Singer-songwriter Ashley Monroe spent the fall on the Ten Out of Tenn tour with nine other independent artists based in Nashville -- although judging from their compilation album, almost none of the other performers draw on traditional country in their own music.
The tour and the album, Ten Out of Tenn, Vol. 3, are designed to showcase Nashville's musical diversity beyond its reputation as the country music capital of the world. During their first rehearsal, however, Monroe pulled aside the group's founder, Trent Dabbs, to make sure she belonged there.
"I said, 'Now you know I'm country right?'" she explained. "He said, 'Yeah.'
"'And you know I can't really change my accent. When I sing, it sounds country. You know that, right?'
"He was like, 'Yes, I know.' It's so interesting because when we started rehearsing, it just fell into place."
After her long-delayed album was finally released digitally earlier this year, Monroe is continuing to make her own contribution to country music. In this interview, Monroe talks about working with the Raconteurs and Ricky Skaggs, finding commercial success as the co-writer of Jason Aldean's new single and writing songs with Miranda Lambert.
CMT: What's your favorite part about performing with Ten Out of Tenn?
Monroe: This is so different than what I have normally done by myself. Everybody just grabs a tambourine. You can't help but dance on stage, which is just a new way of performing for me. It's taught me a lot about engaging the audience, the Jewel tour taught me that, too. It's OK if you mess up. Laugh at it. Don't freak out, and they like you better, because I messed up every single night.
What was most memorable about collaborating with the Raconteurs and Ricky Skaggs on "Old Enough"?
That day was honestly one of the best, memorable, humbling days of my life, honestly. There was so much love and so much respect for each other in that room. I made friends with everyone there, and I'm still really good friends with them. We stayed till, I guess, 1 or 2 in the morning, and we kept singing the song. We felt like a bunch of kids just playing. Jack White was showing Ricky his mandolin, and they started playing together, and then I had a song idea that came up, and I was like, "Jack, can I take your guitar?" And so I took his guitar in the corner and just started writing a song. There was just so much creative energy.
Brandon Benson [one of the Raconteurs] and I are doing a project together that I'm crazy about, and so we've already recorded, I guess, maybe 15 songs that will probably come out next year. I'm also securing a deal, just for me.
Jason Aldean's new single, "The Truth," is a song you co-wrote with Brett James. How does it feel to hear your song on the radio?
It humbles me, really. I'm just so blessed and fortunate to even have amazing artists to consider -- to even record -- one of these songs, and then to able to get it out to that many people. When I write songs, I automatically want to share it. To get the opportunity to have something that I helped create be heard by millions of people with these amazing artists singing it, who I respect greatly, it's just really humbling.
What do you think of his version?
Oh, I love it! He sings his butt off! He and I have the same manager, so as soon as I could get an advanced copy of [Aldean's album] Wide Open, I did. I listen to it all the time and forget that I wrote it. I literally just listen to the song and listen to him sing it, and realizing like, "Oh, my gosh. I'm a part of this?" He's an amazing, amazing singer.
You wrote "Heart Like Mine" and "Me and Your Cigarettes" with Miranda Lambert. What do you remember about the days you wrote those?
"Me and Your Cigarettes" was actually called "Your Cigarettes and Me," and there was a whole another melody, but I had these words. I went to her house in Lindale, Texas, right before [2007's Crazy Ex-Girlfriend] album came out. We were sitting on her back deck and she finished it with me. She liked the idea. ... She called me the day they cut it, and she goes, "I just wanted to tell you that Blake [Shelton] and I were kind of fiddling with it, and it's kind of changed a bit. It's still our words, but it's a different beat, and we've changed it to 'Me and Your Cigarettes.'" I went to the studio and heard it and was like, "Oh, please. This is amazing." She was like, "I hope you're not mad." Are you kidding me?
Then "Heart Like Mine," she and I went to Pigeon Forge, Tenn., together. I'm from East Tennessee, so I took her to Dollywood. I was like, "You've got to go to Dollywood." We got a little cabin in Gatlinburg, and we were sitting on the porch there picking on guitar, and I kept hearing things. She was like, "Oh, my God. Bring me a steak knife so you'll shut up!" She's tougher than I am. She had a steak knife next to her. We were like, "Let's write something really honest." All of it's true to her life.
What made you want to move to Nashville at such a young age?
When I was 13, my dad got sick. He got pancreatic and liver cancer. He was only 40, and three months after he was diagnosed, he passed away. When that happened, my life as I knew it went completely opposite. Nothing was stable. My mom was devastated. ... I had this dream, and I knew my dad believed in me, and I just thought, "I can't give up. I can't crawl into a dark hole and just give up. I have to keep going, I have to." So we stayed in Knoxville until I was about 15. Finally, I told my mom, "We need to get out. We need a fresh start. I'm going to write songs. I'm going to sing." We knew nobody in Nashville or knew nothing about the music industry -- nothing. Looking back, it's almost like I feel my dad was kind of guiding us, like yelled, "Hey, you two blond girls, go this way." Because it's just amazing how I met some really great people that are still a part of my career. Brett James was one of the first writers that I wrote with, and that's who I wrote "The Truth" with. I think it was my daddy up there kind of helping us out.