Album Review – Ashley Monroe’s “Sparrow”

photo: Hannah Burton

Barring a miracle from Country Music Jesus, Ashley Monroe will never see the kind of career recognition that her talents deserve, at least in the here and now. That’s just the unfortunate product of the era in which her music matured. Even with a major label backing her efforts, even with big name recognition bestowed from her participation in The Pistol Annies, and even with widespread critical acclaim for her music and praise from her peers, there’s only a few precious slots for women to fill in this period of country music history, and Ashley Monroe will apparently not be one of the select few tapped to participate. These are the real world results of the lack of support for women in country music today.

As a songwriter and singer, and even when taking into consideration the shallow measurements of beauty and celebrity buzz (she’s married to a professional baseball player), Ashley Monroe has all the potential, and everything pointed in the right direction to be a successful mainstream star, and still has failed to see a song crack the Top 35 in the charts. When it comes to the sales for her latest album Sparrow, it could barely manage more than a whimper. It debuted with just under 5,000 copies sold, and just outside the Top 20 in the Billboard Country Albums chart. That’s not a serious blow for an artist in the Americana realm. But for someone signed to Warner Bros. Nashville, it’s certainly a disappointment for all parties. For context, Monroe’s last album The Blade debuted at #2 on the albums charts, and sold over twice as many copies on its debut week.

Sparrow as an album is somewhat difficult to pin down, and difficult to take measure of. Part of the reason it has suffered in sales is from lacking a definable or resonant single. Of course radio wouldn’t play it anyway, but a highly-regarded song might have garnered wider attention from the effort from mainstream fans. “Hands On You” tried, but was a hard sell to a wide audience. Instead, the approach to this record was more non commercial. It was similar to Chris Stapleton, selecting Dave Cobb as the producer, and recording Sparrow in Nashville’s Studio ‘A’, which was the ideal venue to incorporate the string arrangements that are the most indicative element of the album. Studio ‘A’ was originally constructed as a big room with a vaulted ceiling to be the ideal vessel for the orchestral recordings of the Countrypolitan Era.

However Sparrow is not a Countrypolitan record, nor it is even really country. By straying somewhat from her country past, Monroe also put herself at odds with some of her grassroots followers. And released on one of the busiest weeks we’ve seen for highly-anticipated albums in recent memory (Brothers Osborne, Old Crow Medicine Show, Joshua Hedley, Charley Crockett, others released on the same day), Sparrow was somewhat lost in the shuffle.

The songwriting on Sparrow is what endures, autonomous of any other concerns. It might even be fair to mark it as her most refined songwriting effort yet. Songs like the opening “Orphan,” or the stirring story of “Rita,” or the heartbreak of “Paying Attention” are what distinguishes an artist like Ashley Monroe from the mundane efforts of the mainstream. Waylon Payne worked a lot with Monroe on the songwriting of this record, of which Monroe co-write every track.

Monroe’s voice is also in top form. It’s able to handle both sexy subject matter, of which Sparrow broaches on numerous occasions, including the sultry “Hands On You” and the rambunctious “Wild Love.” It also handles the sweet and loving stories, whether singing about her new gift of motherhood, or the affection for her father in “Daddy I Told You.”

But you can’t help but wonder what songs like “Rita” and “Paying Attention” would sound like if only given a more twangy treatment compared to the adult contemporary and overall sedated feel of Sparrow. String arrangements and the console instrument known as the Mellotron—which mimics strings and is a favorite of Dave Cobb, and Monroe plays herself—ultimately end up as the primary takeaway of this record, beyond any genre, era, or influence. While songs and records that utilize strings can be quite stirring, the way they are used so profusely on Sparrow makes the album feel almost monochromatic.

No single song on Sparrow is worth singling out as a bad seed, but the stalwart approach of strings building the mood of each and every song, along with the lack of any diversity in tempo or texture allows the individual efforts to blend together, and not in the best way. Just like horn sections, it’s important to ask if strings or chorus arrangements are bringing anything to an individual track. Are they called for, or are they just a bid for increased production value, or even just a self-indulgent accoutrement?

Dave Cobb deserves the praise he receives as a master craftsman of the studio for the results he’s delivered, but even the greatest maestros sometimes miss the mark. He’s also incredibly busy, illustrated by the fact that he had two records released on April 20th that featured his name as helmsman (Monroe’s, and Old Crow Medicine Show). When you only have a window of a few weeks to record, little room is left for audibles from the original approach, or time for every one to settle their minds upon a certain approach and let trial and error run its course. You get what you get. Often it’s great. Sometimes it isn’t.

Sparrow is not a bad record. Some songs and performances will slot right into Monroe’s career output as worthy evidence of why she was criminally underrated in her era. But it is easy to second guess the overall approach. Even though each individual song speaks to you, all together and back to back Sparrow just sounds a little sleepy.

Ashley is now a mother, and may be resigned to never being the superstar perhaps she dreamed of being when she first hit Nashville. So she made the record she wanted to make, and had one of the best producers in country music help her. You can’t fault her for that. But it doesn’t seem unfair to slot Sparrow mid pack during a very crowded and creatively competitive release season.

6.5/10

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