Her Way Or The Highway

Holly Williams (granddaughter of Hank Williams) and Ashley Monroe are both female country singers, so tragedy and duplicitous men are never off their radar screens. But the two women approach trouble from different angles. Williams’ songs act like warnings; she presents her stories so that others can heed her tales and actively avoid her fate. Monroe, on the other hand, winks and leers at whatever torments her. She suggests that maybe trouble is just a state of mind.

On Williams’ new album, The Highway, the singer’s problems seem to slowly consume her. The song “Drinkin’” starts with her asking, “Why you drinkin’ like the night’s still young/. . .Why you screaming like I don’t have ears/ . . . Why you cheatin’ on a woman like this?” By the end of the tune, Williams has been driven to drink, filling the role she hated: “Hope I don’t die drinkin’ like the night is young.” She inhabits a world of regret, mistakes, and missed opportunities. Even America’s escape route (the album’s namesake) doesn’t offer solace—on the title track, Williams “should be wearing out the blacktop,” “could be wearing out the highway.” But importantly, she’s not: getting out is a fantasy.

 

The sound of The Highway has nothing to do with revving engines and the opening road. Williams’ songs usually start slowly, with naked, plaintive vocals, or just a simple melody, like Williams wants to explore her pain alone before letting in the band. An acoustic guitar is the first to join her voice; then maybe a back-up singer or a violin. Slowly and gradually songs scale up to lush, melancholy arrangements. It’s rare to hear guitars rev up or spark—sparks might lead to flames, and Williams isn’t a fiery fighter. She’s stiff upper-lip, toughing things out as best she can with quiet acceptance reflected in a lot of acoustic instrumentation, gentle, circular playing, light percussion.

Most of the problems in Williams’ songs are out of the narrator’s control, inherited from family or passed on by lovers.  In “Gone Away From Me,” Williams sings, “I never liked to see my daddy cry/ I guess I’ll never know how grandpa died,” suggesting a history of burying and avoiding the awkward or uncomfortable. Regret bleeds through in phrases like, “What I’d give/ to go there again,” and in her constant tendency to contemplate the worst: “If I never saw you once again/ If suddenly you met your bitter end.”

 

Even when Williams’ characters fight back, against an alcoholic husband, they still end up losing—“17 years, with a wedding ring/ the saddest damn story, you ever seen.” “Everbody says it’ll be ok,” Williams sings on “Happy,” “But I dunno/ when that day will come/ will it come?” It’s a trapped, bleak world.

Ashley Monroe doesn’t make it to the highway either on Like A Rose, her recent album.  But the sadness in her songs does not denote grim acceptance. “Anything worth trying I already tried, anything worth saving has already died,” sings Monroe at one point. But tragedy comes paired with humor and defiance.  There’s a sense that she can at least create her own space, even if it’s within pre-defined borders.

Again and again, Monroe testifies to her ability to weather trouble.  “I did what I did to get by,” she sings at one point, frank and unapologetic. No matter the situation, she comes “out like a rose.” And even when she admits that she is torn up and worn out (“used”), “in the end” she proclaims she’ll “be worth a whole lot more.”

Humor is her best weapon. “Wine Instead Of Roses” is about spicing up failed romance with substances and S&M, “every puff, every shot, you’re looking better.” “Two Weeks Late” contains an extended story about what happens to sinners: Monroe’s alone, her mom says she’s overweight, the rent’s past due, and she may be pregnant.  “When you’re livin’ in sin I guess that’s just what you get,” sings Monroe, which speaks to resignation, but she’s in on the joke here—“what a damn cliché,” she says at one point. She “know[s] the bible says that you’re supposed to wait,” and she didn’t. But she doesn’t sound the least bit mournful about it.

 

Part of the key to Monroe’s fight is her sound—“Two Weeks Late” is all thwacking swing and bounce, making it clear she’s got pep in her step. “Monroe Suede” contains a classic country bass line, cheerful and elastic; “Weed Instead Of Roses” chugs along on tumbling piano and bludgeoning guitar. Monroe can replicate Williams’ more mournful sound, but she’s just as likely to blast through melancholy with noise and velocity.

There’s one anomalous track on Williams’ The Highway, “Without You,” where she shoots for big anthemic love, the kind of sentimental attachment that Lady Antebellum take to the bank, with a grand piano riff and a full string section.  She’s “not searching anymore,” because she figured out she “couldn’t live a day without you.” Williams can’t live without ‘em , but she can’t live with ‘em either. She’s probably better off getting on that highway. Monroe can stay behind and make the best of a bad situation. And she might even come out the better for it.

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