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Ashley Monroe's double vision

The singer-songwriter juggles a star-studded new solo set with the sophomore outing for Pistol Annies

By Phyllis Stark
Special to MSN Music

Ashley Monroe / ©Warner Bros. Nashville
Ashley Monroe (©Warner Bros. Nashville)

Fans who just know Ashley Monroe as one third of the country trio Pistol Annies get a chance to really focus in on her beautiful voice and unique songwriting talents with the release of her second solo album, "Like a Rose."

The album, co-produced by Vince Gill, features a hilarious duet with Blake Shelton on the song "You Ain't Dolly (And You Ain't Porter)." Little Big Town showed up to sing background vocals on another album track, "You Got Me," written by Monroe and the band's Karen Fairchild. Among Monroe's other famous co-writers on the album are Gill and music legend Guy Clark, a frequent collaborator.

That the 26-year-old Monroe idolizes Clark says much about her musical tastes and pedigree. (She's related to country music's legendary Carter Family.) The two wrote the album's title song after Monroe shared with Clark the story of her father's death from cancer when she was 13, and how her family spiraled downward for a time in the aftermath. As Monroe tells it, she came out "like a rose" in spite of the hard times, and she and Clark poured her autobiographical travails into song.

It wasn't the only time the Knoxville, Tenn., native has faced hardships. Signed to Sony as a teenager, she recorded a stunning album, "Satisfied," and was on the road promoting her first single to radio when Sony merged with another record industry giant, BMG. Sony's Nashville chief, John Grady, had signed Monroe to the label and was her champion, but when the merger resulted in his departure from the company, it wasn't long before Monroe was dropped as well. The album was shelved for a time but later found a home on iTunes.

Bing: More on Ashley Monroe

Seven years later, Monroe is signed to another major label, Warner Music Nashville, and her onetime label head and champion, Grady, is now her manager.

In the years since her teenage debut, Monroe gained fame as a member of Pistol Annies (which also includes Miranda Lambert and Angaleena Presley). The trio just finished their second album, due out this spring, and they'll be hitting the road to tour behind it in June.

If a busy career and two new albums weren't enough to keep her occupied, the 26-year-old Monroe got engaged last September to Chicago White Sox pitcher John Danks, but as she explains in the interview below, she hasn't really begun any wedding planning just yet.

Meanwhile, Monroe's plan for her new solo album is quite simple. "I want it to get heard by as many people as possible," she says, "because it means so much to me."

MSN Music: Given what happened with your first record deal, did you already feel beat up by the music industry by age 20 and, if so, what made you want to continue on?

Ashley Monroe: When I was 20 I'd already been dismissed. I was kind of disappointed, but I never had a backup plan. I never once thought, "Maybe it's [not] for me." Thank God I didn't. I just thought, "OK, that's a setback. I'll just go on." And there were a lot of other setbacks along the way. I just had faith that there was a bigger plan.

I love music so much ... I just love exploring music and making music, and I had a feeling it would happen exactly how it was supposed to happen. I was writing songs in the meantime, and had some success with that, but even that I knew wouldn't be enough to keep me satisfied. I wanted to write AND sing. I have to do both.

Expert Witness: Robert Christgau reviews Ashley Monroe

On the new album, what did Vince Gill bring out in you as a producer that you didn't know was in there?

Vince and I share a lot of the same passion for music. He's known me since I was 15 when I first moved to town, and he's watched me grow. [As a producer,] he knows how to talk to me and how to bring out the best in me, because he knows me. ... He's just so good, and he's such a legend, so anything he said I was listening hard.

Was Blake Shelton your first choice as a duet partner for "You Ain't Dolly (And You Ain't Porter)"?

Me and Vince talked about it [first] and I said, "Well, you could do it with me," and he said, "No, I'm old enough to be your father."

Blake and I have known each other for years, and [banter] back and forth like that in real life, too. We poke at each other all the time. We love each other deeply, but that's how we show our love, I guess. So it made sense that he was the guy to do it.

He's an amazing singer, and he sings all the time. Anytime I'm hanging around Miranda, he's in the kitchen just singing all the time. He's such a great country singer. When I heard it finished I was like, "Wow!"

You've written some songs with Guy Clark. What is that experience like?

I want everybody in the whole wide world to hear his songs. He's just SO good. I've written with him several times, and every time I'd go in we'd just kind of shoot the s--- for a second and I'd try to get my nerves under control. I'm so inspired every time I write with him because he has a way of writing songs. He gets out graph paper and a pencil and he starts constructing a song. He'll say a line -- it doesn't even have to rhyme with anything -- he'll put it five lines down. He's seeing the song as a whole as it's being written. It's such a cool way to write, and I'm so glad I've been able to witness songs being written like that.

How did the collaboration with Karen Fairchild happen? Is she a friend?

Yes, she is. They all are [in Little Big Town]. She came over to write a few years ago. I had the melody and the first verse. It came to me in my sleep the night before. She loved it, and she got what the song was about. And to get [the band] to come and sing on it was like a choir of angels. It's so powerful. ... They all are just deep, deep souls.

You wrote two songs with Vince Gill. Was he a songwriting collaborator that turned into a producer, or the other way around?

We had written before we talked about him producing my record. We wrote a couple [of songs] that were on his last CD [2011's "Guitar Slinger"]: "Who Wouldn't Fall in Love With You," and "If I Die," which is one of my favorite songs in the world that I've been a part of.

Did you ever expect that your collaboration with Train on the song "Bruises" [from their album "California 37"] would end up getting played on country radio? And how did that collaboration come together?

Pat [Monahan], the lead singer, and I have known each other for a long time, since I got signed at Sony, and we'd written a bunch too. He respects country so much and he really does love it. ["Bruises" is] just so catchy and contagious. It's in your head all day.

What's the status of the next Pistol Annies project?

We just finished our second record, and I'm so excited about it. We tour in June, so [I'll be] an Ashley and an Annie this year.

More: Pistol Annies' first album hits no. 1

What has you so excited about the new Pistol Annies album?

When we three get together, I don't know how to explain it, but it's like we're all three directly plugged into a higher power or something. Songs come out of us. It's literally like our body is being used, and songs just pour out of us and they mean so much.

We wrote every song on there and it's just so personal, so real. I really think our fans will get it. I hope so.

Is there a release date yet?

Not an official one, but I think it will be late spring.

Do you have to compartmentalize your brain a bit between your solo career and your band career?

They're both so meaningful to me. I'm the same person in both projects. I'm myself. With the Annies I get to play a little bit more feisty part of myself, and with my solo music I'm always leaning toward [serious] slow songs.

As if you weren't busy enough, how are the wedding plans coming along?

We don't have any plans yet. He's got to go back to playing baseball, so he's going to go and do that until September or October. I'll be touring around being an Annie and an Ashley, so we'll wait until everything dies down to see what's going to happen there. [But] we're very happy and in love. All is good.

Veteran entertainment journalist Phyllis Stark has been reporting extensively on the music industry for two decades. As a freelance writer, her work appears regularly in numerous publications and sites. She previously was Nashville bureau chief at Billboard magazine.

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