Urban — those are examples of artists that really share the core values of the Opry. So, there’s that emotional connection. But we also recognize that we can’t live on charity alone, or emotion alone, and so over the past 16 years we have focused on things like improving the production values of the show and creating an environment backstage that meets the needs of a real diverse community of performers. Our programming philosophy for the show is quite broad-based, and I think that broad base serves to celebrate the legacy, but also drive the relevance of the Opry. It’s new stars, superstars  and legends sharing the same stage, presenting music from yesterday, today and tomorrow to the future. We have over 2,000 artist slots that we book in a given year, so we’re able to take chances and have a healthy offering of debuts throughout the course of the year.

What do you define as Opry core values?

I would say honoring tradition, celebrating legacy, respecting elders, certainly values that make America what it is — patriotic values, and in differing ways, values of faith: God, family, country, so to speak. It’s perpetuating a legacy, being involved in something bigger than our own careers.

In addition to being the Opry’s 90th anniversary, this is the fifth anniversary of the Cumberland River flooding the Opry House. It’s impressive that the Opry has in some ways turned what was a really horrible tragedy into an opportunity to build the brand. Was any of that intentional?

We can talk about another core value, and that is resiliency. The Opry throughout its history has had various challenges to overcome, and the flood was probably one of the most significant, but I think it really showed the strong connection that the artists and the employees and the fans have for the Opry … I think that everybody on our team was resolved to overcome this and bring the Opry back stronger than ever. We’re certainly enjoying that silver lining, so to speak, with a very beautiful [renovated] backstage [area], probably the finest of any venue in the world in terms of accommodations.

Your boss, Steve Buchanan, is executive producer of the Nashville TV show. What kind of impact has that had on the Opry?

We sought out a hit television series to help grow the Opry as a business. We recognized that if demand for the destination of Nashville grew, that could really help transform the business, and it really has. We have seen transformational attendance growth, starting with the first episode. More people started coming to Nashville, and then the ripple effect of the Nashville show has been tremendous when you think about the cast of performers who have graced the Opry stage. It’s really helped shine a spotlight on country music as well and shown that there’s a little bit of country music in everybody.

I’m not sure that the show’s characters have the type of values that you necessarily would want in the real, live Opry.

I think what you see are characters who are human, who make mistakes, and most of the time they come back with some sort of resolution or reconciliation about that … There are many artists in the country format who have similar stories. And there’s nothing like dialing up the drama a little bit to keep the audience engaged, too. I think it does a remarkable job of representing the industry side. I really commend Callie Khouri and the writers, who really have hit a stride this year. A fourth season has been the reward.

Will a new Opry member be welcomed between now and the official 90th birthday?

I honestly do not know. It’s really interesting how the next member candidate kind of shapes up. The right people at the right time have come to meet the Opry. One thing that doesn’t change is we continue to reach out to the new artists in the community and nurture that relationship, and as their career grows, we hope that they grow even closer to the Opry, [but we recognize] how demanding that can be with all that an artist has to do to sustain their career. I remember back with Brad Paisley or Carrie making their debut on the Opry, or Taylor Swift even, and seeing them all fill stadiums now, so it’s fun to see that maturation of careers and to know the Opry’s played a part of it.

‘Yeah Boy’: Why Kelsea Ballerini Is Country Radio’s Gutsiest Songwriter

Originally posted on Billboard.com written by

Kelsea Ballerini

“Sometimes it’s hard to be a woman,” Tammy Wynette croons on the first line of her 1968 classic “Stand By Your Man.” In recent years that’s proven particularly true in commercial country, where a fairly anonymous army of beer-swilling dudes in plaid shirts have dominated the charts. The crest of so-called “bro-country” even earned seemingly infallible stars like Luke Bryan and Blake Shelton the dubious distinction of being the lettuce in the country “salad,” while the women are the tomatoes (far less plentiful, on purpose) — at least according to one guileless country radio exec, who recently used that ill-advised metaphor to explain the lack of women on his playlist.

But this past week, it’s been the women who are making the news. Kacey Musgraves, darling of blogs and mainstream country fans alike (how many artists can say they debuted their Redbook cover and did an in-store performance at Brooklyn’s Rough Trade the same day?) released her highly anticipated sophomore album Pageant Material to generally glowing reviews, and KelseaBallerini‘s very first single “Love Me Like You Mean It” hit the top of the Country Airplay chart. This is the first time a woman’s earned the top slot with her debut since 2006, when Carrie Underwood (who had just won American Idol) scored a hit with “Jesus Take The Wheel.” The last time a solo (indie, no less) female artist reigned? None other than a pre-crossover Taylor Swift, with “Ours” in 2012.

At first glance, the two artists seem to represent completely opposite visions of what being a woman in country means in 2015. Kelsea, with her long blonde hair and perma-cutoffs, could easily be the “Girl In A Country Song” recently described by Maddie & Tae in their tongue-in-cheek single. Her commercial appeal is matched by the textbook Nashville production on her debut album The First Time(released this May), a shiny veneer that almost (but not quite) disguises the depth of her songwriting talent. Kacey, on the other hand, has a nose stud, brown hair, and a decidedly “not like the rest” attitude — and it’s earned. Her standout songs about everything from friends with benefits to how small-town life can be a little rougher than the barbeques and bikinis made her debut album Same Trailer, Different Park one of 2013’s most acclaimed, across all genres. Though she’s not “Miss Congenial,” as she told Billboard, her songs are bright enough to bring her a mainstream audience as well as indie cred.

But they’re actually much more similar than first impressions would suggest — both got their start with songwriting deals in Nashville, precocious talents who wrote hits for other people before eventually proving they had the appeal to take the stage themselves. And Ballerini’s songs, even with their commercial bent, have the same level of depth and thoughtfulness that brought Musgraves to the forefront — depth that seems to, for Musgraves, fallen victim to the notorious sophomore slump.

“Oh hey,” Ballerini sings in the opening to “Love Me Like You Mean It” — “Boy with your hat back/Mmm I kind of like that/if you wanna walk my way.” This is “Call Me Maybe,” minus the hedging (no “this is crazy” here). Ballerini is reigning country radio with a song about being a young woman who’s openly expressing interest in a man — something that shouldn’t be a declaration of radical feminism, but kind of is, even in 2015. The song continues like a country version of the TLC classic “No Scrubs” — “I don’t have time to waste on the boys/That are playing the games/And leaving the girls crying out in the rain.” This is the genre’s much-needed pro-hollering/anti-asshole anthem.

Ballerini’s next single, “Dibs,” is another song about hitting on guys, which Ballerini seems to do almost effortlessly. Instead of seeming insane or desperate, which women who make the first move are often portrayed as, it’s a welcome addition to the country come-on canon. “Hey baby, what’s your status, and tell me are you tryna keep it?” she sings to some anonymous man, whom she sums up as tidily with her “blue jeans and ball cap” description as all those oft-lauded country heroines in cutoffs and sundresses. She is, more or less, Cam’ron on “Hey Ma.” “Yeah Boy” is yet another variation on the theme — “Yeah, boy, I wanna take a little ride with you/Yeah, boy, I wanna spend a little time with you/Yeah, boy, I wanna sip a little wine with you,” she asks with a wink. It’s not that she’s consciously rebelling against the status quo, it’s that she’s smoothly stepping over it with so much skill that no one’s the wiser. She’s not perturbed by the idea of approaching a man — why should you be?

Her frankness and honesty are rooted in country’s long tradition of storytelling, a tradition that she deftly adapts to both 21st century and timeless concerns. “First Time,” “Sirens,” and the album’s strongest track, a post-divorce lament called “Secondhand Smoke,” have powerful narratives and are sung with the kind of conviction that’s earning Ballerini comparisons to her biggest cosign yet: Taylor Swift.

Musgraves, by contrast, seems to have let Pageant Material get away from her. Stuffed full of poor knock-offs of songs she’s already written (the only “mind your own business” anthem anyone should be listening to is “The Trailer Song”) and smug odes to coupledom (there’s a reason being happily in love is a topic most songwriters avoid), the new album lacks the bite of her earlier work. She commented during her Bonnaroo performance that the lead single “Biscuits” had been “pulled from radio” — considering the song’s fairly innocuous (if chiding) content, it seems unlikely to have been a moral issue.

Her laidback vibe, a strength in the consistently overwrought realm of Nashville, turns laissez-faire with didactic tracks that rely on dusty cliches, but shy from giving them any real-world context. All that on top of the fact that Musgraves insisting she’s not “pageant material” is about as believable as Beyoncé saying “pretty hurts.” “Die Fun,” “Dime Store Cowgirl” and her duet with Willie Nelson (which he wrote) “Are You Sure” show her spark — which will hopefully be brighter on her next release.

The very fact that there are two such incredible women leading the country discussion (maybe for just a week, but even so) is ultimately a sign of the genre’s vitality, and that it deserves more credit than the broader music community has been giving it. Kacey isn’t an anomaly, she’s one talented artist out of many — so it’s probably time to stop treating her like one.

Miranda Lambert Adds a Latin Flavor to “Two of a Crime” for the Comedy “Hot Pursuit”

“Two of a Crime” was written for the upcoming comedy film Hot Pursuit which stars Reese Witherspoon and Sofia Vergara.

“Reese texted me and told me about the movie and wanted me to write something or sing or both,” Lambert told Rolling Stone Country,“It was a bit of a Thelma and Louise theme and that’s totally up my alley. It is really so fun to be part of it.”

Look for Hot Pursuit in theaters on May 8.

Keith Urban & Eric Church Join Together to ‘Raise ‘Em Up’

Keith Urban, Eric ChurchKeith Urban and Eric Church premiered their music video “Raise ‘Em Up,” on March 30 on Late Night with Conan O’Brien.

“My favorite part of this video were the candid moments that were captured between Keith and I on film,” Church said in a press release. “It’s cool that a number of those made it in the final version. To me, they really reify the emotion of the moment and experience.”

“Some of the idea for this video started with me playing with my phone one day, filming our girls jumping in slow motion,” Urban added. “That’s all that they were doing, just jumping up in the air in slo mo. We put ‘Raise ‘Em Up’ on and were watching this film of our girls and they just went together beautifully. It was so simple, and emotional, and it captured some of the spirit of what I feel is at the heart of this song.”