Like most of the UK riding the country music wave, we’re big fans of Ashley Monroe here, a petite singer who is one-third of the Pistol Annies (basically an edgier version of the Dixie Chicks). Tennessee-born Ashley has gone it alone again on third LP The Blade, an album produced by Vince Gill, one of the daddies of Nashville.
The album has tracks Monroe wrote with Chris Stapleton, Jessi Alexander, Brendan Benson and Gill himself. These and more were aired at Bush Hall, one of London’s loveliest venues, four days after Ashley had joined fellow Pistol Annie Miranda Lambert on the stage of the O2 Arena to sing You Got a Friend. Lambert, watching undisturbed at the back of the venue tonight, was as enraptured as the rest of the crowd, who were in full voice and gave enough applause to warrant two encores, the first of which included Lambert herself.
Single On To Something Good was recently playlisted by BBC Radio 2, a little uptempo number that opens The Blade. It’s the sound of contemporary American country-pop, with a gorgeous toe-tapper of a tune and the lyric ‘I’ll ride this train till it runs out of track’. Monroe’s voice is pure, almost Parton-esque but with its own character, poppy enough not to be country but country enough not to be pop.
Other highlights of her set included every violin solo from her able fiddler, who filled in some improvisational passages over the top of Ashley’s polite guitar and a double-bass’s thrums. Like a Rose, a song inspired by a line said to a record company executive, was gorgeous, as was Bombshell. A world exclusive of a new song with the first line ‘How does the sparrow know when to fly?’ could be a modern classic from the next album, which would join the title track of its predecessor (‘You caught it by the handle… I caught it by the blade’).
The crowd knew every word to even the deeper album cuts. Monroe was visibly moved by the reaction – unsurprising, given how little grounding the UK has in the genre – and it’s another step forwards for country music as a medium that can travel. One executive has said that the feeling in the UK reminds him of the reaction of the USA when Garth Brooks was breaking through. The UK is certainly due its own Shania Twain moment and, together with powerhouses like Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe certainly proved tonight that she’s capable of being at its front and centre.