When legends like Guy Clark and Vince Gill sign on to work with a young artist, you know there’s something there. Such is the case with country singer/songwriter Ashley Monroe. While Clark has co-written with the wonderfully talented songstress, Gill — along with Nashville A-lister Justin Niebank — has produced two of her three records, including 2013’s captivating Like a Rose and the just-out The Blade.
Having grown up in east Tennessee, Monroe is a traditionalist at heart; but, being a Millennial, she’s not a purist in practice. Instead, you can find her singing with everyone from the Raconteurs to Train to the Pistol Annies because her voice is just that beguiling. With The Blade, Monroe puts it through its paces, delivering toe-tapping boogies, soul-tinged ballads, and summer-loving boppers.
I just caught some of your Twitter chat and you can call me “sir,” if you want to. I get that a lot.
[Laughs] I know. It was coming so fast, my eyes started crossing and, apparently, I called a dude “ma’am.” [Laughs] At least I’m polite!
[Laughs] Exactly. Well, let’s start with a doozy, ma’am.
Okay … sir. [Laughs]
Nice. What’s your definition of and vision for country music?
For country music to keep its integrity. It was built on amazing stories and beautiful melodies — things that would make you feel something. Amazing songwriting. That’s my hope for it … that we don’t get lazy and keep making music that our heroes would be proud of.
Now, I talked about this with Lee Ann Womack, but I think it fits you, too. To me, it’s like pop took a step toward urban and country took a step toward pop leaving a few of you standing there just doing what you do …
Yeah. There’s really good pop music. I love Shania Twain. I love Come on Over. I listened to that a million times. It’s not even that I mind pop. I’m just not sure what some of the stuff that’s being played now, what category that fits in, except bad. So I hope it doesn’t stay that way.
I know I dig it, but what’s the early word you’re hearing on your new record?
I don’t really even know. It’s not getting played how I would like it, but no one can say I didn’t go out and try. I sure did. Radio is an interesting game and I know a lot about it. Maybe one of these days I’ll speak more and tell a few secrets about how that works because the audience really does get gypped. But I’m going to keep my mouth shut, for now.
And we just had that Keith Hill guy spouting off about not playing women on country radio …
Yeah, that didn’t help my rage for how things work. But that stirred up Martina [McBride]. That stirred up almost every woman in country music. And you know what happens when you stir up a bunch of women — change happens. So maybe, in a weird way, that was supposed to happen.
Martina made the “Tomato” t-shirts. But I think it was Sarah Buxton who tweeted to maybe take that $15 and go buy a record by a female artist instead.
Amen. True.
When you were a kid or an early teen going through your father’s passing and … just life, which songs or artists did you turn to for solace?
I listened to so many kinds of music. I always loved Bonnie Raitt. And I always loved the classic country music. But, gosh, I listened to the Eagles, Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Black Crowes, Beck. I really have listened to all different kinds of music, most of my life. I always say, “I like anything from Emmylou to Eminem, if it makes me feel something.” And that’s really the truth.
If I hear a song and I don’t feel anything, it actually kind of scares me because that’s the whole point of music — it makes people happy or it makes people sad. It can make you feel. That’s the universal language. So, when I hear music and it’s just noise to me, that’s scary.
Are you going to name any names?
Noooo. [Laughs] That’s open to interpretation. Honestly, I don’t even know some of the names of the songs or the artists because I change the channel so quickly.

[Laughs] That’s fair. Now, some of your songs have been around for a while … “Has Anybody Ever Told You,” “Weed Instead of Roses”… how were you writing songs like that when you were 17 or 19, for Pete’s sake?
Some of my favorite songs that I’ve ever written have kind of woken me up out of a dead sleep. “Has Anybody Ever Told You” was one. I heard the melody and couldn’t write it down fast enough. Then I was writing with my friend Tyler Cain, who’s an amazing guitar player, that day, so I brought him that and we finished it really quickly. That one, I’ve sung it a lot because I wrote it a long time ago, but it’s one of my favorite songs I’ve ever written. And it’s so simple. There’s not really a big hook or a big pay-off line. It just makes me feel something that I really can’t explain.
“Weed Instead of Roses” … I was 19 when I wrote that. I was driving down the road and thinking, because I always am. And I thought, “Oh, that would be funny … bring me weed instead of roses. Ha ha. Yeah, right.” I remember Gretchen [Wilson] was really big at the time when we wrote it so I thought maybe she’d cut it. We pitched it to her a million times. It was for me, turns out.
Some people feel like they can do everything better when they are happy, even write sad songs. But that’s not necessarily the case for you is it?
Uh, no. Well, the thing about me … [Laughs]
For John’s sake, I hope that doesn’t mean you stir up trouble just to have something to write about.
No. Exactly. I’m a happy girl. I can think positive. I overcame a lot, but there’s some sadness that’s always just right there at the surface which I’m really thankful for songwriting to help with that because it’s really good therapy.
What do people turn to if they don’t have music … booze, drugs, what?
The good news is there’s a lot of us, even if you can’t sing or write or whatever, we do turn to music to put us in a certain mood or get us out of a certain mood. All around the world. That’s the beauty of it.
Right. Yes. Which goes to my next question: How do you find your way into some of the very emotional tunes night after night? There must be nights when you just don’t want to go there.
No, actually, I always do want to go there. I see kind of an image of what the song is to me every time I sing a song. Some nights — like when-people-aren’t-listening nights or I’m in front of an audience that doesn’t really care, they just want to get drunk and talk to each other — that can really mess with me because I’m up there pouring my heart out and it’s not being heard. Then, my mind gets off track and I just want it to be over. I’m trying to not put myself in those situations any more. It’s not quite fair to the audience or myself, neither one getting what we want. Normally, when I’m in situations where people are listening, I get 100 percent in the zone with the song. And I love it. I never do not want to go there.
Let’s talk collaborations, because you’ve done some cool projects across a wide spectrum. So tell me what it has meant to you both personally and professionally to work with these folks: Trent Dabbs …
Trent Dabbs and I — I love him so much. We just got to where we were writing a bunch of songs and thought, “Hey, let’s do an EP.” It was a really great time in my life. He lived like four houses away from my apartment complex so I would just walk up to his house and write songs. He’s a really great guy.
The Raconteurs … I just watched that video recently. What a cool piece.
That was magic. I got the email from Jack [White] in 2008. I’d met him a couple years earlier … at the airport, actually. We all got together — with Ricky Skaggs. That whole day was sheer magic. It really was. I went to Jack’s house the night before, with the Raconteurs, and we practiced kind of an arrangement, but not even really. So that whole day was really organic, figuring out how we were going to do it.
Wanda Jackson …
Oh, Wanda Jackson. I love that woman so much. That was one of the best times of my life, as well, and a huge honor to be able to sing background for her. And I love Ruby Amanfu so much. Me and my Ruby were roommates on that tour. That was also magic. One of my favorite Wanda quotes — there were two gals talking in the front row pretty loudly and she stopped the band and said, “Excuse me, am I interrupting your conversation?” [Laughs] I thought that was pretty amazing. She is feisty.
[Laughs] Nice. Guy Clark …
Guy Clark is about the coolest human being I’ve ever met — without trying at all. He’s just so wise. The fact that I’ve even been able to write with him one time blows my mind. And then I think that I have cuts on his record that I got to write with him. That just made me wipe my palms because I got so nervous. He is so important to me. So important.
Train … You’re like a musical ambassador here, just all over the map. [Laughs]
My God, I am … [Laughs] Gosh. Okay, Train. Let’s see here. Well, Pat Monahan has one of the best voices. I am so obsessed with Pat Monahan’s voice.
Does he have an agent just for national anthems?
Does he do a lot of them? [Laughs]
He does a lot of them … at least during football season.
Well … he does it well. When I was first signed to Columbia Records, in 2005 or 2006, I emailed the head of Columbia in New York — Donnie Ienner — and was like, “Hey, I like Train. I want to write with Pat Monahan.” So he gave him my record and that was when we began to write and hang out. And we’ve adored each other ever since. So it was cool to sing on “Bruises.” I went on tour with them and would come out to sing on “Bruises” and “Weed Instead of Roses.” It was amazing. They’ve been really great to me.

That’s awesome. Uhhhh … Pistol Annies, of course …
That’s the most magical … one of the most magical.
Of all the magics, that’s the magic-est? [Laughs]
[Laughs] Oh, they’re all magic. I look back and … Pistol Annies was so unexpected, but it changed my life so much in so many ways. Even if you took out any success, the bond that we three have is crazy. I’ve never had that bond with anybody here on this earth as I do with Miranda [Lambert] and Angaleena [Presley]. The fact that we got to travel the country and make music and make records — and I don’t think we’re done, either. We just have to find the time to be individuals and together. But I’m really, really, really most proud of Pistol Annies.
Last one is Blake [Shelton] …
Oh, Blake. I love singing with him. He’s been my friend, also, for a very, very long time. I’m honored that he asked me to sing on “Lonely Tonight.” Singing with him puts me at ease because, gosh, he and I and Miranda have been singing around campfires and drunk, sitting in the living room, for years now. We’re all used to singing together. And I know that he did that because he loves me and he believes in me. He really wants me to be heard. So I’m really grateful to him for letting me piggyback him to number one. [Laughs]
[Laughs] Well, looking at it in reverse, though, from my perspective, you give him some street cred. I gotta say that.
Now, see there? Thank you. I’ll tell him. [Laughs]
I love the story you told Billboard about when you’d hit number one: “He texted me on Monday night and said, ‘We’re number one. Carry on.’ I said, ‘I’ve hit the big time. I’m sitting on the couch by myself watching The Bachelor, rubbing my own shoulder.’ That’s what number one is.” [Laughs]
[Laughs] I know. By myself. I was like, “Oh, this is what it feels like.”
Tell me about working with Vince and Justin. What does each of you bring to the team?
Vince has such a great ear. A lot of times he doesn’t talk. He’s really quiet. It took me a while to realize he wasn’t mad about something or he didn’t think something was bad. He was just listening. He will come up with ideas or subtle changes, certain harmonies or certain things for me to sing that just make such a huge difference. Obviously, Vince is on the traditional side, as I am, as well. And Justin can add a little bit of the new stuff … not new, but out there stuff — putting my voice through an amp and things like that that I also love. He can go that way. It’s actually great for Justin and Vince to work together. It’s a perfect balance, in my mind.
Seems like you sit in the middle.
Yeah, and I was sure to speak up more on this album, if I thought anything. Not that I didn’t on the first one, but I had a lot to say and they listened. If there was a question of “Should it be like this or like this?” I would say, “It should be like this, for sure. Let’s go.” I guess, confidence. I had a little more confidence in working beside the two of them because they are all so experienced.
Might as well end with a doozy, too. What would your life look like without music? Who would you be?
I don’t know that I could be without it unless I was born another person. But, if I wasn’t in the music business, I would be somewhere probably chomping gum, cutting somebody’s hair, listening to music, and gossiping. [Laughs] In a small town, probably.
[Laughs] I, oddly, can kind of see that.
I know, right? I kind of can, too. [Laughs]
But I’m really glad you weren’t born that person.
I know. I know. I am, too.