While I understand that country music is a big tent genre, as I stood in the Loveless Café’s barn last night listening to Ashley Monroe, I couldn’t help but think, “This is how country music is supposed to sound.” That’s also the thought that fills my brain when I listen to Like a Rose, Monroe’s fantastic 2013 release (masterfully produced by Vince Gill). You know, the record that so many critics put in the upper-ranks of their ‘Best of 2013’ lists alongside Brandy Clark’s 12 Stories, Kacey Musgraves’ Same Trailer Different Park, and Holly Williams’ The Highway. (Individually and collectively, those four records are absolutely how the four corners of the big country music tent are supposed to sound.)
For her first show of 2014 — and a warm-up for her appearance at the Grand Ole Opry tomorrow night — Monroe made her Music City Roots debut. To start the six-song set, a cappella three-part harmonies rang out the opening strains of “You Got Me” in a refreshing follow-up to the bluegrass ditties of The Westbound Rangers and Joy Kills Sorrow. The tune’s melancholy melody — one of the album’s highest lights — meandered slyly, yet purposely around the barn, daring the audience not to be enthralled. “Two Weeks Late” and “Weed Instead of Roses” were the next two shots fired, showcasing Monroe’s whimsical take on strong-woman honky tonk. It was hard to tell if the older-skewing crowd was on board or not. Were they unfamiliar or uncomfortable with the gospel Monroe was preaching?
Introducing her rendition of “Heart Like Mine,” Monroe explained that she took her long-time friend Miranda Lambert on a visit to Dollywood followed by a writing session in a rented mountain cabin from whence the song emerged. Hearing a name and a song they recognized must have loosened the audience up a bit, because a good half of them rose to their feet after the singer/songwriter wrapped her set in a sassy little “Monroe Suede” ribbon. (If she’d had another few minutes to play “Like a Rose” and “Used,” no doubt the other half would have been upright, as well.)
Monroe’s touring band features Sarah Zimmerman (acoustic guitar and mandolin), Lucas Leigh (keyboards), Guthrie Trapp (electric guitar), Pete Abbott (drums), and Nashville legend Mike Bub (upright bass). And they were tight… yet loose… if you know what I mean.
In the end, Monroe made a strong, if all too brief, showing in the sold-out Loveless barn. She definitely left me — and lots of others — wanting more. Luckily enough, she’s heading back into the studio with Gill in late February to craft the follow-up to Like a Rose. Even though she’s been at this thing for 10 years, Ashley Monroe’s really hit her stride over the past 10 months. And it’s a glorious thing to behold.