Ashley Monroe Credit: Hannah Burton

Singer and songwriter Ashley Monroe has built a career with one foot deep inside Nashville orthodoxy as a member of Pistol Annies (with Miranda Lambert and Angaleena Presley) and a Warner Bros. solo artist, and the other staunchly outside of the middle-of-the-road sentimentality typical of mainstream country. Monroe made her latest album, Sparrow, with de rigueur producer Dave Cobb, who’s helped fashion a rich blend of countrypolitan gloss with sleek soul undercurrents. Her songwriting (she cowrote each song with a wide cast of cohorts) embodies the sort of emotional complexity and moral ambiguity that’s been an endangered species in country music for decades. The album title comes from opening track “Orphan,” a fragile meditation on life’s uncertainty that draws upon the persistence and survival instincts of the small, wild bird, but throughout the record she explores the gamut of human emotion and experience. She delves into desire and lust on songs such as “Hands on You” and “Wild Love,” while on others she reflects on parental impact: “Mother’s Daughter” weighs in on inherited commitment problems and “Daddy I Told You”—a missive to her father, who died from cancer when she was a teenager—proclaims the pride she gleaned from him in lyrics such as “Daddy don’t you know I’m carrying / Your spirit like a torch.” Her most unalloyed expression comes in “She Wakes Me Up (Rescue Me),” a joyful celebration of a child that’s full of unconditional love. “I love my baby, she’s the light of the world / She wakes me up with the sun in her eyes,” she sings. Elsewhere Monroe confronts the type of everyday struggles that visit long-term relationships in a way that touches upon the faith in tenacity depicted in the opening track. In “Paying Attention” she’s moved on to something new, but her heart and head can’t let go of hope.   v