Ashley Monroe Biography
"I wanted to find out who I was as a writer and an artist," she says. "For four or five months, I really dug into my writing, into my soul, to see what I could do. That's when this record came out of me."
"This record" is Ashley Monroe, a CD that plumbs the depths of love and loss, passion and regret with a resonance rare for any artist, much less a woman of 19. Ashley found out just how valuable that period had been when her friend and frequent co-writer Brett James took her to meet with a handful of executives at Sony Nashville. Two songs into her performance, label head John Grady said, "Part of me doesn't want you to leave here without you signing something." Soon thereafter, she had her deal.
The CD, produced by master Music Row veteran Mark Wright, has riches that are everywhere apparent. "Satisfied" explores the fickle human heart and the elusive nature of happiness in the face of longing. The pain-tinged wisdom of "I Don't Wanna Be" treasures love too easily taken for granted by others. "Hank's Cadillac," a dobro-fueled bit of speculation about one of the pivotal moments in country music history, and the heartrending "Make Room at the Bottom" were both co-written and co-produced by James.
While the blue side of life is richly displayed ("I just love sad songs," she says), there is also the pure sensuality of the Kasey Chambers-penned "Pony," the incredibly raucous "Pain Pain," and the nothing-but-fun Dwight Yoakam duet "That's Why We Call Each Other Baby."
The depth evident throughout the project belies Ashley's age, and it is clear that hers is a hard-won maturity.
"I feel like an old soul sometimes," she says. "I had to grow up fast at 14 and 15 after my father died, and I learned to put that emotion into my songs."
At 11, Ashley had what she still sees as an idyllic life--a loving father who, along with her mother and older brother, supported her as she worked five nights a week singing and clogging in a show in the entertainment mecca of Pigeon Forge, not far from the Knoxville area, where she grew up. But by the time she was 13, her father had died of a sudden illness and her family was "in freefall." With few friends amid often callous classmates, there was essentially nowhere she could turn.
The answer, as it is for many troubled spirits, was music.
"I could tell people how I felt," she says, "but nobody understood. I didn't like writing in a diary, and I had to have a way to express myself, and the best way was music. I would come home from school and go sit at the piano in my room and write things down. Every song I wrote was miserably sad, but it really helped. As soon as I finished a song, my chest would feel a little lighter because I'd let a little piece of what I was feeling out."
She had several influences to pour into her music. Her grandfather had listened to old Western classics including the music of the Sons of the Pioneers, her father was a fan of the Eagles and Lynyrd Skynyrd, and she was a fan of country music from the time she got her first Patsy Cline tape in a Christmas stocking. There was also the experience of singing from old hymnals in her church. For good measure, she is related to both Carl Smith and the Carter Family on her father's side, and Carlene's "Me and the Wildwood Rose" was a big influence, as was Dolly Parton's "Coat of Many Colors." Even the classical piano lessons she began taking at 7 factored into her writing.
"That taught me how to focus," she says, "and there were competitions where judges would make sure every note was in place, which taught me how to work well under pressure. To this day, I sometimes hear myself go to weird chord changes that remind me of the classical piano I used to play."
She had broken in at Pigeon Forge winning a talent contest at 11, singing Patsy Montana's "I Want To Be A Cowboy's Sweetheart," winning $100 in the process. "I thought I was rich," she says.
Her week-in, week-out stint at a theater there helped give her confidence amid the knowledge that she was "different" than most of her peers.
"I knew I had at least a little something," she says. "I always knew I had a gift, and I knew I had to craft it and make it my own, but I never took credit for it."
After her father's death in February of 2000, she struggled with school and with the community--"the bittersweet memories were driving me crazy," she says--and realized she wanted to make music her life. "I know what I'm supposed to do," she told herself, "and there's no reason I can't go and start on it now." After a couple of short trips to Nashville, she talked her mother into moving there with her.
"We didn't know anybody and we knew nothing about the music business," she says. Trial and error, beginning in the little dives on lower Broadway, gave her gradual introduction to people in the business. One told her "to go home and go back to school," but one by one people began recognizing her talent.
A year after her move she was offered a publishing deal at Wrensong Publishing, where she had been writing with staffer Sally Barris, and that led to her signing with veteran manager Clarence Spalding.
Her desire was to put together an album that "was me from start to finish," and she has clearly succeeded. "Every word of this record is how I feel," she says. She sings as though that were the case, something that goes to the core of what she values as an artist.
"I can tell when people mean what they're singing," says Ashley. "It's what all the great country singers had. No matter what they're singing, you feel it, and I love that feeling."