When the first single off Ashley Monroe’s new record The Blade emerged earlier this year, it seemed that she was, perhaps, en route to a flashier, more mainstream career. “On to Something Good” is an undeniably catchy song, impossible to ignore and ideal for country radio-play. And with another Blake Shelton duet in “Lonely Tonight”, as well as a tour with Rascall Flatts and Little Big Town, it seems only a matter of time before Monroe is a household name. But despite all that, The Blade is proof that she hasn’t lost her edge one bit. It’s a smooth, smart and timeless country record.
Monroe’s voice is like sweet tea, honeyed and fluid. She flows so gracefully between notes and makes it sound easy. Not to mention, she never overdoes it. Like the vintage female country stars that no doubt inspired and influenced her, she’s just got that special thing that can’t be taught. Her harmonies on the title track are so finely tuned, it’s intimidating. Similarly “If Love was Fair” finds Monroe oozing through perfect harmonies and notes that seem to just stream out of her, cool and blue. This tune’s edgier verses about fast living give way to an unexpectedly gentle and beautiful chorus.
Much like her debut record Like a Rose, Blade is full of songwriting that has an old-fashioned country vibe to it. There’s no useless, watered down talk of pickup trucks, cut-off shorts or wayward cowboys. Monroe’s songs cut deep with a strength so fierce, you’ll do countless double takes, playing back what you just heard to make sure you’ve got it right. Her songs are never over-written – they’re simple and so well crafted. She vividly and cleverly sings on “If Love was Fair” of essentially being a tragic, hot mess, post breakup:
I wouldn’t be half lit, drunk, diggin’ round for danger
Writin’ my number on a coaster, slidin’ it to a stranger
Walkin’ crooked, justifyin’ all my bad behavior
Tangled up in someone’s arms I know I won’t see later
I wouldn’t be gettin’ good at gettin’ good at stayin’ gone
Or sittin’ high and mighty on my broken throne
I wouldn’t be cursin’ God for leavin’ me here all alone
I wouldn’t be stuck between a rock and bein’ stoned
If love was fair
Songs like “Winning Streak”, “Dixie”, “If the Devil Don’t Want Me” and “I’m Good at Leavin’” harken back to that traditional country and western spirit. “I’ve got a knack for bein’ free,” she sings with a dark humor and sly wink on “I’m Good at Leavin’”. Like many of her songs, this one shows the way Monroe hits these poignant feminist notes, rejecting what’s expected and being her own person. “I’m bad at hearin’ babies screamin’/I’m good at leavin’”, she sings. Amen.
Artists like Monroe, as well as her peer Kacey Musgraves, don’t fully fit the mold of mainstream country females. They’ve got the style and vocal chops, but in terms of songwriting and wits, they leave the rest of ‘em in the dust. Monroe is the smart, female country fan’s hero, singing her own truth, rather than some record exec’s version of it.