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Ten Year Town: Ashley Monroe

By Jof Owen

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“Nashville feels like home. I love it here. I'm a Tennessee girl. I miss Tennessee too much when I'm out of it”, Ashley Monroe reflects ruefully.

Born 180 miles away in Knoxville, Monroe grew up listening to The Eagles, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Bonnie Raitt. Her love affair with country music began when she was 11, after she won a talent contest in Pigeon Forge singing Patsy Montana's 'I Want To Be A Cowboy's Sweetheart'. Her father could sing, and her grandpa's first cousin was Carl Smith - who was married to June Carter – so she was encouraged to learn piano and guitar from a young age. However, when her father died from cancer when she was just 13, she found a different sort of comfort in music. She turned to songwriting with an added enthusiasm, eventually persuading her mother to move east from Knoxville with her.

She's been in Nashville for 20 years this September, her three previous solo albums and countless co-writes having made their mark all across Music City. However, with her fourth album Rosegold, Monroe pulls an unexpected left-turn from the sonic template of her previous albums. Developing her sound with lush synths, sensual beats and shimmering harmonies, she's created a whimsical record that pulls in an unlikely array of influences. Delving through pop, R&B and hip hop, the album sounds like Chvrches playing the Grand Ole Opry.

Written and recorded over the past two years, Monroe developed the album song-by-song, bringing ideas into writing sessions and inviting collaborators to build on them together. Gena Johnson, a mixing engineer who's best known for her work with John Prine and Jason Isbell, teamed up with Monroe to bring the album's disparate styles and production together.

While Rosegold may come as a surprise to her country audience, it doesn't feel like much of a departure to Monroe. “There's always going to be people that wish I was just country; but I feel like no one stands for one thing, and if you do, you're probably bored and itching for an adventure”. Rosegold is the sound of her scratching that itch - diving into the unknown and coming up more than ever like herself. The journey for Ashley Monroe is just beginning.

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Growing up in Knoxville, you weren't that far away from Music City. Do you remember the first time you went to Nashville?

I first went when I was 10 years old. I sang at a Tennessee Fairest Of The Fair competition. That was the only time my dad was ever in Nashville with me. I sang three songs in the intermission of the beauty contest and then went back home, knowing I wanted to end up in Nashville. After my dad passed away, when I was 13, my mom and I started making trips. I didn't have any gigs, but I would go to Broadway, get up and ask the band if I could sing with them. I was only 15 when I moved here with my mum. I didn't know anybody and didn't know how anything worked. But looking back, I thought there were so many angels ushering us along the way. We were grieving my dad, but I knew what I wanted and that I was going to figure it out. So that's how I got my mom to move to Nashville - I told her we weren't heading in a healthy direction in Knoxville. I said if I could get to Nashville, I promised I'd write or do whatever it took to be successful.

When did you feel like you'd climbed that first step of the ladder?

A man who heard me at Tootsies singing 'Rocky Top' introduced me to different writers. There I met Brett James, who took me under his wing. I got signed to a publishing deal as a songwriter when I was 17. I was writing every day, and my mum took me to writing appointments. I shared a great long history with my publisher, who had signed me to my first deal at the time. She was a real fighter for my songs, getting me my first cut with a song Brett and I had written called 'The Truth'. She got it cut by Jason Aldean, who took it to number one. Those were my first moments in Nashville where I realized it was going somewhere.

You moved to Nashville 20 years ago this year. How much has the city changed from how it was back then?

It's so different. I went into town the other day for a co-write and looked around thinking, “What is this whole other city?!” All these different parts of it are just appearing. If someone just dropped me in Nashville and didn't tell me where I was, then I wouldn't even know where I am sometimes. There's just so many new restaurants, hotels and condos. It's just growing so rapidly everywhere I look.

Are there things you miss about how it used to be?

I'm happy to grow with it; I'm kind of an introvert anyway. I used to go out a lot in my twenties, that's for sure - so I had my days downtown. Nashville wasn't quite as wild as it is now - or at least, not quite as busy - it's probably still as wild. But I'm cool to let it grow because it doesn't affect me in any way. I'm glad that people love the same city I love. I miss certain little sweet spots that probably weren't as filled up with people before as they are now, but that's like any good city.

The new album doesn't sound like something made in a busy city - it's so full of light and space, it feels like it has a much more rural spirit.

I wanted it to sound whimsical, but I still have that here. Right outside of Nashville, there are some meadowy whimsical spots, let me tell you. I go for rides all the time. If you drive 20 minutes south, you'll see creeks, weeping willows and beautiful flowers. I aimed for an “outskirts of Nashville” vibe on this record. I wanted it to be dreamy and to take people outside of whatever it was they were in at that moment.

Do you think of Rosegold as a country record?

I don't think it's a country record, no, but my voice is country no matter what, so I don't know. I didn't want the album's genre to say 'Country' because I don't think it is. For example, Cat Stevens sometimes feels more country than anything I hear on country radio. All I knew when I was making the record was that I didn't want country instrumentation on it. I didn't envision that kind of production for these melodies. I feel like I can write a record like this and then co-write a cut with Travis Tritt for his upcoming album. That's one of the most country songs I've ever written in my life, so I feel I can write and sing all kinds of music.

There's very little sadness in these lyrics, just a lot of positivity and light. Was that something you consciously aimed for?

Big time. I have a son now, and when I had him, all these joyful melodies starting coming to me. I started being really protective of my joy. It's not like I'm oblivious to pain or suffering - I'm very aware of it - but I'm very protective of my joy. So I wanted to do that lyrically - I didn't want anything to feel sad. I wanted to take a picture of this moment in my life where I'm feeling this innocence and relief from a long stretch of pain. I then wanted to amplify, put a beat behind it, harmonize with it and make other people feel that way when they heard it.

Have you tried listening to it as you go around Nashville?

I listen to it in my car all the time. Every time I'm in my car, just driving around Nashville, I listen to Rosegold. I have done for two years now, ever since I've been writing these songs. Every single time I get chills, it's like an affirmation to me.

Ashley Monroe's fourth album, Rosegold, is out now via Mountainrose Sparrow / Thirty Tigers. Watch the video for new single 'Gold' below.