Ashley Monroe’s excellent new album The Blade — which serves as something close to her sophomore record — is out now. Following up 2013’s critically-acclaimed Like A Rose, this new record showcases Monroe’s ability to honor country’s disparate past, from bluegrass and honky-tonk to gut-wrenching ballads like the title track. Today, she’s shared a rendition of an old heartland classic — John Mellencamp’s “Pink Houses.”
The cover is her contribution to the Amazon Acoustics playlist, and it’s a great choice for Monroe, whose throaty alto chirps and hitches similarly to Mellencamp’s signature gravelly delivery. Monroe’s version doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but her feathery voice takes on the nostalgia-heavy scenes of Americana goodness and reshapes them with an air of hopefulness. The infamous opening scene of this song — a black man sitting in his yard in Indiana unfazed by the interstate traffic — is a real moment of such peace that it prompted Mellencamp to write the whole song, which became an iconic bit of American ephemera.
John McCain tried to use the song in his campaigns and Mellencamp hit him with a cease and desist; same goes for the song’s use in events promoting same-sex marriage opponents National Organization for Marriage. This background makes it unique in some ways: It’s a working-class anthem written by a man without any interest in the conservative ideals that often embody a blue-collar mindset. It’s a song by a man with such a strong belief in democratic principles and liberal politics that he discouraged its use by people who ascribe to those values. I haven’t had a lot of reason to feel national pride lately, given the unending slew of tragedies related to police brutality toward the African American people of our nation. That underlying context gives the opening lyrics more weight; they celebrate a peaceful, happy black man embracing his freedom, and that’s an image we desperately need to hang onto right now. Mellencamp recognized how beautiful that peacefulness was, how rare it was and how much it mattered. Maybe we can draw some hope from this 32-year-old scene.
“Pink Houses” distills the essence of American pride and daily life into gorgeous acoustic vignettes; the simple pleasure of sitting in your backyard, the funny and fading tattered dreams of our glory days, the vacations and pills that distract us from our shared everyday ennui. Monroe’s been working to gain traction in Nashville for nearly a decade now, and you get a sense of that weariness in her delivery. It’s American because it encapsulates all our wildest dreams, how often these fantasies fail us, and the unrelenting urge to keep trudging through reality, anyway. Something about dedicating yourself to that slog, working relentlessly toward something bigger, ends up being just as valuable right as grasping the dream will be in the future. Listen below.
You can get the entire Amazon Acoustics playlist here. Amazon Prime subscribers can also add individual tracks to their players and stream them for free.