In America, sparrows are viewed by many as pests. They were imported to this country during the 19th century from England as a way of controlling moths, but it turned out the bird didn’t like the insects. Sparrows carry diseases, including St. Louis encephalitis, and their nests become the home for many insect pests. They shit everywhere, clog roof drains, and cause roof leaks. They even bully other birds and displace woodpeckers, robins, wrens and martins out of their territories.
Ashley Monroe named her new album Sparrow. There’s no song by that name, but it refers to the opening lines of the first song, “Orphan”: “How does the sparrow know more than I / When mother is gone it learns how to fly / With no direction its wings in the wind / how does the bird know more than I?” and is implicitly autobiographical. But Monroe is no sparrow, even symbolically, and no orphan. Yes, her beloved father died when she was a young teen and she and her mother had to struggle. But Monroe is better than the common street waif. She’s more of a swan, a noble creature endowed with beauty, grace, and style as well as strength.
So while Monroe may not be familiar with ornithology, she does know her musical traditions. The sparrow has been (mis)used as a symbol in songs and hymns for centuries. She and producer Dave Cobb (Jason Isbell, Chris Stapleton) opted to give the material a classic, albeit classy production with string sections and reverbed acoustic guitars. Songs such as “Rita” and “Hard on a Heart” resemble the sound of Glen Campbell ala “Wichita Lineman” days—which was not accidental. Monroe has said that she and Cobb listened to Campbell’s music when making this record.
The sparrow’s not a very sexy bird. The swan has a more erotic presence. Monroe has a more corporeal manifestation. Monroe gets down and dirty. She sings “I wish I would have laid my hands on you / showed you a thing or two” with an earthy intonation that contrasts with the celestial string accompaniment. And on the more cinematic atmospherics of “Wild Love”, her tale of forbidden romance has a strong ecstatic bite to it. She takes what’s given with an appreciative glee.
Despite her initial claim to be an orphan, Monroe offers individual songs in tribute to her mother and father. On “Mother’s Daughter” the singer finds herself growing up to be more like her distaff parent than she ever thought she would. Monroe, a recent mother herself, finds some understanding now that she has someone depending on her. On “Daddy I Told You”, Monroe lovingly proclaims her success to the man in heaven. She follows this cut with the more spiritual “Keys to the Kingdom”. In this case the keys take on the shape of a guitar. Music has provided her with the entry into paradise.
The latter song also has a reference to Monroe’s namesake Marilyn—referred to as Norma Jean. A listener cannot see Ashley’s appearance like while playing the album, but her physicality is as much a part of her art as it is for other country artists such as Dolly Parton and Blake Shelton. Ashley’s blond good looks invites comparison to the Hollywood bombshell. Comparing her to a sparrow would be like calling Ryan Gosling a goose or Hugh Jackman a jackdaw. It just doesn’t fit. She should have named the album “Marilyn” or “Norma Jean”, who was a real orphan that found her way in the world without someone to guide her.