A few years ago, it looked like Ashley Monroe would be another casualty of Nashville's grinding music-biz machinery. Her first two singles barely broke into the top 40 of the country chart, and her debut album, recorded in 2006, sat on the shelves at Columbia for more than two years before an unceremonious iTunes release in 2009.
The 27-year-old Knoxville native was still in demand as a songwriter—she later wrote hits for Jason Aldean and Miranda Lambert—and backup singer, but her chances at a solo performing career seemed to be fading fast. Then a chance songwriting session with Lambert in 2011 changed everything; in a matter of months, Monroe went from a near-unknown to a member of the high-profile sort-of-supergroup Pistol Annies. ("Super" because of Lambert, "sort of" because of Monroe and third Annie Angeleena Presley, who are still better known for the group than their own work.)
"I've known Miranda for a long, long time, and she and I have always written together and hung out," Monroe says. "And I knew Angeleena from Nashville—we had written a few times.
"So me and Miranda started writing these songs—we had written ‘Bad Example,' ‘Boys From the South,' ‘Beige and Whiskey,' which are all on the first Pistol Annies album. We had written those, and she didn't know if they were for her solo record and I didn't know if they were for my solo record, but we didn't want anyone else to cut them. And then one night I played Miranda Angeleena's music and it was like a light bulb went off. ‘I think it's a girl group!' So I introduced Angeleena and Miranda soon after that, and we all hit it off and started writing, and then it was Pistol Annies."
The success of the Pistol Annies' 2011 debut album, Hell on Heels—it topped the country charts and won overwhelmingly positive reviews, from traditional country outlets as well as The Guardian and Spin—prompted Warner Bros. to offer Monroe a second chance, which paid off with her second album, Like a Rose, released in March. Like a Rose, produced by Vince Gill, strikes a near-perfect balance between the traditional and contemporary, echoing the classic 1960s and '70s country of Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette without crafting a studiously throwback sound.
"I'm lucky to have a record that was so personal to me, the way it was recorded—old-style country music, which is my favorite kind of music," Monroe says. "To be able to have a really good, strong second chance at getting a record out was huge for me. ... I didn't go in thinking, oh, let's make this sound retro. It was just, let's go ahead and make a record and make the music fit on every song and make it all fit together. Let's just go make a complete record and not think about whether this is too country for country radio or all the questions that someone on a major label would ask when making a record."
Monroe's success was more than a decade in the making. She'd been a professional songwriter in Nashville since she was a teenager, moving there from Knoxville with her mother after her father died.
"I lived there until I was 15," she says of her hometown. "I had a wonderful life there, a wonderful childhood. ... Then my dad got sick when I was 13, and when he passed away, that's when I started writing songs. I'd always sang—sang in a little show in Pigeon Forge when I was 10 and 11. I always sang, all the time. But after he passed and I started writing, I knew that I needed to pursue this dream and that it was going to help things if I got a fresh start in Nashville and got out of Knoxville. Since Daddy was gone it wasn't the same."
More than one critic has declared 2013 the Year of the Woman in country music. It's not just that a new generation of singer/songwriters—Monroe, Lambert, Kacey Musgraves, Brandy Clark, Holly Williams, Caitlin Rose—has emerged; more important is the fact that they're singing frankly about grown-up subjects like class, gender, and sexuality in more explicit terms than Nashville has ever heard. The most-discussed song from Like a Rose is "Weed Instead of Roses," a rousing number that endorses pot, booze, and playful kink; the protagonist of "Two Weeks Late" is pregnant and behind on the rent.
"I think it's a good time for all women right now to stand up and sing what you know about, whether it's the good, the bad, or the ugly," Monroe says. "I think that's what Loretta did, I think that's what a lot of our heroes have done. They paved the way for us to do the things we're doing now, to sing about the things were singing about now. For me, anyway, I'm just following in their footsteps."
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story used the wrong title for one of Monroe's songs. It is "Weed Instead of Roses," not "Whiskey Instead of Roses."