The high lonesome sound of Ashley Monroe's Tennessee voice in "Like a Rose" serves as a clear signal that she's working within a tradition that extends back well beyond her twentysomething years on Earth. One of Monroe's collaborators in that song was Guy Clark, a seventysomething Texas country veteran who's often too tough-guy romantic for his own good. But "Like a Rose" takes what could have been a treacly organizing premise — that the singer has had a rough life but come through it smelling like a rose — and avoided the cliché I just used. In fact, three songs later, she subverts her own tender sentiments by suggesting that a potential suitor give her, to quote another song title, "Weed Instead of Roses." Monroe is nothing if not nicely ambivalent.
One of last year's most successful new country acts was The Pistol Annies, due in part to the fame of one member, Miranda Lambert. When Monroe performs with the Annies, she offers strong yet discreetly collaborative harmonies. In a song like "The Morning After," however, Monroe's own signature tone rings out clearly. It's a loftily pitched nasal twang that regularly luxuriates into a warm croon. This album was co-produced by Vince Gill, the country and bluegrass singer-guitarist who's spent recent years collaborating with and showcasing other artists with a fine sense of discretion in musical arrangements. He also exhibits a playfulness in joining in on key moments of fun. That's what he does in a song he co-wrote with Monroe called "Monroe Suede."
If Ashley Monroe begins this album with the kind of earnest seriousness and tradition-bound assiduousness that can sometimes remind you of a stiffer vocalist, Emmylou Harris, by the end she's loosened up enough to do a duet with Miranda Lambert's husband, Blake Shelton, called "You Ain't Dolly (And You Ain't Porter)." It plays off a musical partnership unknown to many of Monroe's contemporaries — that of Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner in the late '60s and early '70s. Take in the whole arc of this collection, and Ashley Monroe does bear comparison to a rose — lovely-sounding, yet not afraid to come across as prickly when the occasion warrants it.