If you’re a singer-songwriter in Nashville, it can’t be easy staying ahead of the cutthroat pack. But over her 13-year career, crystalline-voiced warbler Ashley Monroe has repeatedly outdistanced the competition, often by simply turning bohemian left while the rest of town was turning safely right. After paying her publishing house dues—and watching her 2007 Columbia debut Satisfied initially go unreleased—she reconnoitered and got back to old-school country roots on her ensuing effort for Warner Brothers, 2013’s picture-perfect Like a Rose, helping spark a burgeoning women’s movement for the staid genre.
She didn’t rest on those laurels. With fellow Music Row iconoclasts Miranda Lambert and Angaleena Presley she formed The Pistol Annies, whose two albums, 2011’s Hell on Heels and 2013’s Annie Up (a third is due later this year) ascend to new heights of double-entendre lyrical snarkiness. Rather than bask in the limelight, she happily accepted a bevy of backing-vocal assignments, trilling behind Train, Vince Gill, Blake Shelton, Chris Isaak, Hunter Hayes, Wanda Jackson and Sheryl Crow, among many others. And most important, Monroe was invited to join the coolest enclave in Nashville, Jack White’s Third Man House Band, with whom she tracked 2016’s Live at Third Man Records.
Read: Paste’s review of Ashley Monroe’s ‘Sparrow’
In 2015, Monroe returned with the sprawling The Blade, earning a Grammy nomination for an album that Robert Ham, in his Paste review, said “shifts from tearful anthems of support to a fiddle-soaked acoustic swing, [and] gratefully never gets above a steady simmer.” But just when you think you’ve got her pegged, she’s veering off in another direction with the new Sparrow, which arrives on Friday. Produced by alt-country vet Dave Cobb, the album was recorded at RCA’s legendary Studio A (where Cobb also helmed Chris Stapleton’s Live from A Room, among others) while Monroe was pregnant with her son Dalton. And with strings billowing across almost every soulful cut — from the opening “Orphan” through “Rita,” “Mother’s Daughter,” and the motherhood-themed “This Heaven” — that direction is high-class clear: Dusty Springfield, circa her landmark Dusty in Memphis record of 1969. “I’ve been in Nashville and I’ve been trying for a lot of years, but I feel like it’s all been to get me here to this point,” sighs the 31-year-old Knoxville native. “I feel like this time it’s different, and I feel different as a person.”
You open Sparrow with “Orphan,” and lines like “How does the sparrow know more than I/ When the mother is gone it learns how to fly,” Your mom is still around, right?
Yeah, And she is like my best friend. My dad died when I was 13, in February of 2000, and then my mom kind of had a nervous breakdown and ran off and got remarried to this crazy guy and disappeared from me and my brother’s life for a while. And a few years ago, after I’d had some therapy, I finally related to how I felt, because really, I’d lost my mom and my dad, and that little girl wasn’t there anymore. So “Orphan” is coming back to that moment, feeling that pain, and acknowledging that kid in me that was abandoned.
“I finally grieved my dad properly, and I forgave my mom, and I forgave myself for bad decisions I had made when I was grieving. It was just a lot of healing, really, but that’s when these songs started coming out.”
Who raised you after she left?
Well, my mom came back a year later and never left my side. So we left Knoxville together and moved to Nashville. But there was a time where I bounced around. I’d spend nights with friends a lot or I’d stay with my grandparents, but I always wanted them to be my grandparents and not my parents—I didn’t want them to have to take care of me like that. Then when we moved to Nashville, it was like a fresh start, and I told her that. I got her to go to counseling, and when we started going, I looked in the phone book and picked a counselor named Cookie. It was a part kid, part adult choice. And looking back, I see that my mom was so heartbroken, And now that I’m 31 and married with a kid, I can see how something like that can completely destroy you.
How did these old issues come to resurface on this record, at this stage of your career?
I went to this place outside of Nashville where I just did some intense therapy, and it was kind of looking back, and I had never really done that before. So there were things I hadn’t dealt with from a long time ago, and I went back and stirred it all up again. And by healing, I finally grieved my dad properly, and I forgave my mom, and I forgave myself for bad decisions I had made when I was grieving. It was just a lot of healing, really, but that’s when these songs started coming out. They were, in a way, from the 13-year-old-girl me, just me along the journey.
What type if therapy was it? Cognitive?
I won’t talk about all of the personal parts of it, but it was a very intense, crazy thing. But I will say this: Therapy is so good for you and ultimately healing. And it really works.
How did becoming a mother yourself change you?
Oh, my gosh! Dalton has given me a new fire for life. I don’t know how else to explain it. It has re-lit something inside of me, where I see innocence firsthand, and I instantly forget about things that don’t matter. Before I had him, I focused on a lot of things that didn’t matter, but now so much of my life, my worries and my thoughts, are about him and my family. So I’m confident, and I feel like a new person—better than I’ve ever felt.
Did Dalton allow you to see small wonders again? Like, say, a sparrow?
He did. He really did. Sometimes I’ll pull his little playpen in front of the open door, because I’ll think, “If I were him right now, I’d want to be outside. I’d be tired of the TV, and I’d want to listen to nature.” So it’s really fun, living through an innocent little child. And you accept the wonder more. And when you have a kid, you can actually act like one. I can’t wait to go to the water park with him this summer and hit all the slides and have slushees. And I love Disney on Ice. I hope Dalton begs me to take him to Disney on Ice at some point.
When it came time to get these songs out, how was it working with Dave Cobb? He seems to be producing just about all the great music coming out of Nashville these days.
He really is a huge fan of all the music he does. He just played me this Oak Ridge Boys song that he’d produced, and I was like, “Oh, my gosh!” He’s just giddy all the time, and you feel that energy in there. You feel his love for music, music that’s been made in that studio for years and years now. And that studio is Dave’s now, thank God.
What did you learn about yourself in the process?
I just feel that there was a lot of healing done in writing Sparrow. Even the more sexy parts on this record I feel proud of, because I definitely feel like a woman, and I feel sexy. I was walking through the airport the other day, and this lady my mom’s age stopped me and said, “Your song ‘Hands on You! I love it! I’ve been listening to it nonstop, and I’m getting chills right now just thinking about it!’ She worked security there and was probably going home tired each day, But I loved that she was sitting around, listening to that song, and thinking sexy thoughts. That made me happy and proud.
With those soulful strings, you’ve definitely hit your Dusty in Memphis moment.
I feel the same way. And I’ve already been writing more songs, and I’m going to go back in and do some more work. So I’m already inspired for the next record, and the songs are all sounding like this album.