Some songs merely talk about sex while others emit heat and sensuality in such a way a car's windows need to be rolled down when the notes escape from the radio's speakers to keep its inhabitants from melting. Ashley Monroe's "Hands on You," from the country siren's latest album, "Sparrow," turns up the heat with a slow-burning strut of guitars, orgasmic strings, and her rapturous twang purring out lyrics like, "I wish you would've laid your hands on me / And never let me go / Drawing pictures on my skin / Places no one's ever been."
And it's not the only track on an album filled with emotional extremes to detour into unbridled seduction. "Wild Love" slays with its teasing rhythms and no-holds-barred wish list: "I need a stranger to pull my hair and call my name /Take me home and make me feel alive again."
Monroe admits the song is a favorite of her husband, former White Sox pitcher John Danks. "He always tells me he's proud of me and stuff like that, but he's not over the top about anything. He's just kind of chill," she says over the phone from her manager's office in Nashville. "But the other day I got into his truck, and "Wild Love" was playing and I was like, 'yeahhh.'"
Now a first-time mom to 10-month-old Dalton, it took an observation from Angaleena Presley, Monroe's partner, along with Miranda Lambert, in country supergroup Pistol Annies, to turn her onto why she felt so connected to her sultry side.
"The other day, she goes, 'It makes sense Ashley, the whole time you were making or writing those songs you were trying to have a baby.' And that's so true. I hadn't even put that together yet," Monroe says. "(Sexuality) was a bigger part of my life."
Pregnant while recording in Nashville with producer-of-the-moment Dave Cobb in his RCA Studio A, Monroe didn't feel the need to shield her son in utero from the risque lyrics bouncing off the walls. "He knew how he got here, I think, already," she claims. If anything, the experience of putting her vocals on record while carrying a child boosted her foxiness.
"I felt more sexy, more confident. I was curvy at the time. I had, like, a little bit of boobs," she says. "Like, yeah, I feel like a woman."
A good chunk of "Sparrow," Monroe's fourth solo album, which embraces the polished countrypolitan sounds Glen Campbell and even Elvis Presley adopted in the late '60s with elaborate, winsome string arrangements at the forefront like a duet partner, focuses on her turbulent childhood.
Monroe lost her dad to cancer when she was 13 and her mother took some time apart from the family in the aftermath. Songs like the poignant "Daddy I Told You" find Monroe giving her late father an update on dreams fulfilled and promises kept ("Daddy I told you I was gonna fly / I'd get out of that town alive / Don't worry, I kept your name and your picture in a frame"), while the staggering opening track "Orphan" questions abandonment with clear eyes and a steely heart ("Nobody told me what I should do / When the world starts to rumble and shake under you / How does an orphan find its way home? / Reach out with no hand to hold / How do I make it alone?").
"Orphan" gutted one of country music's most decorated stars, Alison Krauss when a mutual friend shared an early peek of the album. Still reeling from the experience, Monroe can barely relay the phone call with the bluegrass diva where she expressed her admiration. "She said, 'From the opening cello to what your voice did' ... I ... she pretty much said she loved it so much. I can't even say it," Monroe says, struggling. "It makes me blush. It means so much coming from her because she just knows what's real."
Making "Sparrow" afforded Monroe a chance to heal from the past. Over the years she noticed that certain themes kept popping up in her writing, which made her realize that maybe she hadn't fully grieved the loss of her father or fully forgiven herself and others. With this record, she feels like she is in a "fresh spot."
"I feel like I'm in a ... fresh chapter in life where I can reap, if you will, all the pain," she concludes.
If the songs on "Sparrow" seem to cast a not-so-positive light on her relationship with her mother, Monroe says the two are tight today and becoming a mom "was definitely a full circle moment." Now, "I really know what it feels like to love somebody so much like she loves me," she admits.
"Mothers and daughters are always back and forth. I don't know any mother/daughter duo that's great all the time. She's literally like my best friend and we're turning into each other," Monroe says. "I think that's actually the problem with a lot of moms and daughters, which my mom always told me would happen – 'You'll turn into me, watch and see.' And it's almost like resentment when you start to see it happening. It's just kind of funny. She was at the house earlier and I was there, and four times we said something at the same time, same thing. She just looked at me with that 'I told you so' look. I'm lucky to have her."
While country radio often takes a while to catch up, "Sparrow" and albums like Kacey Musgrave's psychedelic "Golden Hour," including her disco-inspired "High Horse" single, are redefining the genre.
"I love paving the way of any sort that would help someone just do their art and not have to fit any box. To just kind of go with your gut, go with your heart, which Kacey has done as well so beautifully, and people respond to it," she says. "It helps bring down the genre lines. You like what you like and what moves you and when you make records like that I feel like it brings those kinds of listeners around too. It's not that I don't want to fit somewhere, I just want as many people in this world to hear our music as possible."