As part of the Pistol Annies, Ashley Monroe’s star power was obscured by the outsized shine of her bandmate, Miranda Lambert. Though the Annies share lead vocals, they present themselves as a trio, with only Lambert’s fame standing out individually. But stepping out for her second solo album, Monroe’s singing talent is front and center. She sings in a voice that’s both innocent and world-wise, tipped with the sweetness of Dolly Parton, and with a sense of faith unshaken by life’s bumpy road. The title track, co-written with Guy Clark, is a showcase for this balance, laying out a path of endless forks that forges onward with hope and optimism. Monroe keeps the vocal intimate, even a bit shell-shocked, busting out in hints of wonder and pride only in the chorus. You can sense Monroe’s grit, another trait she shares with Parton, but also humbleness as she mirrors the song’s story in her vocal tone.
Producers Vince Gill and Justin Niebank serve Monroe perfectly with old-school productions of keening steel, crying fiddles and slip-note piano, but modern studio sonics that keep the album from sounding retro. It’s a much better setting for Monroe than her 2006 debut, Satisfied, fitting the delicate parts of her voice more supportively and pushing her toward traditional country phrasing. You can hear the difference in her remake of “Used,” sung here with a grace that escaped the earlier version. Monroe’s material balances blue-tinged autobiographical ballads with honky-tonk humor, the latter heard in the call-to-marital-duty “Weed Instead of Roses” and a sassy duet with Blake Shelton, “You Ain’t Dolly.” At only nine tracks (and under thirty minutes), this album ends too quickly, but with the Annie’s 2011 breakthrough advancing Monroe’s profile, her second shot at solo stardom is sure to be a success. [Â©2013 Hyperbolium]