The Knoxville native’s “Like A Rose” isn’t just the first great album of 2013 — it’s the first in a cascade of discs from female country singers plotting to dominate annual best-of lists eight months down the road. Kacey Musgraves and Kelleigh Bannen are staging rookie breakouts. Lead Dixie Chick Natalie Maines is returning from exile. And the great Gretchen Wilson has promised — count ’em — three new albums by year’s end. So if you’re already hooked on ABC’s twangy record biz soap opera “Nashville,” why not lean your ear toward the real deal?
This should be a big year for Monroe alone. Pistol Annies, her fiery trio with Miranda Lambert and Angaleena Presley, have promised a sophomore effort in the months ahead, where Monroe will likely continue to play the foil to her brassier bandmates. (She’s also sung alongside Will Hoge, Wanda Jackson and Jack White, whom she first met by asking for his autograph at the airport.) But on her own, Monroe reprises the old-school balladry of Keith Whitley and the emotive oomph of Pam Tillis. At 26, she sings like she’s already lived at least two of her lifetimes.
In concert, she’s introduced her album’s title track as a “98 percent true story.” It’s a ballad about a father who died too soon, a romance that burned too fast and the bus ticket that took her away from it all.
From his studio swivel chair, Nashville veteran and co-producer Vince Gill frames Monroe’s survival tale with expert sensitivity, dispatching tic-tac bass lines and honeyed steel guitars, seemingly unconcerned with what might glisten or pop on the radio.
His guidance can be heard most clearly on “Used,” a gorgeous tune that first appeared on “Satisfied,” the debut album Monroe lost in label-merger limbo in 2007, and finally released in 2009.
Here, Gill stokes the tempo, de-clutters the arrangement and gives Monroe enough space to live inside the song, as painful as that might be. (She compares her life to “a book read so many times it starts to split in two.”)
“Yeah, I feel sorry for me,” Monroe sighs on “Two Weeks Late,” this time throwing a pity party with an emphasis on the party. Unable to ditch a nagging landlord, or locate her AWOL lover, she finds herself “a dollar short and two weeks late.” It’s the most enjoyable pregnancy-scare anthem since Eric Church’s “Two Pink Lines.”
Just a few ticks over 30 minutes, the album leaves little room for wrong turns, but there are two. The roadhouse-ready “Weed Instead of Roses” maps out a romantic weekend full of huffy-puffy-freaky-deakiness. Monroe’s crystalline voice is capable of lifting the heaviest of lyrics, but it doesn’t sell half-baked S&M.
And the finale, “You Ain’t Dolly (And You Ain’t Porter),” only suffers from bad timing. It’s a playful, smack-talking duet with Blake Shelton that actually manages to squeeze in a plug for “The Voice,” the televised singing contest that Shelton co-hosts with the enthusiasm of a dental hygienist.
He’s more charismatic here. And while it’s generous of Monroe to close out the program with a laugh, we’re not ready to put away the tissues just yet.
“Like A Rose,” “Two Weeks Late,” “Used”