It was the cowboy hat that gave it away. As I scanned the crowd at the Greene Space in the West Village, fringe and denim and sparkles and white cowboy boots tapping in anticipation assured me I was in for an atypical New York City evening. These pastorally sartorial fans and I were tucked away in WNYC & WXQR’s broadcast studio and performance space, eagerly awaiting blossoming country superstar Ashley Monroe to take the stage. Even veteran NPR Music correspondent Ann Powers gushed as she chatted with the 28 year old singer/songwriter, in an interview that was both funny and touching. “Sisterhood is powerful,” Powers laughed, as she held Monroe’s glass of red wine so the singer could perch daintily on her stool.
Monroe, who hails from Pigeon Forge, Tennessee like Dolly Parton before her, started singing as a young girl and never looked back, eschewing a high school diploma for a hit record and quickly amassing a coterie of A-list friends and collaborators, from Blake Shelton and Jack White, to the producer of her last two albums, Vince Gill. At the age of 24, she proved just how powerful sisterhood can be, forming the Pistol Annies with Miranda Lambert and Angaleena Presley.
She is a true blue Music City glamor queen, with serious flair and a look that seems out of its time, plucked off the stage of the Grand Ole Opry. But Monroe’s platinum blonde hair and ankle-breaking platform heels come hand in hand with an eloquence, wisdom and sense of (sometimes self-deprecating) humor. The young performer’s life and art bleed together in a porous, constant exchange, and there seems to be little distinguishing the two, her off-stage and her on-stage persona, though perhaps that’s the point– the point of country music being after all that it is a genre of honesty, perhaps at its core less about guitars and twang (though Monroe does have those in spades), and more about telling the hard truths about life, callin’ it exactly how you see it. Monroe even speaks in a strange country poetry, sentences seemingly pulled from the Americana songbook. You all wouldn’t believe the life I’ve had, she more or less tells us. “Even before Daddy died, I felt this lonesome in my heart.” She has built a devoted fan base thanks to a natural talent for channeling this huge range of emotion and experience- joy, heartache, fear and all the rest- into song.
As a performer, she crackles with the vital electricity of a singer who is at once both confident and vulnerable, polished and raw. For her NPR recording session, she performed a good deal of her just released new album, The Blade, and along with her backing band was able to seamlessly move the crowd from heavy, anthemic wailers, like “Weight of the Load” to simple, old fashioned love ballads such as, “Has Anybody Ever Told You.”
Seeing her live, it’s no wonder she is often compared to Dolly, her crystal clear high range uncannily mirroring the country legend. But, as Monroe adamantly insists, she isn’t trying to sound like anyone. She’s just trying her best to be herself, flaws and all. And even bad girl Monroe seems like someone worth knowing, as she whipped the room into a frenzy with her self-explanatory closing number about unconventional romance, “Weed Instead of Roses,” a track she wrote as a 19 year old, and which Vince Gill insisted she cut for her 2013 album, Like A Rose.
As the audience shuffled out of the recording space and emptied back onto the busy streets of New York, my thoughts returned to something Monroe said, something that stuck with me in its revelatory simplicity. When asked about the oft-frowned upon blending of genres between pop and country, without missing a beat, she replied, “I’m not gonna bash anything that moves me… You don’t have to put a genre on it. If it speaks to you, let it speak to you.” And indeed, when faced with impeccable musicianship and undeniable talent, it’s a waste of time to get tangled in some imaginary web of what “kind of music” you do or don’t listen to, where it might fall on the charts and whether or not your friends might judge you. I may never wear cowboy boots, but with Monroe’s freeing permission, I was able to just sit back, tune in and let her beautiful music move me.