DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF ASHLEY MONROE SONG, "WILD LOVE")
DAVIES: Rock critic Ken Tucker has a review of Ashley Monroe's fourth album titled "Sparrow." Monroe's a singer and songwriter with roots in country music. On her new album, she features a string section, harkening back, Ken says, to a type of country music called countrypolitan.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WILD LOVE")
ASHLEY MONROE: (Singing) I'm going to miss you fast and forbidden - ripe on the vine. Under my skin, the fire has risen - dangerous kind, wild love.
KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: There's a sense of drama about "Sparrow," the new album by Ashley Monroe. More than just a collection of songs, it's a mood piece. It's an attempt to find some small piece of heaven on earth, a place where her narrators can find both peace and control. She finds both of these elements with a stark directness that characterizes this entire album.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THIS HEAVEN")
MONROE: (Singing) This heaven that I'm holding, it ain't heaven-sent. It ain't glory bound. It's a fast train headed south. This heaven that I'm holding, it's not for everyone. It's not for everyone. It's a lonely setting sun.
TUCKER: Monroe has said in recent interviews that she and producer Dave Cobb listen to a lot of pop-country records that use strings, Glen Campbell's "Wichita Lineman" in particular. She's embracing the idea that this album "Sparrow" is a contemporary example of countrypolitan music.
A brief explanation - in the 1960s and early '70s, the country music industry felt under commercial siege by the rise of Elvis Presley and rock ’n’ roll at one end and the Beatles and the British invasion on the other. The Nashville corporate reaction was to try and appeal to audiences in big cities by removing the twang and the steel guitar. Vocalists started crooning in front of string sections. The idea was to make country sound metropolitan and thus countrypolitan. I remember as a kid thinking that countrypolitan was mawkish, corny stuff. Now, I listen to a song like "End Of The World," released in 1962 and sung by Skeeter Davis, and it strikes me as possessing an almost unearthly beauty.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "END OF THE WORLD")
SKEETER DAVIS: (Singing) Why does the sun go on shining? Why does the sea rush to shore? Don't they know it's the end of the world 'cause you don't love me anymore? Why...
TUCKER: That's Skeeter Davis. Ashley Monroe stakes her own claim to countrypolitan classicism on what, I think, is both the most beautiful and the catchiest song on "Sparrow." It's built around an unlikely hook, the perfectly ordinary phrase I'm paying attention. From it flows a gorgeous combination of vocal and orchestration.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PAYING ATTENTION")
MONROE: (Singing) I'm paying attention, so give me a sign. You're all that I'm seeing now that you're not mine. I'm paying attention to you. Oh, now I'm paying attention to you. It's snowing in April...
TUCKER: Because of Monroe's delicate phrasing and her high, curling tones, her singing can register as soft or perhaps passive. It's something she's mindful of and pushes against at numerous points on this album - nowhere so clearly as in the song "Hands On You." Instead of singing about mothers and daughters and heartache as she does elsewhere, "Hands On You" presents an earthier character - a woman who acts on feelings of lust.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HANDS ON YOU")
MONROE: (Singing) I wish I would've laid my hands on you - shown you a thing or two. I wish I would've pushed you against the wall - locked the door in the bathroom stall, windows and the screen. I wish you would've laid your hands on me. That kind going to bring me to my knees. I wish I would've let you lay me down 'cause I wouldn't be here wishing now. I wish I would've lay my hands on you.
TUCKER: Ashley Monroe is working in a space that's almost entirely separate from anyone else in country music right now. It's territory that's been occupied before - in the 1970s and '80s when the country charts were more amenable to the kind of drama Monroe wants to explore, when Lorrie Morgan tested independence in the song "A Picture Of Me Without You," when Lynn Anderson told men, I never promised you a rose garden. Ashley Monroe sings about paying attention and putting her hands on you. She's all about connecting with the one person who's sitting right in front of her and with the larger audience that ought to be hanging on every word she sings.
DAVIES: Ken Tucker is critic at large for Yahoo TV. He reviewed Ashley Monroe's new album called "Sparrow." On tomorrow's show - British singer Tracey Thorn. She has a new solo album. She's formerly of the duo Everything but the Girl which she formed with her husband, Ben Watt. We'll talk with her about motherhood, midlife, performing and feminism. She's also a columnist for the British political magazine the New Statesman. Hope you can join us.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LICKING STICK")
JAMES BROWN: (Singing) Oh, mama, come here quick and bring that licking stick. Mama...
DAVIES: We'll end today's show with a track featuring one of James Brown's funky drummers Jabo Starks who died Tuesday at his home in Mobile, Ala. He was 79. Jabo Starks played on dozens of James Brown hits, including "Sex Machine," "Super Bad," "Hot Pants," "I Got Ants In My Pants," "Make It Funky," "Papa Don't Take No Mess" and - this one - "Licking Stick," which was released in 1968, 50 years ago this month. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LICKING STICK")
BROWN: (Singing) Come telling me the other day she didn't want to be a drag. I don't know what she's doing. I think she's got a brand new bag. Mama, come here quick and bring me that licking stick. Mama, come here quick and bring that licking stick. Now, look it here. Junior, don't kill me with the laser strokes. When he take his feet right off the ground doing the mashed potatoes, then he begins to slide. Call himself doing the James Brown... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.