Ashley Monroe's first bid for country success didn't work out; the singer recorded her debut album, Satisfied, in 2006, but the first two singles barely broke into the country Top 40 and Columbia Records refused to release it. Satisfied was finally released in 2009, two years after the singer had been dropped by the label. Monroe, a Knoxville native who moved to Nashville as a teenager in the late 1990s, stayed busy, though, collaborating with Wanda Jackson, Train, Jack White, and Ricky Skaggs, and writing hits for Jason Aldean and Miranda Lambert.
The connection with Lambert led to Monroe's second chance at stardom. In 2011, Lambert and Monroe joined Angaleena Presley as the Pistol Annies, whose 2011 album, Hell on Heels, was a rollicking—and best-selling—ride through decades' worth of country-music mythology with a distinctively feminist perspective. Now Monroe finally has her own new album, Like a Rose (Warner Bros. Nashville), released earlier this month, and she's digging in her heels, so to speak—the new disc is even more deeply indebted to hardcore country traditions than Hell on Heels, and while it seems likely to earn Monroe respect from outside mainstream Nashville, much of it simply feels too traditional—and maybe even too daring—for country radio.
For all its throwback tropes, the traditionalism of Hell on Heels was more referential than lived-in; the sort-of-supergroup ultimately came off as a less-bombastic version of the Band Perry or Little Big Town. Like a Rose, however, nods convincingly at the pioneering '60s and '70s country of Tammy Wynette, Loretta Lynn, and Dolly Parton while maintaining a thoroughly modern sensibility. There are stirring steel-guitar and fiddle embellishments and honky-tonk rhythms, plus in-your-face songs that address unplanned pregnancy ("Two Weeks Late"), addiction ("You Got Me"), and kinky sex ("Weed Instead of Roses"). The ballads—the title track, "Used," and the old-school weeper "She's Driving Me Out of Your Mind"—reach toward sentimentality without getting too sloppy. Only the corn-pone album closer, "You Ain't Dolly (And You Ain't Porter)," a duet with Lambert's husband Blake Shelton, interrupts Monroe's balancing act, tilting a little too close to on-the-nose novelty: "You'll probably see me country-singin' on The Voice someday/Yeah, and I'm the guy they wrote about in 50 Shades of Grey."
At just over half an hour, Like a Rose is a near-perfect argument for what Nashville can do right. Let's hope enough people are convinced.
Miami's melting-pot country band the Mavericks are experiencing their own second act this year with In Time (Valory/Big Machine), the group's seventh album and first since parting ways after 2003's The Mavericks. In Time finds the band somewhat out of time, in fact. Whatever weird confluence of events that allowed a band like them—a multi-ethnic Florida outfit with Caribbean and Latin American vibes and a Cuban-American singer who sounds sort of like Roy Orbison—to get country airplay in the 1990s is long over. (The Mavericks aren't completely off Nashville's radar even now—the new album has reached number eight on Billboard's country album chart—but two singles have failed to chart.)
But vocalist Raul Malo and the latest configuration of his band seem to have taken the industry's indifference as an opportunity. On In Time, the Mavericks dig even deeper into the Tex-Mex, Latin, and classic pop and rock 'n' roll traditions that have always informed the band's music. It's the fullest-sounding album of their long career, and also the least country; there's considerably more genetic material from Los Lobos and Doug Sahm here than Brooks and Dunn. Compare opening track "Back in Your Arms Again," with its guitar reverb, Farfisa organ, and mariachi horns to something like "Mr. Jones," from 1991's self-titled debut—it's hard to believe this is the same band. The eight-minute Latin dance epic "(Call Me) When You Get to Heaven" is an astounding construction—ambitious and groovy, with smoldering Old World atmosphere and a soulful chorus that are completely unexpected, and yet they both feel perfectly in place on an album like In Time.