Country Jukebox Jury LPs: Ashley Monroe and Ronnie Milsap

Ashley Monroe – Rosegold

The Pistol Annie produced this 31-minute LP along with Gena Johnson, who is a woman and has worked on records by Isbell and Prine. It comes out, as the records of Prine did and Isbell’s do, through Thirty Tigers, which means Ashley is not beholden to a major label, only to herself. She wrote a note on her social media page about how she is a vessel through which the Holy Spirit can shine.

Niko Moon was in the room for the Tarantinoesque first single Drive, which Ashley told Dan Wharton on Your Life is a Song was written on her birthday. In a Holler Country interview I found out that her grandpa’s cousin married June Carter; I also like Jof Owen’s take on Rosegold as ‘CHVRCHES playing the Grand Ole Opry’, which is especially clear on the syncopated guitar line of opening track Siren. Layers of Ashleys sing over a programmed shuffle that reminds me of Massive Attack’s Teardrop. It’s a long way from The Blade, an underrated masterpiece she made with Vince Gill. (She has a credit on the Travis Tritt album out next week too, so she’s still got one foot in country.)

Fans of Kacey Musgraves will enjoy the sonic textures and sweet melodies of Silk and the elegant waltz See. ‘Wake up, wake up!’ is the opening line of Flying, which opens Side B. It was written with another underrated member of the songwriting community, Nicolle Galyon. The New Me closes the album and was written with Brett James, the man who discovered Ashley and to whom she is indebted for so much.

Gold is driven by fingersnaps and a naked vocal singing about love and stuff, with the Midas touch, rock’n’roll record and California sunshine standing as similes for her beloved. I Mean It also includes some tender chords and, as with Gold and The New Me, Ashley could have stuck a pedal steel and fiddle on it, but the production choice makes it fit with Lana del Rey or Ariana Grande. Ditto Til It Breaks, which focuses on how a heart ‘doesn’t come together til it breaks’, which is 100% a country lyric and is crying out for a less bluesy arrangement, even though it is still the LP’s masterpiece in its current form. Just because there isn’t a mandolin, doesn’t mean you can’t call it country music.

In fact, as with all Artists with a capital A, Ashley Monroe is her own genre. This is an album to lean into, not away from, in music streaming parlance. Having seen her when she was last in the UK, I can’t wait to catch her again.

Ronnie Milsap – A Better Word For Love

Ronnie Milsap started having hits 50 years ago and is still very much kicking at 78 years old. His new album A Better Word for Love comes on Black River Records, which houses Kelsea Ballerini. It’s full of tracks that have never made any records and the title track sounds like an old Ronnie Milsap song, with the voice dominating over some very frothy acoustic guitars. It is a proper song, as is Now, full of strings upon pedal steel upon backing vocals upon glorious chord shifts to soundtrack some classic Nashville heartache.

The late Jim Weatherly co-wrote Wild Honey (‘sweet as sweet can be’) and closing track Too Bad For My Own Good, on which Ronnie is ‘losing sleep’ through lusting after a lady, ‘addicted to the thrill of your kiss’. There is a saxophone solo, to help us remember Ronnie’s superb run of hits between 1974 and 1991, 35 of which were number ones. I only know a few of them so I really need to brush up on my Ronnie. I suggest that Country2Country book him for the Legends slot.

Scratch golfer Vince Gill helps him out on Big Bertha, a song about a ‘golf club [which] always sets me free’ written by Carl Perkins that is a fine honky-tonker which kicks off the set of ten tunes. Fireworks sounds like a Ringo Starr song, all about kisses and the 4th of July set to a massive drum beat and a horn riff, with a bonus fat solo in the middle of it.

The harmonies on Almost Mine are divine, matching the antiphonal piano lines in the song that answer his vocals. Both Fool and This Side of Heaven (‘Dreams can come true’) are classic songs, as is the live version of Civil War: ‘The state of our union is one of confusion.’ I don’t know why Ronnie isn’t spoken of in the same breath as Leon Russell or Elton John but I suspect it’s something to do with country musicians sticking to country audiences.

I hope this album takes Ronnie, as far as a 78-year-old can go, into mainstream consciousness, perhaps to Greenwich next March.

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