If you listen to contemporary country music, it’s hard to keep the adjacent chatter from bleeding into the melody.
Necessary chatter about gender disparity on country radio. Anxious chatter about shifting listener demographics. Gossipy chatter about the precarious personal lives of the genre’s superstars who may or may not be singing about their precarious personal lives.
Ashley Monroe has been caught in all of those riptides this year. Her latest album, “The Blade,” stands as the finest country album released in 2015, but the discussion around it has remained fixated on the 29-year-old’s inability to surmount the airwaves, her newfound appeal to the NPR set and her collaborative friendship with recently divorced country stars Miranda Lambert and Blake Shelton.
Some of those narratives are more significant than others, but the big story that’s being talked over is that Monroe — who performs at Washington’s Sixth & I Historic Synagogue on Oct. 29 — is making some of the most subtle and striking country music that Nashville has heard in years. As a singer, few in Music City have this kind of sensitivity. And as a songwriter, she’s telling stories that are sure to outlast any fleeting blither-blather about today’s country-music marketplace.
The first thing you’ll hear on “The Blade” is a head fake, of sorts. “Wheels are gonna rust if they don’t turn enough,” Monroe sings in the opening line of “On to Something Good,” an optimist’s self-affirmation exercise set to an easy tempo and a radio-friendly melody.
But in addition to Monroe’s masterful vocalizations, the musicianship that she’s surrounded herself with is too expert to make the song sound like it’s pandering. She’s reenlisted veteran co-producer Vince Gill, who worked on Monroe’s excellent 2013 album, “Like a Rose,” and helps make “The Blade” feel tasteful and vivid, more timeless than traditional. Also helping out: background vocalists Alison Krauss, Marty Stuart, Charlie Worsham and Lambert, who co-launched her supergroup, Pistol Annies, alongside Monroe back in 2011.
After “On to Something Good,” Monroe is on to other things bad. “I Buried Your Love Alive” is a swaggering murder plot of a song about trying to extinguish “a memory I can’t kill.” Up next, “Bombshell,” a gentle ballad recounting a brutal swirl of anxiety that churns before a romance ends. After that, “Weight of the Load,” a pledge of loyalty that the singer promises to uphold, even when “the rocks that they’ve thrown are killing you.”
Monroe’s lyrics conjure vicious images, but she consistently delivers her most startling words with an almost paralyzing delicacy. Everything is on the line in these songs, and her coping mechanism is grace. “You caught it by the handle, and I caught it by the blade,” she sings calmly on the album’s title track, wearing a proud face over her pain.
When this album isn’t navigating labyrinths of the heart, it’s hitting the road. On “Dixie,” Monroe dreams of leaving small-town life in the dust: “I don’t hate the weather/I don’t hate the land/But if I had it my way, I’d never see this place again.”
By the time she gets to “If the Devil Don’t Want Me,” she has lost her spiritual road map: “If the devil don’t want me, where the hell do I go?”
And after each of these elegant purges of emotion, the album’s final track, “I’m Good at Leavin’,” is appropriately understated. “You’re a fool for not believing I’m good at leaving,” Monroe sings as a fiddle yawns in the background. Instead of a big finish, she discreetly slips out the back door.