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.”
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.
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“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