“Mommy, Where Do Records Come From?” Ashley Monroe Previews Like a Rose
In these days of loops and ProTools, where pitch correction and rhythmic smoothing define the process of “making music,” the notion of old school recording is an awkward proposition. Antiquated or authentic? Emblematic of talent or rigidly clinging to what was from fear of the future?
Leave it to honey-blonde Ashley Monroe, an East Tennessee girl with a hard wrought back story, to pull the reality-check straight out of the closest. If no one wants to tell the truth about how records get made, the hippie third of the Pistol Annies was straightforward previewing her March 5 release, Like a Rose.
Not only did she talk about the various players’ enthusiasms, hitching a ride to Boston to write with Lori McKenna and frequent Taylor Swift co-writer Liz Rose (“in hindsight, maybe not the safest idea, but we got a great song out of it”) and power-dumping song ideas in front of co-writers like Guy Clark and Jon Randall to “get them to like me,” but she fearlessly played pieces of ragged work tapes and demos for the assembled tastemakers, journalists, and industry powerbrokers. Unabashed, she put the creative process out there, bold and proud and sometimes perpendicular to the finished version.
A mechanic-feeling, metal-dance demo for “Weed Instead of Roses,” which co-producer Vince Gill insisted she cut if he were to take the project, morphed from crunchy sketch into a high-spirited barroom romp. Her saucy lyric got some push from the vinegar in Monroe’s honey soprano and the honky tonk piano sizzle from John Hobbs flounced in all the right places.
The song about getting one’s freak on – “Let’s put up the teddy bears and get out the whips and chains / Give me weed instead of roses, bring me whiskey instead of wine” – knocks the bottom out of middle-aged sexual malaise with a wink and a chuckle. For anyone who’s a little stuck, this is a humorous stick of dynamite that opens the conversation portals to a whole new realm of possibilities.
Not that Monroe, who loves a good joke like “You Ain’t Dolly (You Ain’t Porter),” her randy duet with Blake Shelton, is just about upping the sexual ante. While never one to flinch from the white trash or the frank, Like a Rose is an album that reclaims postmodern country idiomatics.
Not some archival throwback country, it’s vital and current feeling. Though Gill insisted on comparing her to Dolly Parton vocally and name Emmylou Harris as a potential influence, she is most potently Ashley Monroe, a 26-year old woman ten years into chasing the dream, who’s not afraid to sing out, draw on fiddles and steel, mandolins and dobros as dominant flavors in her decidedly direct songs rather than add-on accessories to imbue arena rawk country or slick pop with the illusion of authenticity.
She embraces a Cajun reel for the tale of a hill girl doin’ what she must in “Monroe Suede,” sounds almost fragile on the bare homage to the value of things that aren’t new “Used” or the plucky “cred scare of the ‘80s” mainstream feeling “Two Weeks Late” with an ease that invites listeners deep in to real music nominally processed. The semi-autobiographical title track offers the acoustic instrument-driven charm that gave the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band their warmth, the Desert Rose Band their shimmer on country radio.
But intriguing beyond the genuine reverence a much-awarded artist like Gill gave his collaborator was the fact every song had a story attached, reasons for it being recorded. Heck, there were reasons for why the arrangements were what they were, players chosen and notions – including an update on the old school tic-tac bass technique – employed.
Not because “it’s cool,” or “will be a hit,” or even “it’s just like [insert hitmaker’s name here],” but because the slight young woman with a voice that sounded like sunbeams falling golden on a sleepy afternoon, occasionally littered with dancing bits of dust, had spent a decade getting to this place; she intended to make every song, every note, every story matter.
The old school wordplay of “She’s Driving Me Out of Your Mind” feels like the intersection of what you’d hear on the radio back when Keith Whitley and Lee Greenwood both fit. She gives she song the reverence the realization of being replaced demands. Those contrasts — of country radio when it was both credible and commercial, hard country and country-pop, clever without being dumb, smart without losing the common man – give Like a Rose a tension that keeps you listening.
That tension, slightly anticipatory, wanting to know, but knowing you’re in a process, is the mark of the best human interactions. The emotions, exultations, doubts and disappointments are what make life, and music, real. Real: where records used to come from.
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