Album Review – Ashley Monroe’s “The Blade”
In some respects, broaching a discussion on this album seems nearly futile. Or maybe not futile, but at least frustrating. It’s almost fait accompli that it will fail to achieve the commercial feats and radio success the quality of the material warrants, but that’s just the way it is for women in this particular era of country music. We should be basking in the enjoyment of a new generation of inspiring country music females who are hitting their stride like Dolly, Loretta, and Tammy did of yesteryear. But instead of accolades and landmarks noting their accomplishments, we have media think pieces trying to solve the riddle of why women worthy of recognition can’t make waves in country music anymore.
There is no need to grade Ashley Monroe on a curve. There’s no reason to rig the system to make her seem like something more than she is. She’s a multi-tool performer who can write songs, sing the hell out of them, perform with feeling, and is easy on the eyes. Name recognition is no issue either since Ashley’s had some big success with The Pistol Annies and as a guest on hit singles by Blake Shelton and others. Yet her own singles show up nearly dead on arrival, and there seems little hope she will break out into that top tier of country women that incidentally is looking for women to step up and fill vacant slots.
Most of Monroe’s biggest songs so far were piggy backing off of males, including “Lonely Tonight” with Blake Shelton, “Bruises” with Train, and “I Don’t Want To” with Ronnie Dunn. The best a solo Ashley Monroe single has ever done is #39 for “Weed Instead of Roses,” and the first single off of this new album, “On To Something Good” has already stalled well outside the 50’s even though it was supposed to be her upbeat introduction to the masses. So much for that idea.
Even more sad is since her career is now mostly established, Monroe won’t qualify for special assistance like iHeartMedia’s “On The Verge” radio promotion, or the myriad of “Next Women of Country” programs—even though the efficacy of these programs is admittedly questionable. Ashley Monroe is one of the best female performers in country music today. She receives standing ovations at the Grand Ole Opry. She’s accomplished more than most independent artists could ever dream of. And still it seems like an uphill battle to get Jon Q. Public to pay attention.
We can’t take it for granted that Ashley isn’t content with her accomplishments and station in life though. She is making her music, her way. But with the new album The Blade, you do sense there was an effort here to broaden the appeal of her music. Originally more of a traditionalist with her style, The Blade opens up a new set of sonic parameters that don’t just limit her appeal to ma and pa, and old soul country hipsters. You won’t hear any drum machines or synthesizers saddling this project down; this isn’t a complete makeover. But the contemporary approach, especially at the beginning of the record, is palpable compared to Monroe’s previous efforts. And by front loading these more contemporary songs, you can tell they’re hoping to lure in a wider audience.
The strength of songwriting though, that remains the same. This is a mainstream project, so yes, you get the familiar two and three-name songwriting credits following each tune instead of a truly original expression from Monroe herself. However with names like Vince Gill, Chris Stapleton, and Miranda Lambert, you may not mind as much that it took a troika to complete each tune. The title track, though it may feel sappy or contrived at first, steals deep after a few listens. Even though Monroe remains happily married to baseball star John Danks, The Blade is very much a breakup record, from the biting title track, to “Buried Your Love Alive,” and “Bombshell,” to the final cut “I’m Good At Leavin'” this record pours on the heartbreak from both the giving and receiving ends, and any other sentiment offered simply feels like an interlude in between.
Songs like the opening “On to Something Good,” and the more spatial and airy “Weight of the Load” and “If Love Was Fair” may lead you to think that Monroe has done a 180° with her style, but as The Blade rolls on, her more traditional-leaning heart reveals itself in full force. In fact the final three songs of the album get more country, and more country, until you’re amidst the waltz-timed “I’m Good At Leavin'” and feel like you’ve been transported back to 1952. There’s other shades here too, like the Buddy Miller-inspired bluesy Americana of “I Buried Your Love Alive” and “Dixie.” Meanwhile the boogie woogie honk of “Winning Streak” ensures this record is blessed with plenty of texture. Don’t let a few of the prominent songs fool you—The Blade is still mostly an old school record coming from a mainstream outlet.
But this album doesn’t really feel like a strikingly personal one from Ashley. It feels like a collection of well-written songs for sure, but the needle on the engagement meter never reaches past the upper middle range. You root for an album like this, and you’re happy to see something like The Blade make it out of the stranglehold that is the mainstream Nashville machine. But in the end it reminds you how much you love your little independent records that don’t have to slip the potent moments between pragmatic radio singles and can just spell it right now. Undoubtedly The Blade will be considered one of the best projects to come from Music Row in this calendar year, but in the end it lacked a little of a unidentifiable resonance, where you found your attention a little aloof while trying to remain engaged with the music. But compare this with trying to fight off your gag reflex for most mainstream country today and The Blade still deserves more stars than less.
Ashley Monroe clearly has the stuff to fill the open slot(s) at the very top of female country music, and The Blade reinforces this opinion. And she might be willing to bend just a little bit to be more open with her sound. But she isn’t willing to break, and while that might endear her to Americana and classic country listeners, it also may be what keeps her at arms length from the mainstream distinction her music deserves.
1 1/2 of 2 Guns Up.
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July 24, 2015 @ 10:13 am
I really enjoy the cd. I’ve listened to it a few times already and hope it does well. I guess my question is if she is on Warner Bros (idiot BS label) why can’t they get radio to play her? They really can’t make a deal on a few Blake tixs or something? I really hope that the industry gives her the push they ALWAYS give Kacey Musgraves. In my opinion- Ashley is more talented, better vocalist and this is a much better cd than Musgraves’ newest offering. It is so frustrating watching Ashley’s work get over looked b/c they both release albums months apart.
July 24, 2015 @ 10:54 am
‘if she is on Warner Bros (idiot BS label) why can”™t they get radio to play her?’
Exactly. They put all kinds of crap on the radio. What’s the deal?
The only answer can be that they don’t want to spend the money.
Also, the labels are probably paying the women about a tenth of what they pay the men, so they don’t have to generate nearly as much revenue to create the same profit.
July 25, 2015 @ 7:50 pm
It ironic, they will keep talking about the album on the radio, yet they won’t play any of its songs. This is also the same for Kacey and several others.
Sweetheart Of the Rodeo
July 24, 2015 @ 10:13 am
Well said Kyle! I really enjoyed this album and my favorite songs are all penned with co writer Chris Stapleton but I’m not completely blown away yet. I think the new Kacey Musgrave album has a more personal approach and I enjoyed that album more. But It is a very enjoyable listen and Dixie is such a rich sounding song experience.
July 24, 2015 @ 1:28 pm
Hmm. I like the K. Musgraves album ok, but 5-6 of the songs on here blows that album away. And that voice……. Ahhhhhhhhh
Sweetheart Of the Rodeo
July 25, 2015 @ 10:49 am
yes Gumlasher there is so much good! I really love the co writes with Chris Stapleton… My fave songs are I Buried Your Love Alive, Bombshell, Winning Streak, Has Anybody Ever told You and Dixie. I guess just I just felt more personal appeal for the new Kacey Musgrave album but that just personal taste.
July 25, 2015 @ 1:50 am
Your name cannot be a coincidence. I rarely run into ANYONE who knows Sweethearts of the Rodeo even among country fans. *He looks around for the onslaught of fans that will now come at him*
Sweetheart Of the Rodeo
July 25, 2015 @ 10:42 am
Hey Bear, I’m obsessed with the album to the point of even having a radio show that starts off You Ain’t Going Nowhere every show … https://www.facebook.com/sweetheartoftheradio 😛
July 24, 2015 @ 10:15 am
One song you didn’t mention, “Mayflowers”, sounds like a long lost Haggard track. The intro especially is very reminiscent of “If We Make It Through December”.
Frank the tank
July 24, 2015 @ 10:45 am
I thought the same thing (see my post below). I didn’t see your post before writing mine.
July 24, 2015 @ 11:48 am
I like the song, and did sort of mention it in how the three final songs get more country as they go along. I’ve tried to shake myself out of the habit of making album reviews just a collection of song reviews, and focus more on the album as a whole, and leave songs for specific song reviews. I guess “Mayflowers” didn’t hit me as powerfully as others because felt a little TOO much like a new take on an old song as opposed to something more original. That said, I really like it and wouldn’t argue if someone proclaimed it their favorite. “The Blade” I thought was the best written song, but those final three really get the country music juices flowing. Ashley really ends this album strong, which was a smart move to erase any criticism that she’s starting to veer away from her country roots.
July 24, 2015 @ 8:16 pm
I thought the same thing…posted it in my review of this (http://countryexclusive.com) glad I’m not the only one.
Frank the tank
July 24, 2015 @ 10:44 am
Great review – I agree with a lot of it and the rating seems about right. I’ve listened to the album 4 or 5 times this past week on NPR and I have the following thoughts:
– I wouldn’t say that there are any songs that I didn’t like, but I agree that the album gets better as it moves along, with the last four songs being the best ones, in my opinion (with the last two being my favourites).
– I wasn’t a big fan of OTSG when I first heard it a few months ago and it had me somewhat worried for the album, but it has grown on me. It, along with the other more “mainstream” songs on the album, aren’t as country-sounding as I would like, but they are still good songs and better than the vast majority of mainstream country music.
– I appreciate the variety in the style of the songs.
– While I generally prefer faster, up-tempo songs, I think “Mayflowers” is my favourite song on the album. It reminds me of “If We Make It Through December” in both the sound and, to a lesser extent, the story.
Overall, I really enjoyed this album. I think “Like A Rose” was a slightly better album, but only slightly.
July 24, 2015 @ 12:27 pm
Mostly agreed. 🙂 Some lovely tunes here — “Weight of the Load” and “If the Devil Don’t Want Me” might be my favorites, though I’m also partial to “From Time to Time” and “If Love Was Fair” (both of which remind me a bit of mid-’80s Rosanne Cash).
But yeah, while I would say ‘Like a Rose’ (which was four tracks and about 15 minutes shorter than this album) was a more consistent effort, certainly with stronger opening numbers (LAR + “Two Weeks Late” vs. OTSG + “I Buried Your Love Alive”), I think ‘The Blade’ is generally pretty solid, and I like how it mixes traditional sounds with more folk-pop leaning material without being too whiplash-inducing.
Frank the tank
July 24, 2015 @ 1:03 pm
I agree about the Roseanne Cash sound on some of the songs as I also noticed that when I listened to the album.
July 24, 2015 @ 11:12 am
July 24, 2015 @ 11:26 am
I wonder if the lead single stalled specifically because it wasn’t straight on traditional and those who expected or wanted her to stick to the guns of country got disappointed. Kinda like with Garth Brooks and the momentum from the nostalgia crowd couldn’t push forward like they do for all the albums by older acts these days.
July 24, 2015 @ 11:51 am
You may have something there. It wasn’t traditional enough to get those people behind it, but not cutting edge enough to resonate with the new audience either. Across the board, single selection for females is where Music Row is struggling the most. I think we could almost solve the entire female issue if we just released better single and promoted them right.
July 25, 2015 @ 10:19 am
“You may have something there. It wasn”™t traditional enough to get those people behind it, but not cutting edge enough to resonate with the new audience either. ”
Exactly ….too ” on the fence ” to cultivate a large , faithful , reliable , mature fan base but too ” old school’ to capture a youthful demographic .
Jesus' great great grandfather
July 24, 2015 @ 12:44 pm
This is a good album, but not as great as her previous one
July 24, 2015 @ 1:19 pm
You might be right, but if I could remove 3-4 songs of the new album I would take it over Like a Rose any day. Love this album even there are songs that flatline pretty damn quick.
July 24, 2015 @ 2:01 pm
I have met her before and she is very talented and has all you need to be a star. This CD is good and has some songs that standout like The Blade and Bombshell. This record was much anticipated and it lived up to its expectations.
July 24, 2015 @ 2:12 pm
“But in the end it reminds you how much you love your little independent records that don”™t have to slip the potent moments between pragmatic radio singles and can just spell it right now.”
You’ve crystallized my thoughts about these somewhat conciliatory efforts by so many in these times , Trigger . Concession to labels/radio is , of course , the cause of unevenness in albums like A.M.’s and ultimately leave an artist ( and potential fans ) eternally searching for an identity that pleases all people all the time . It doesn’t happen like that though . The mystique that MUST company any artist’s identity and vision is gone the minute that first comprise is made to the masses .You must make the commitment to your heart and your passion and you must live with the consequences whatever they amount to . THAT is a ARTIST . We have lots of solid singers , lots of singer /songwriters , lots of ‘ hired hands’ available to flesh out an idea , lots of contest hopefuls …we need ARTISTS who KNOW inherently that they are born to say , paint , play , write or perform in a manner that allows them to remain congruent( ? ) within themselves and not second-guessing , back-scratching , emulating , chasing or otherwise ‘ selling out’ for a dollar and the spotlight for as fleeting as that instant will surely be . If you just want commercial success , decide so and chase it 100% …sing every watered-down excuse for a song that you can find ….please radio 12 out of 12 cuts with every trendy theme, and production trick you can steal …bring some ” names ” on board …the pop stars , the wannabe pop stars ….anyone and everyone who can help you stoke your ego and lust for fame and dollars . BUT don’t call yourself an ARTIST . You’r all the way IN or you aren’t in at all ….no halfway .
BTW ..this is a boring song .
July 24, 2015 @ 3:43 pm
This is wrong in oh so many different ways.. You don’t think compromises were made on one or two of your favourite albums over the years? Come on man!
The shit state of pop/radio country music has nothing to do with this great album.
July 24, 2015 @ 8:43 pm
Some people just can’t be satisfied with a great album that happens to have some tracks with potential mainstream appeal. It’s another version of people who suddenly decide a band “sold out” and isn’t good anymore once they develop a larger fanbase and become successful.
July 24, 2015 @ 10:18 pm
Though I think there’s a few songs here that yearned for mainstream appeal, and Ashley has alluded to as much in interviews, I wouldn’t personally label any of them as “sellout” in any way. I think they are songs she wanted to write, and along with producer Vince Gill, they figured out how to broaden appeal through the production. Gill built an entire career around tanking great songs and making them appeal to a big audience. Too bad that trick doesn’t seem to work today.
July 24, 2015 @ 9:41 pm
“You might be right, but if I could remove 3-4 songs of the new album I would take it over Like a Rose any day. Love this album even there are songs that flatline pretty damn quick.”
Imagine how good an artist she might develop into if she didn’t compromise for radio AT ALL -if she went with her instincts and her heart each and every time out (Jason Isbell , Patty Griffin , Emmy Lou , ) I’m saying that if you want to go after commercial ( radio ) success ….go for it .Go for it 100% with your song choices , your image , your live shows etc.( FGL Aldean ). If you want to be considered an Artist , then stop trying to cater to radio …forget about radio and focus on great songs … timeless with unforgettable melodies and messages .When you try to appeal to everyone with uneven releases , invariably you will appeal to hardly anyone . AM is young enough to establish herself as something more than just a second or third tier ” pop country ” singer . She’s obviously steeped in the real stuff and does justice to it . These are the kinds of talented folks we need to count on to ” keep it real ” ….not to try to play the commercial radio game with with every other pop-country wannabe ( Chris Young ..PLEASE listen ) .
I loved that Joe Nichols told it like it is . He had to record shit cuz his label made him . Well how about if Joe said NO and Ashley said NO and Josh Turner and Easton Corbin and Chris Young all said NO to this radio crap and stood up for who they REALLY want to be as artists instead of apologizing for having to be trend chasing label pleasing puppets ??? Enough of this generic , one note kiddie radio crap !!! And what the hell is AM really selling with THAT photo ?
July 25, 2015 @ 1:44 am
Until you mentioned the phot I hadn’t thought much of it but LOL! Yeah that at little to J-Lo and the Golden Globes for me.
July 24, 2015 @ 6:55 pm
I have loved her music for quite a while and was happy to see her with the Pistol Annies gals. I’d never heard of Train before she that duet, Bruises, which I love. And they’ve certainly sexed up her appearance lately. Did they really have to do that? Rhetorical question, I guess.
July 24, 2015 @ 7:28 pm
This is a great album. No disappointment on my end. Like you and others have mentioned, it’s not quite as traditional as her last one, but that’s OK with me. As you said in your review, some of the tracks have a strong Americana influence and, as a huge fan of the Americana movement, I love it. Even On To Something Good has grown on me a lot. I wasn’t crazy about it when it was first released a couple months ago, but I really enjoy it now. Maybe that will happen with the other pop influenced tracks as well. I’ve said similar things before, but it’s absolutely pathetic that talented women like Monroe are for the most part getting ignored by radio and billboard charts, but crap like Kelsea Ballerini’s and RaeLynn’s music does really well.
On a side note, the Watkins Family Hour’s album came out today also and is excellent! It’s definitely more Folk/Americana rather than traditional country, but anyone who just loves great music should check it out if you haven’t already. My personal favorites are all the ones Sara Watkins sings. She’s pretty amazing.
Paul W Dennis
July 25, 2015 @ 12:40 am
Very good album, although I actually liked her previous album a little more than this one.
I don’t think it is possible for much good country music to get played on radio these days whether by male or female artists – Amber Digby, Justin Trevino, Rance Norton, Landon Dodd, Guyanne McCall and countless others never get a sniff of airplay so I guess that Ashley should feel fortunate that she gets any at all
The odd thing is that physical appearance seems to count for more than anything else on radio these days and Ashley has that attribute. Maybe the key is to combine good looks with really crappy music.
Unfortunately, where I live, there don’t seem to be any over-the-air Americana stations so unless one has Sirius / XM radio, it is really necessary to scrounge around to find the good music over the air
While I doubt that there are any big radio hits here, I hope the album sells well – I picked up my copy at Target so that bodes well for its sales potential since Target hardly carries anything anymore and Walmart and Target represent such a huge percentage of the retail music trade
July 25, 2015 @ 7:02 am
Good review. Beautiful voice. I hope she doesn’t “bend” as you say. Have always liked AM. I also give Miranda a lot of credit for plugging both Chris and Ashley as much as she does. ML has probably sold as many records for those two as anyone.
July 25, 2015 @ 7:04 am
I found the record weak lyrically and lifeless musically. I think Asley’s voice deserves better . Alecia Nugent , Claire Lynch , Emmy Lou , Musgraves , .. All of these women are mining similar veins with far better results . Throw a Carl Jackson into the AM camp and she’d find the ears and the direction she’s lacking . At this rate Ashley is destined to fall between the cracks commercially when she has the chips and the sound to be far more successful . Btw I’m pretty certain there are programmed drums all over this record……or that’s some very uninspiring drumming . Either way it lacks dynamic somehow .
July 25, 2015 @ 9:11 am
There is a lengthy article on Slate about Ashley subtitled “How A Woman Becomes a Country Star When Country Radio Won’t Play Women”. The last line is a sign of hope, or despair, depending on your perspective:
“On Tuesday morning, Monroe called me as her tour bus trundled west on the long road back to Nashville. She told me she was bouncing back from her stomach ailment””and she was exultant about the previous night”™s show. “I finally found my radio audience,” she said. “It”™s NPR!”
July 25, 2015 @ 11:13 am
The production isn’t quite as traditional but her singing and lyrics make up for it.
July 25, 2015 @ 11:54 am
took me a couple listens to wrap my head around the album but now I think I like it even more than her previous record. favorite release so far this year. The more modern-sounding songs all have one or two sweet spots that seal the deal for me, and the more traditional tracks completely slay. I also love the lyrics.
July 27, 2015 @ 7:15 am
Love her voice over traditional sounding songs like her last album, so I am a bit weary if I will like this one, but am def going to give this a spin. Its a shame she isn’t far more popular, she has it all.
July 27, 2015 @ 11:44 am
Just finished listening to the entire album. Good Lord, it’s fantastic! I’ve loved her voice since I first heard her in 2006 and waited for the album release that never happened. The Blade showcases every strength and nuance she possesses with a great variety of instrumentation that throws a real country music lover back in time. I immediately felt the need to memorize these songs. At times she reminds me of the best of Leeann Womack, Allison Krause, Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn..yet she’s her own singer and songwriter with that little tremble in her voice that is distinctly Ashley. This is just what the doctor ordered!
July 27, 2015 @ 12:16 pm
The only good song on here is If the Devil Don’t Want Me. Very good and very traditional. Everything else is pretty run of the mill stuff. I don’t like the album cover and title all that much
July 27, 2015 @ 2:05 pm
The cover is terrible, I will give you that.
July 27, 2015 @ 5:52 pm
I don’t think she will release another album like Like a Rose. Songs like Two Weeks Late and She’s Driving Me Out of Your Mind are absolutely phenomenal.
Albums like that only come around every so often.
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July 28, 2015 @ 10:00 am
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July 25, 2018 @ 4:58 am
This album is amazing