TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Ashley Monroe is best known as a member of the vocal trio the Pistol Annies, a group led by country superstar Miranda Lambert. Monroe has a new album called "Like a Rose," and rock critic Ken Tucker says that she distinguishes herself as a distinct musical presence.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIKE A ROSE")
ASHLEY MONROE: (Singing) I was only 13 when daddy died. Mama started drinking and my brother just quit trying. I'm still bouncing back. Heaven only knows how I came out like a rose. Ran off with what's-his-name...
KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: The high, lonesome sound of Ashley Monroe's Tennessee voice in the title song of her album there serves as a clear signal that she's working within a tradition that extends back well beyond her 20-something years on Earth. One of Monroe's collaborators in that song was Guy Clark, a 70-something Texas country veteran who's often too tough-guy romantic for his own good.
But "Like a Rose" takes what could have been a treacly, organizing premise - that the singer has had a rough life, but come through it smelling like a rose - and avoided the cliche I just used. In fact, three songs later, she's subverting her own tender sentiments by suggesting a potential suitor give her, to quote another song title, "Weed Instead of Roses." Monroe is nothing if not nicely ambivalent.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE MORNING AFTER")
MONROE: (Singing) I don't recall what I was drinking. After the third one, I was gone. Seventeen, and not really thinking. Just wanted something real strong. The room's spinning around, faster and faster, drowning in the midnight laughter. But nothing hits, nothing hurts like the morning after.
TUCKER: One of last year's most successful new country acts was The Pistol Annies, due in part to the fame of one them, Miranda Lambert. When Monroe performs with the Annies, she offers strong, yet discreetly collaborative harmonies. On a song like the one I just played, however, called "The Morning After," however, Monroe's own signature tone rings out clearly.
It's a loftily pitched, nasal twang that regularly luxuriates into a warm croon. This album was co-produced by Vince Gill, the country and bluegrass singer-guitarist who's spent recent years collaborating with and showcasing other artists with a fine sense of discretion in musical arrangements. He also exhibits a playfulness in joining in on key moments of fun. That's what he does in a song he co-wrote with Monroe called "Monroe Suede."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MONROE SUEDE")
MONROE: (Singing) Mother played piano in a Pentecostal church, staring them snakes in the eye. Daddy died drunk with the (unintelligible). Hell, I did what I did to get by. I did what I did to get by. A third grade education won't bring you no love when you're looking for a way to get paid. Turned 14 and stole a pickup truck. Couldn't make it on minimum wage. Couldn't make it on minimum wage.
(Singing) Well, I almost got caught in Tulsa town. I had me one foot in the grave. Oh, they're going to die trying to track me down, but they'll never catch Monroe Suede. No, they'll never catch Monroe Suede.
TUCKER: If Ashley Monroe begins this album with the kind of earnest seriousness and tradition-bound assiduousness that can sometimes remind you of a stiffer vocalist, Emmylou Harris, by the end, she's loosened up enough to do a duet with Miranda Lambert's husband, Blake Shelton, called "You Ain't Dolly (And You Ain't Porter)."
It plays off a musical partnership unknown to most of Monroe's contemporaries, that of Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner in the late '60s and early '70s. Take in the whole arc of this collection, and Ashley Monroe does bear comparison to a rose: lovely sounding, yet not afraid to come across as prickly when the occasion deserves it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU AIN'T DOLLY (AND YOU AIN'T PORTER)")
BLAKE SHELTON: (Singing) You ain't Dolly.
MONROE: (Singing) And you ain't Porter.
SHELTON: (Singing) She's a little bit fuller.
MONROE: (Singing) And you're a whole lot shorter.
BLAKE SHELTON AND ASHLEY MONROE: (Singing) Let's dance all night and fill the jukebox full of quarters.
SHELTON: (Singing) 'Cause you ain't Dolly.
MONROE: (Singing) Oh, and you ain't Porter.
GROSS: Ken Tucker reviewed Ashley Monroe's new album "Like a Rose." You can download podcasts of our show on our website: freshair.npr.org. And you can follow us on Twitter @nprfreshair, and on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com.