It’s tempting to tell new listeners about Ashley Monroe within the context of the company she keeps. She’s one-third of the Pistol Annies, singing about heartache and hearsay with Miranda Lambert and Angaleena Presley. Her duet with Blake Shelton, “Lonely Tonight,” hit number one on Billboard’s Hot Country Airplay last year, a win that came not long after she’d dominated pop airwaves singing on Train’s “Bruises.” But Monroe’s solo work — most recently, her full-length The Blade — remains the most accurate glimpse into the songwriting prowess, classic country influences, and tastefully twangy vocals that have made her such a mainstay in Nashville’s music scene.
“I really love that town, and we really are a family. Brandy [Clark], everybody that’s kind of breaking right now — [Chris] Stapleton, people like that,” she says. “It’s like graduating high school or something. It’s funny to see us all popping up at the same time, because we’re a family. We’ve known each other for a long time.”
Monroe’s move to the Southern music mecca came at fifteen, and while she didn’t have far to go — she grew up in Knoxville, just a few hours east of Music City — it was a huge leap in the wake of her father’s lost battle with cancer.
“I kind of looked around and was like, ‘All right: I could stay here and be sad, or I can go live my dream and try and make something of myself,’ ” she says. “I told my mom, ‘We’ve got to get out of this town. We’ve got to start over, start a fresh life. Let’s go to Nashville. I’ll write every day. I’ll do anything and everything. It will be OK — let’s just go.’ ”
She made good on her promises. Monroe was quickly collaborating with hit songwriters like Sally Barris, whose voice alone was a huge inspiration for Monroe, and Brett James, whose confidence in her talent gave her a huge push at a young age.
“I wrote with anybody and everybody, and I learned what I want to be,” she sad. “I just soaked up a lot for the first [few] years — I guess I’m still soaking it up.”
Her work was enough to earn a publishing contract and eventual record deal with Columbia. She would release two singles with the label, but stagnant radio play ultimately led to a parting of ways and a digital-only release of her self-titled 2006 debut. While she has since continued to conquer country radio in other ways — Jason Aldean’s “The Truth” and Lambert’s “Heart Like Mine” were both co-writes of Monroe’s — she’s yet to find that one single to catapult her onto airwaves around the country. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
“If I said I didn’t want to be on country radio, that would be a big fat lie,” she says. “But I definitely don’t fit in with what’s happening now, and that’s all right. I’m willing to find other ways to be heard…. There’s a lot of time and money and energy spent on radio. I think I’m about spent on that time and energy.”
“On to Something Good,” the lead single from recent release The Blade, is a rare number for Monroe, whose catalog holds more songs about heartbreak than it does uptempo tunes with positive messages. But from her leap into the music industry as a teenager to her enlightened attitude on country radio’s wiles, the encouraging lyrics of the single fit right in with Monroe’s recent moves.
“We’re supposed to be alive,” she says. “I was just thinking about how important it is for us to not get stuck in where we’ve been, in these things that have broken our hearts. It’s important to deal with them and move through them and keep going, because there’s a reason why it didn’t kill us. I love the line, ‘Wheels are gonna rust if they don’t turn enough.’ Just go. Even if you’re just going a little bit. Just move.”
Monroe claims she’s prone to “overanalyzing,” but the most influential decisions in her career as a musician — from finding inspiration to picking tracks from her expansive catalog to make up The Blade — have echoed this “Keep moving!” mantra.
“I wake up craving music,” Monroe says. “I’ll look and say, ‘Am I in the mood for Jason Isbell, or am I in the mood for Eminem? Am I in the mood for Emmylou, or am I in the mood for Fiona Apple?’ I soak up as much music as I can, and I’ve never thought about genre. The songs that I write are very much country, but that’s just what comes out of me.”
Ashley Monroe plays the Bowery Ballroom on October 27. For ticket information, click here.