Ashley Monroe grabbed country fans by the ears with her hard-drawlin' vocals on Hell on Heels, by the Miranda Lambert-helmed trio Pistol Annies. The riveting, beautifully sung, sharp-witted Like a Rose is even better. It comes on traditionalist, with old-fashioned production, countrypolitan ballads and punchline-packed honky-tonkers. But beneath the period garb is a modern woman who advocates "weed instead of roses" to revive a moribund sex life and drops references to Fifty Shades of Grey.
Ashley Monroe spent several years struggling to get heard in Nashville, establishing some behind-the-scenes bona fides by writing songs and singing backing vocals at Jack White's Third Man studios before things started to break her way in a big fashion in 2011, when she teamed with Miranda Lambert and Angaleena Presley as the Pistol Annies. Lambert's star helped sell the trio, but Monroe was a pivotal part of their debut Hell on Heels which, in turn, led to her securing a contract with Warner Nashville, who released Like a Rose early in 2013. Produced by Vince Gill, Like a Rose expertly balances sweet, slightly sad ballads with devilishly funny, modern honky tonk, songs where Monroe asks for "Weed Instead of Roses" and trades barbs with Blake Shelton on the diss-duet "You Ain't Dolly.
To look at the pretty girl in the sundress under the parasol, Ashley Monroe could be one more Southern belle looking for her place in the Easter Parade. So placid and pastoral, this girl from East Tennessee who likes her girlie hippie things—just don’t judge the recording by its cover. Though the folk-bluegrass title track, marveling at the obstacles already weathered and the good fortune found almost in spite of circumstances, Like A Rose is no fairy tale.
Ashley Monroe only sang lead on one song on the Pistol Annies’ Hell on Heels, but that song, “Beige,” was perhaps the most nuanced, complex cut on a heady, smart album that was all about toying with artistic license. On her second solo album, Like a Rose, Monroe takes the same narrative point of view that made “Beige” such a potent and devastating song and expands on it with a clear-eyed sense of purpose that recalls the finest efforts of her fellow Pistol Annie, Miranda Lambert. The album emerges as a fascinating character sketch, as Monroe uses carefully chosen first-person details and clever turns of phrase to flesh out the persona of a young woman who’s been damaged by her past, but who can still find humor and even joy in the present.
It’s hard not to root for Ashley Monroe. Two years after agonizingly shoving her debut Satisfied (2009) into a belated release on Columbia Records, with whom she had parted ways in 2007, the determined country singer finally caught a break working with the hugely popular Miranda Lambert and fellow minor artist Angeleena Presley as Pistol Annies. That group’s Hell on Heels (2011) was one of the best albums of its year, both deeply thoughtful and relentlessly catchy.
Country music fearmongers in the mid-2000s had their choice of invading bêtes noires. From one direction Taylor Swift arrived, a pop-friendly ingénue with sparkling songs and a killer instinct. From another, Miranda Lambert was stomping in, full of vitriol and skepticism, an alpha answering to no beta. Smart money would have been on Ms.