Ashley Monroe, "The Blade" (Warner Bros.)

Mainstream country acts like to act tough. But fear of offending anyone whatsoever — radio programmers in particular — turns almost everybody softhearted in the end. That's what's so refreshing about a song like "Dixie," on Monroe's sterling follow-up to 2013's "Like a Rose." "Lord, get me out of Dixie in Jesus' name, amen," the native of Knoxville, Tenn., sings in an expertly turned blues with the nerve to commit the cardinal country sin of refusing to sentimentalize small-town values. "The Blade" doesn't peak quite as high as "Like a Rose," but it's a varied and effective songwriting display. A few "Blade" tunes, such as "From Time to Time," are staid and predictable, but they're the exception on the 13-cut album, coproduced by Vince Gill and Justin Niebank. "Blade" ranges from the honky-tonk ramble "Winning Streak" to the catchy pop-rocker "On to Something Good" to the quietly heartbreaking title cut.

Dan Deluca, Philadelphia Inquirer

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