By Erin Duvall
© 2013 CMA Close Up® News Service / Country Music Association®, Inc.
Though Ashley Monroe is hardly a newcomer to country music, many fans will hear her for the first time on her own with Like a Rose – her first solo effort since she achieved visibility as a member of Pistol Annies, which also includes Miranda Lambert and Angaleena Presley.
But for Vince Gill, who produced Like a Rose with Justin Niebank, his acquaintance with and admiration for Monroe goes back about a decade.
“I first met Ashley when she had just moved to town. I called her up to figure out a time and place [to write], and she said, ‘By the way, can you come pick me up? I’m not old enough to drive yet,’” he recalled, with a laugh. “I fell in love with the kid right off the bat. There are some people who come along who have old souls. She seems to be that. I can’t champion her talent enough as a songwriter. And then, on top of that, she sings like a bird.”
As a newcomer to Nashville at that time, Monroe had already survived her share of hardship. Her early childhood was idyllic and musically rich: Both parents performed five nights a week in Pigeon Forge, Tenn. They bequeathed their love for country music to her — literally, with a Patsy Cline tape tucked into her Christmas stocking. At just 11 years old, Monroe parlayed what she had heard into a performance of Patsy Montana’s “I Want to Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart,” which earned her first prize and $100 at a Pigeon Forge talent contest.
But her father died unexpectedly in 2000 when she was just 13, and life took a turn for the worse. Unhappy in school, Monroe persuaded her mother to move with her to Nashville, where she worked from the ground up to build connections. At 19, she was signed to Columbia Records, which released her first album, Satisfied, two years later. Though the label eventually dropped her, what she’d learned helped Monroe plan more clearly for her next project.
She began by tightening her focus. “I listen to all kinds of music, so it’s easy for me to think, ‘I like this sound. I’m going to make this kind of album,’” she said. “But when it comes down to it, my voice is country, the songs I write are country and my soul is country.”
That was apparent to Gill, as he began work on Like a Rose by listening to her catalogue, which she’s been compiling since she was 14 years old. While he’d written several tunes with her himself, it was an unconventional song that she’d penned with Sally Barris and Jon McElroy that sealed the deal for him: “Weed Instead of Roses” is the tale of a wife who is fed up with romance and longs to embrace her wild side with her significant other.
“I said, ‘We do this song or I’m walking!’” he remembered, with a smile. “I would hate to see them miss the boat because it’s talking about pot or whatever. The humor in it is outstanding, and that’s more in line with the rowdy side of The Pistol Annies.”
Monroe’s response to her would-be producer’s ultimatum was instant: “Yes! I knew I loved Vince Gill!”
Gill’s reaction, along with her experiences in The Pistol Annies, gave Monroe the confidence to record a song as bold as “Weed Instead of Roses.” “The Pistol Annies showed me that I’m not the only one who has these thoughts,” she said. “I just have country in my soul. I can’t apologize for that anymore. The Pistol Annies has given me a boost of confidence, or reaffirmation, that it’s OK to be original and to be you, because people will accept it.”
The first people to extend that acceptance were the musicians who played on her tracks. In addition to adapting to Monroe’s style, acoustic bassist Dennis Crouch, steel guitarist Paul Franklin, pianists Tony Harrell and John Jarvis, drummer Greg Morrow and bassist Michael Rhodes brought their own perspectives to the sessions, with Gill’s direction.
“We didn’t play demos for these musicians, which I love,” Monroe emphasized. “The band that played on this album is world-class, the best band to play on any record. I was lucky to have them. I re-cut ‘Used’ (written by Barris and Monroe), which was on my first record. That was actually a half-assed release; not a lot of people heard of it. That song stuck out, though. It’s really special to me. Vince and I were trying to think of a way to make it different and fresh for me on the new record. “
They settled on a simple strategy. “All the songs on this record, Vince played guitar and I sang for the musicians,” she said. “That way, the band could interpret the songs the way they heard it and not copy a lick that was on the original version.”
This approach suited Gill’s production style. The Country Music Hall of Fame member is, in his own words, “not a pre-production guy” and prefers to do most of his work in the moment. “Some of the songs she wrote on this record completely destroy me,” he said. “(But) I took songs in much different places than she had written them, in terms of feel and tempo. The musicianship that possesses this town is so good that on the floor is where you’re going to get the most creativity. All the arranging was done on the fly, on the floor, and we figured it out as we went.”
“It was amazing to watch that happen,” Monroe noted. “There were a couple of times that I really had to trust Vince. For instance, we had made a demo of ‘Morning After’ (Monroe, Lori McKenna and Liz Rose) years ago. That’s how I heard it. Vince was right on, though, because now, when I listen to it, it’s right.”
“The best compliment I got was when Ashley listened to a mix of ‘Like a Rose,’” Gill added. “She turned to me with tears on her face and she said, ‘This is the way I’ve always dreamed of hearing what I did.’ It was so rewarding to get that reaction from her.”
The album’s title track, which Monroe wrote with Guy Clark and Jon Randall, is the most personal story, as well as her favorite among these songs. “A lot of that is autobiographical — I mean, I didn’t run off with a boy to North Dakota like it says, but Guy likes putting North Dakota in songs,” she said, with a laugh. “There are a few little inserts of over-exaggeration, but not many.”
“Like a Rose” was the product of Monroe’s first writing session with Clark. “She’s really quite good,” the legendary singer/songwriter observed. “She’s bright and funny and sings beautifully. She’s really in touch with her feelings and her background. That’s what I tried to get out of her, which was to write about what she knows. That’s the best work she does, rather than making stuff up.”
The emotion Monroe brought to “Like a Rose” was as real as could be, thanks in large part to Clark’s encouragement as they settled down to write. “I was so nervous,” she recalled. “I had a list of all my best ideas that I’d been saving, and Guy went ‘Huh. Huh.’ after each one, which was not what I wanted to hear. Then he said, ‘Tell me your story,’ so I went into it: ‘Well, Daddy died when I was 13. And then Mama ran off. Then my brother and I lived alone for a while and I started writing songs … ’ I told him everything. At the end, I said, ‘But look at me! I came out like a rose,’ to wrap up the conversation. And he said, ‘Huh. Why don’t we write that?’”
“I was trying to support her and support her story and her feelings about it and her memories,” Clark said. “I tried to help make that a song rather than the typical Music Row song.”
In addition to the stellar instrumentalists, songwriters and producers involved on the project, Monroe was able to share the studio with some of Nashville’s sweetest voices. Background singers on Like a Rose include Gill, Sonya Isaacs and Jon Randall. Little Big Town appears on the tune “You Got Me,” which Monroe wrote with the band’s Karen Fairchild. And Blake Shelton, aka Pistol Andy, trades licks with her on “You Ain’t Dolly, You Ain’t Porter,” which she’d written with Gill.
“It was fun,” Monroe said. “He sings, ‘She’s a little bit fuller.’ And I say, ‘You’re a whole lot shorter.’ It’s a tongue-in-cheek, fun song.”
It also confirms that Like a Rose achieves the goal Monroe had set for herself, to deliver an album that’s rooted in country and represents all facets of her personality. “Obviously, every artist would be lying if they said that they didn’t want to be played on country radio,” she acknowledged. “That’s a huge window to people. And a big reason for making music, to me, is so I can get what I’m hearing to somebody else. I would love to have country radio on my side. But I also want to make the music that I want them to hear. In case it does get on the radio, I want it to be something I’m really proud of. That’s why I made a country record.”