Not nearly enough people got to hear what Ashley Monroe was up to in 2006. But the lucky dogs who got their hands on an advance copy of her doomed-to-be-shelved debut country album Satisfied made a fairly startling discovery: Though not yet out of her teens, Monroe was a tradition-steeped singer and songwriter whose sense of herself as an old soul guided every facet of her music. In other words, this definitely wasn't the work of an act whose label had simply packaged and pitched her as mature beyond her years.
Midway through Satisfied comes a ballad called "Used" — a meditation on the value of experience. "I know I'm not some bright and shiny / Polished-up car that's sparkling new / Right off the salesroom floor," sings Monroe in a mountain lilt to rival Dolly Parton's. "Yeah, I've got some dents and bruises / I've been dropped and there's a scar / Where my heart was broke before / But in the end I'll be worth a whole lot more used."
Somehow, it didn't sound like a stretch for Monroe to be expressing these sentiments at the age of 19. Back then, she explained that the song was partly inspired by her mother, who'd become a very young widow when Monroe's father died a few years before.
"She was feeling down low," Monroe said at the time, "and wasn't feeling pretty, and wasn't feeling young, [and was feeling] that she was going to be alone the rest of her life. I thought, 'Well, she's worth it. The things I've seen her do, she's such a strong, beautiful woman. She's worth so much more to me now.' "
In recent decades, country music has had a vacillating relationship with adultness; what had been known as a genre for grown folks has welcomed guy singers who aim for the spring break crowd. And before Taylor Swift displayed a remarkable ability to speak to her not-yet-legal peers, a 13-year-old belter named LeAnn Rimes made waves with her singing talent plus the novelty factor of seeming so young and moldable, yet sounding so seasoned.
Rimes' youthful success wasn't lost on Monroe, by the way. "I used to sing to LeAnn Rimes," she says. "I remember when she first broke. I was like, 'Well, I can sing. I can yodel. I can do that.' "
Monroe's yodel-free album ultimately got lost in a Sony merger and regime change. After she was long gone from the roster, Satisfied saw a digital-only release. Monroe had, however, made quite an impression on her elders. Parton wrote her a sweet letter. George Jones asked her to open some tour dates. Vince Gill took her on as a co-writer before she even had a driver's license.
Soon enough, Monroe began hearing from indie-rock movers and shakers, too. "Jack White emailed me and said he wanted to [film a performance of] this song with Ricky Skaggs and The Raconteurs," she says. "Then Brendan Benson, the singer with The Raconteurs, and I hit it off so well, and we started writing every day after that video for a year."
That video was for the song "Old Enough." In it, Monroe was cast alongside Skaggs, White and Benson — each of whom had at least a decade on her — as a dispenser of wisdom. She's also written and recorded an EP with indie-pop singer-songwriter Trent Dabbs, landed co-written cuts with Miranda Lambert, Carrie Underwood, Jason Aldean, Guy Clark, Dwight Yoakam, Gill and others, and dueted on a Train single. The latter was no kiddie gig either; the lyrics had her and lead singer Patrick Monahan comparing notes on life's letdowns, and the video had her playing a mother of two.
"These relationships I've built are so random — not really random, but you know what I mean," says Monroe. "It's not all country. It's from Dwight to Jack. ... And I've learned something from every single one of those I've collaborated with. I'm a sponge anyway, so I kinda just soak up how people do things, how people handle the business. Being around Miranda all the time, she's taught me a lot without knowing, just me watching, how to be a businesswoman as well as a singer and writer."
One big reason Monroe's been around Lambert so much is, of course, Pistol Annies. Just before they and fellow Annie Angaleena Presley introduced the world to their feisty, song-centric, roots-country trio, Monroe landed a new deal with Warner. Late last year, the good news came via press release: She'd finally made a new solo album, Like a Rose, with Gill and Justin Niebank producing. It's a sumptuously down-home set, stocked with full-bodied, deeply felt country narratives and built around her beautifully bruised vocal timbre. Better still, there's a hard release date and everything; the album is out March 5. And it's gotten a boost from all that Annies buzz, as has Monroe.
"[Pistol Annies] gave me reassurance that it's OK to just be you," says Monroe. "If they're gonna like you, they're gonna like you. Just don't worry about that. Just be yourself."
Monroe chose to re-record just one of the Satisfied songs for Like a Rose, and it happens to be "Used." This time, she sings it in a slightly lower key, adding fewer trills and frills to her delivery — like she feels no need to prove anything. Hopefully, with the credits she's accumulated and the doors opened by the celebrated songwriting grit of the Annies and Kacey Musgraves, country music is at long last ready for her.
It's probably been a musical generation or three since a country performer supplied two albums in a row with songs about facing unplanned pregnancy — an adult consequence if ever there was one — but that's exactly what Monroe's done. "Beige" appeared on the Annies' Hell on Heels and "Two Weeks Late" is on Like a Rose.
Not surprisingly, Monroe gave some thought to why she'd keep taking up this theme. "I'm not pregnant or anything," she says. "But I was thinking about that the other day: 'How weird to have two songs co-written about being knocked up walking down the aisle.' But then I thought, 'I sang at my cousin's wedding when I was 11, and she was pregnant walking down the aisle.' And there were some other things. Like I said earlier, I'm a sponge, and there's a lot of life I've witnessed in my life."