Jack White has a story about his first impressions of country singer Ashley Monroe. “When I first heard her,” he told me recently, “it was years ago”—back around 2006, to be specific—"when I was driving around and I heard her on the Grand Ole Opry on the radio. I actually pulled over, because I was going into a shop but I was like, ‘I gotta wait and hear what this girl's name is, because I really love her voice.’ And they finally said Ashley Monroe, so I tried to remember that.”
Ashley MonroeWhite continues the tale. “A couple weeks later I'm at the airport and these two girls come up to me and they want an autograph. And I said, 'Okay, what's your name?' And she goes, 'Ashley.' And I said, 'Ashley what?' 'Ashley Monroe.' And I said, 'You're not the singer Ashley Monroe, are you?' And she said, 'Yeah, I am.' I said, 'Oh, I heard you on Grand Ole Opry a couple weeks ago.' 'You're kidding me.' And I see this other girl getting a little bit miffed you know. And' I said, 'Yeah, I really love your voice, it's really great. I'd like to hear some more stuff. I'm gonna go look you up.' And we talked, and eventually she ended up playing and singing with the Raconteurs not too long after that. And I signed both girl's autographs. It turns out later,” he laughs, “that that other girl was Taylor Swift.”
As alumni of country’s freshman class of 2006 go, Monroe has had a pretty different career trajectory than Swift. Taylor had her debut album go almost immediately multi-platinum. Ashley, meanwhile, had her debut album shelved by Sony Nashville, even though they’d touted her with parties and advance copies and looked set to make her a label priority. That album, Satisfied, finally slipped out three years later, in digital format only, after she’d been dropped from the label.
Cut to now, and things are most assuredly looking up again for Monroe. Her even better sophomore album, Like a Rose, came out this week as an actual CD as well as on iTunes. And this time there are a lot of fans as well as critics waiting for it, since she’s since risen to fame as one-third of Pistol Annies. Vince Gill produced the effort, which leans decidedly toward traditional country, and if that’s not name value enough, it includes a duet with Blake Shelton on the rascally “You Ain’t Dolly (And You Ain’t Porter).” Much can and will be written about this remarkable effort, but suffice it to say for now that if you don’t like Like a Rose, you hate country music. With a passion.
Plenty of positive passion was poured into this album, not just from collaborators like Shelton and Gill, but her manager, John Grady, who was the head of Sony Nashville when Satisfied was destined to come out in 2006. He was severed from the label not long before she was, but he made it his mission to resurrect her solo career somewhere else, and Warner Nashville saw the light. I spoke with Monroe in Nashville recently about her interesting career path and decision, in the face of considerable odds, to stick with traditional country.
YAHOO!: How did the duet with Blake on "You Ain't Dolly" come about?
MONROE: Vince had that idea saved for me. He was singing on the Opry with Dolly one time, and she said to him, “You ain’t Porter.” And I think it kind of came in his head there: “And you ain’t Dolly.” Then in the song Blake goes “She’s a little bit fuller” and I say, “You’re a whole lot shorter.” If they love Porter Wagoner, they’ll get a deeper meaning of that. (Laughs)
The album release was delayed by a couple of months so you could get the duet with Blake recorded and onto the album. Did the song come up at the last minute?
No, Vince had that idea really when the record started. We just hadn’t really finished the song all the way. We had to fine-tune some of the words. And then we got it finished a little bit late. But Blake has been a friend of mine obviously for as long as I’ve known Miranda. He is so like a big brother. He’s very protective of me. I asked him if he would do that, because it’s perfect for us because we have enough chemistry where we just give each other s---… but in a loving way. So it’s perfect for him to do with me.
You’ve had your fair share of collaborations. You did duets with Dwight Yoakam and Ronnie Dunn on your earlier solo album. And you’ve been a guest on Raconteurs and Train singles.
I sing with a lot of my friends. The other day I go, “My new name should be Featuring Ashley Monroe,” because I’ve been featured on a lot of stuff. Which is important. Looking back, all those relationships needed to be built and I needed to grow myself and realize exactly where I needed to be. But I made some pretty amazing friends in the meantime. Brendan Benson and I have worked together a lot. And now Pistol Annies—there’s a collaboration!
How did Jack White end up enlisting you for that Raconteurs song? Did he hear your first album?
I don’t know if he ever heard that. He actually heard me on the Opry, on WSM. I got an email one morning and it said “From III”—and Jack is famously known for loving the number 3; he’s weird about it—but it just said roman numeral III, and I thought it was spam, and I was gonna delete it. Then something [in my head said] I might want to check it out. And it was “This is Jack White. Love your voice, heard you on the Opry, I’d love you to do this bluegrass version that my band wrote with Ricky Skaggs.” Jack and I have been friends ever since. He came out to the Opry last month when I played, by himself, and sat in the dressing room with me when I was rehearsing with Vince. I did close my eyes, because I got a little bit overwhelmed. It’s like, Jack White’s in the corner, and Vince Gill’s singing with me and playing guitar. This is not normal!
You were a duet partner on Train's "Bruises," which has even been released as a single to country radio and CMT. How did the Train collaboration come about?
They were and still are signed to Columbia in New York. So while I was on Sony, I asked Don Ienner, “I love Train so much and I love Pat’s melodies. Can you give me Pat’s email, or give him my music or something and see if he’ll write with me?” We kind of email exchanged and then we got together soon after and wrote. He actually co-wrote “I Don’t Want To” with me, the one that Ronnie Dunn sang on [on the first album], and we’ve written a lot of songs together.
There were rumors that you might be doing an album for an Americana label, but it ended up being on a mainstream country label, even though it’s not necessarily in the pocket of what country radio is playing right now.
I just wanted to go back to where my soul has always been, and that’s making country music. Which I can’t get away from. Even if you put a beautiful pop track behind it, I can’t not sing country, and I can’t not write country. (John) Grady, my manager, and I were talking one day and he goes “Why don’t you just go make a country record?” I was like, yeah—it’s as simple as that, isn’t it? And Vince and I have known each other for a long time, so I said, “Okay, we’ll see if Vince will produce it”—because I’m gonna go there all the way. I’m not gonna worry about where it fits in, I’m not gonna worry about if it’s too country. I feel like that if fans want to hear it, they’ll find a way to hear it. I’ve found out a lot about that really with the Annies. It’s built my confidence that it’s okay to be who you are. You don’t have to please this person and this person. Just be you, and if they love you, they will, and if they don’t, they won’t.
Was there a time you were going to make a record that was not traditional country?
You know, I went out to L.A. for a little bit. I might not want to talk about it too much. But I’ve experimented. I love all kinds of music. So it’s tempting for me to go, “Oh, let’s make an ethereal record” or “Let’s do this.” I’ve collaborated with Brendan Benson some, and those songs are great and the production of it is great. I just dabbled in some stuff. But I felt like for my next chance at a solo career, this was what it was supposed to be. I hope it is. It’s too late now!
Do you see any difference between the material you write for Pistol Annies and what you write for your solo career? Thematically, there’s a lot of overlap, though there is more constant or overt humor what the Annies do.
Solo, I definitely veer toward slow, sad songs. I always have. I write ‘em the best; I feel like I sing ‘em the best. Obviously “Weed Instead of Roses” is a good example of how I can have a sense of humor (as a solo artist), too. They both are country music. But I separate the two. Miranda separates the two with her career, and Angaleena (Presley) will too. She’s about to start a record.
You just finished the second Pistol Annies album. Any song titles you can share?
Yeah, there’s one called “I Feel a Sin Coming On” that’s real cool. It’s almost like a cabaret/blues thing. We’ve never done anything like it, but it’s still country. It’s so weird. Because none of us know jazz chords, we just wrote it a cappella. And a lot of [the recording] is a cappella.
How did you get the nom de plume “Hippie Annie”? Was that self-anointed?
I’m always saying I’m a hillbilly hippie. I want everybody to get along. I’m always the one [saying] “Everybody just calm down! Just love everybody!” I have a hillbilly side too that always comes out, but I always wear long dresses and flowers and stuff. And weed instead of roses! It was pretty clear I was the hippie Annie. The other day we were at dinner, and Miranda was talking about something, and I go “Just focus on love! Just focus on that positive energy! I know it’s hard, but when you do, it really can turn things around.” She goes, “I wish I was a hippie and not a cynic.” I’m a peacemaker, for the most part. They’ll always say, if you cross the line, though… they’ll always say they’re scared of me, if they push it too far.
So you’re the least pistol-packing of the Pistol Annies, but then you have a point where you pick up a gun, metaphorically?
Yeah, I don’t even have to pick up a gun to get my point across if I want to. I can be pretty harsh. (Laughs) But that’s hardly ever there.
Back when that first album was supposed to come out some years ago, everyone was saying you were like a young Dolly. It seems like now people more often compare you to Lee Ann Womack.
I get Allison Krauss sometimes, too. I feel like the constant thread between my voice and theirs is kind of like a mountain thing. I mean, for Dolly and I, we’re both from east Tennessee, and I feel like there’s a kind of lonesome in your voice. It’s just in your blood and it comes out in your voice. And Lee Ann Womack is one of the best country singers ever. I saw her the other day when the Pistols sang on the Opry to honor Loretta (Lynn). It was Pistol Annies, Lee Ann Womack, and Crystal Gayle. And Lee Ann came in the dressing room—she had heard me do something for Dwight Yoakam the night before—and said “You killed it last night, girl.” Before I even registered it, I got chills all over, because I’ve looked up to her, because she does what she wants to do. She will never make music other than country music. She’s unapologetic about it.
You have “Used” on this album, which was also on your Sony digital album. Did you think about carrying over more songs, since that album kind of got released and kind of didn’t, and it was in this netherworld?
Actually, it was between “Used,” “Hank’s Cadillac,” and “He Ain’t Coming Back” [to carry over] off the Satisfied record. But I’ve written so much, and there were so many other songs I wanted to get out. I kind of struggled with it a little bit, because I thought, I want people to hear these songs, too. But I didn’t want to make the same record. “Used” was the one that just stuck out that I said, “We’ll cut it a different way.” Because I’ve heard it that same way for so many years that I needed a fresh take on it. But I thought, this has got to be given a second chance. Maybe every record from now on, I’ll take one from Satisfied and put it on there!
You co-wrote “Weed Instead of Roses” back when you were 19, right?
Yeah. I think everybody could use a little weed every now and then to spice up life in general. I was driving to a writing appointment, and the title came to my mind, and I got tickled out loud. I was writing with a gal named Sally Barris who co-wrote “Used” with me, and she’s very dainty, and then John McElroy, who’s gruff and always has an electric guitar in his hand and is pessimist man. And I went in and I gave them the title, and sally said, “Oh!” [Followed by nervous giggling.] And John’s like, “Do it.” And we tackled it full-on. I was nervous about my poppy, my mom’s dad, hearing it, because I didn’t want to disappoint him. But he had his hearing aid turned down and he thought it said “Give me weeds instead of roses.” So I was like, okay, he can’t hear it anyway, so we’re good!
That could be the remix version for whatever the country equivalent is of Disney Radio or the Disney Channel.
Hallmark. That’s what Poppy likes to watch.
It was Guy Clark who co-wrote the title song with you and encouraged you to really tell your story in song.
We were just sitting there talking, and I had given him my best ideas, and he was like [unexcitedly] “Hmm. Hmmm.” Then he was like “Tell me about you” and I went rambling: “My dad died, this happened, this happened.” I was trying to wrap it up, because I was nervous and I could tell that I was talking fast and rambling, and I thought he wasn’t even listening, so I finally go, “But look at me—I came out like a rose.” And he goes, “Well, why don’t we just write that?” It was like, just write about your life. You don’t have to have a trick up your sleeve, just write about it. So that’s what we did.
You said you go back a good ways with Vince.
Yeah. He and I had written a couple songs, “If I Die Drinking” and “Who Wouldn’t Fall in Love With You,” for his record Guitar Slinger, which came out last year. But we had known each other since I was 15. I don’t know if he had heard demos, but he was like “Let's go to breakfast, I really want to hang out with you and get to know you.” And then I called him the morning of [the meeting] and said, “Okay, can you come pick me up? Because I can’t drive.” We’ve known each other that long. Good lord, he’s a musical genius. He opens his mouth and I get chills on my soul. Even though I know him, even though he’s my friend now, his presence when he walks in a room is… that’s Vince Gill! I was very aware of it. I was trying to sing the best I could on this record. Vince is listening—come on now! Pick it up, do good.
It’s been interesting trying to figure out from afar what your personality is. Because on your first record, you were so young, and because of your voice, maybe, and the sadness of some of the songs, people had this ethereal impression of you. And then the Pistol Annies thing came along and everyone saw your sassy side.
I am definitely sassy. But like I said, when I sit down to write, I very rarely can write something fast. It’s gotta pour my heart out. When I’m happy, I don’t want to write a song. I want to go outside and skip or something.! It’s interesting how I wrote “Drinkin’, Smokin’, Takin’ Pills” with them, and on this next Pistol Annies record, there’s lots of up-tempo stuff. So I guess they pull it out of me.