If you’re a country fan, you’ve likely seen/heard Ashley Monroe, even if you don’t know her name. Although her new release Like a Rose is not her first effort, these days she’s perhaps best known as “Hippie Annie”, the “other” blonde girl in the sassy country super-trio Pistol Annies. However, I predict that the release of this album will change things a bit for this talented vocalist, and a lot more people are going to become familiar with Ashley Monroe in her own right.
Musically speaking, this record comes with lots of firepower, as some of Nashville’s past and present icons are lending support to this up-and-comer. First off, there’s Vince Gill, who took the production helm with the help of Justin Niebank (Rascal Flatts, Blake Shelton, Taylor Swift), who shares production, mixing and engineering credits as well. Then there’s the reigning CMA Entertainer of the Year, Blake Shelton (also Pistol Annies bandmate Miranda Lambert’s other half), who lends his vocals to the fun closing duet “You Ain’t Dolly (and You Ain’t Porter)”—which, by the way, is one of the coolest traditional-turned-modern western swing renditions I’ve heard in awhile. For that matter, Like a Rose is a near-perfect blend of old and new school country, with current and relevant lyrics sung over tasteful traditional instrumentation. It’s true country, just the way I like it—but it isn’t your grandma’s country. Lyrically, Monroe touches on pop culture with references to Fifty Shades of Grey and The Voice; she also joins the ranks of country artists who are expanding their “drinking songs” to include favorable references to pot (“Weed Instead of Roses”). Definitely country music for the twenty-teens.
The thing about roses is you can’t grab them with out catching a few thorns, and Monroe stays true to this metaphor with her songs, letting her difficult past speak into her current artistry with a blend of grace and bittersweetness. The opening title track is perhaps the most autobiographical: “I was only thirteen when my daddy died / Mama started drinking and my brother just quit trying / I’m still bouncing back, heaven only knows / How I came out like a rose.” Further introspection happens on tunes like “Used” (“Yeah, I’ve got some dents and bruises / I’ve been dropped and there’s a scar / Where my heart has been broke before”) and “Morning After” (“Room spinning around faster and faster…Nothing hits, nothing hurts like the morning after”). But sandwiched alongside these almost uncomfortable moments of truth are songs of lighter fare like “Weed Instead of Roses,” “Monroe Suede” and “Two Weeks Late,” adding balance to the 9-song track list and blunting the sting of the thorns just a bit.
With Like a Rose, “Hippie Annie” drops the bad-girl façade for awhile and gives us a glimpse into who Ashley Monroe really is. It’s a great lesson in letting life inform your art, resulting in a fantastic sophomore solo album by a young lady whose real name is destined to be known.