Pistol Annies' Angaleena Presley: The Cream Interview

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Whether or not Pistol Annies literally pack heat — and Miranda Lambert’s pink shotgun mic stand ought to offer a clear enough clue about that — their stubbornly grounded vantage points and down-home entertainer’s instincts, multiplied by three, have an exhilerating plow-you-down force. One of their recent talking points has been the T Bone Burnett-produced track they landed on The Hunger Games soundtrack. But the Scene was more interested in asking East Nashville’s Angaleena Presley — who became the third singing, songwriting, straight-talking Annie a couple years back at the invitation of Lambert and Ashley Monroe — about what fuels their fires, arson fantasies included, and why they don’t sweat the rules of the contemporary country landscape.

Lambert will headline Bridgestone Arena this Saturday, May 19, with an appearance from Pistol Annies. See my Critic's Pick on that here, and have a look at my interview with Presley below.

Nashville Cream: The last female trio in country music that was feisty, had traditional leanings and spoke their minds was the Dixie Chicks. When Pistol Annies got going, did you think of them and the mixed response they got later in their career? Did it give you pause?

Angaleena Presley: Well, I don’t really think so. I mean, we love the Dixie Chicks. We love their music, and we’re obviously inspired by them. But, you know, I think we’re just gonna push on through and keep being honest, [laughs] and hopefully there won’t be any fallout like there was with them. It’s sad what happened to them. I don’t know. It’s a weird thing in country music. We’re just gonna do what we do, and just hope that people can attach to it or relate to it.

NC: You each have your distinct personas within the group: Lonestar Annie, Hippie Annie and Holler Annie. How do you feel like those colorful personas effect the way people respond to you?

AP: I think our personas pretty much match our personalities. I’m Holler Annie because I’m from the holler. I just spent some time in Kentucky this past weekend and bought a bunch of T-shirts from the Bull Creek flea market. They say, like, “Coal Miner’s Daughter” and “I Love Kentucky.” We’re all so proud of where we’re from, and we had really colorful childhoods.

NC: Do you think it helped people to latch onto what you do quickly? It’s not like there was a typical promotion process with a slow-and-steady build-up. You pretty much went straight to the big stage.

AP: Yeah. I think people latch on to our honesty. At the end of the day, we might be on the big stage, but we’re all three just country girls who have stories to tell. We’re telling our stories, and we tell it like it is. And I think that people are ready for the truth. So we’re gon’ tell it.

NC: You put real-life detail in your songs. One of the most famous examples is your description in “Lemon Drop” of tying up your dragging muffler with a guitar string. But there’s also playfulness and humor.

AP: I’m sort of like no-middle-ground. I’m either making you cry or making you fall out laughing. So that’s kinda just the way that I write. The other girls, they have their own style. So when we get together there’s a magic that happens. Hopefully we’re making some good music together.

NC: At the end of last year everybody published their Best of 2011 lists. Hell on Heels showed up on a ton of them. I noticed there were major mainstream outlets like the New York Times, Rolling Stone and Village Voice that talked about your album being one of the best musical responses to the Recession. What did you make of people taking it that way?

AP: I thought it was great. Personally, my story, I was going through a divorce, I was broke. I did not know how I was gonna feed my baby. I was right in the thick of it. I bought a house when I got pregnant, and it was right at the end of the ridiculous housing market. So the market crashed, and then here I am stuck with this house that’s worth way less than what we paid for it. You know, I was just panicked. So there’s a song on our record “Housewife’s Prayer.” That was me sitting on the couch, thinking about burning my house down. I was literally trying to figure out, “OK, how can I do this and not have the insurance people know it?” It’s just desperate times right now. That was just my take on it. And there’s so many other people who are going through that same thing. I’m just glad that they got it and they understood that I’m just trying to make it just like anybody else. I have the platform to sing about it, and I’m glad to do it.

NC: I heard that desperation in that song. I wondered if there was an undercurrent of pondering how to get the insurance money.

AP: Yeah. Totally. I’m sure that there’s so many other people that have had those thoughts, and I’m sure that there’s so many people who’ve actually done it.

NC: You do have to wonder when you see a scorched spot where a house once stood.

AP: Yeah. No kiddin’. I had my guitar to sort of channel that energy [laughs]. But people who don’t have that guitar maybe actually did it.

NC: You brought up “Housewife’s Prayer.” That’s not the only song on the album that speaks from the perspective of a wife who’s struggling to make it through. But so many songs I’m hearing, especially from your male peers, tend to deal more with having a good time, without really dealing with the mess of marriage.

AP: Yep. Love ain’t pretty.

NC: Were you aware that you were talking about things that a lot of people aren’t in country songs right now? Not that they haven’t in country music of the past. But I mean in 2012.

AP: Well, I’ve been doing this for 10 years. And I have written about and talked about things that people don’t want to talk about for a long time. I had a really hard way to go in Nashville, because I’m kind of a renegade in the songwriter world. I just never compromised. I just couldn’t compromise, because I do what I do. I’m not a songwriting machine. I just write about what I know and what I feel. That’s just the gift that God gave me. So for me, I’m not really aware of it, just because that’s just what I do and that’s what I’ve been doing for a long time. It took me 10 years to finally find a platform where I could do it for the public. My hero is Loretta Lynn. I’m from where she’s from, in that part of Kentucky. I grew up listening to her records, and that’s what she did. She was no-holds-barred, and she was so brave and talked about things that she wasn’t allowed to talk about back then. She’s kind of like my end-all-be-all. I love her. I just have that thing in me where that’s just what I do.

NC: It’s pretty striking to hear it in the context of current mainstream country.

AP: It’s been amazing. I’ve just counted my blessings every day for the past two years. It has been so awesome to see the fans sing along with our songs and see their reactions to them on Twitter and Facebook and hear all these stories about all these women saying, “That happened to me, and I’m so glad to have this song, because I can lean on this song and know that I’m not alone in this.” So this whole experience has just blown my mind. Every day I wake up and say, “Thank you, Lord. Thank you for letting this be my job.”

NC: Do you have a sense of who the core Pistol Annies audience is?

AP: I think we have a pretty diverse audience. I think that older women can relate to us. I think that younger girls can relate to us. And then I think there’s everybody in the middle. And then there’s guys who scream “Hell on Heels, Hell on Heels!” We’ll be at our shows and we’ll see all these cowboys in the front row just singing [sings low and twangy] “Hell on heels.” It’s funny. Our fans are all different ages, everything. That’s how I prefer it. I hope that I’m making music that’s for everybody.

NC: A lot of what’s making it onto country radio right now — other than your bandmate’s solo stuff — has pop or rock crossover sensibilities. But Pistol Annies have a back-to-the-roots, hardcore-country sound. On top of that, female artists are in the minority on the charts, especially women singing about the kinds of things you’re singing about. Do you feel like it’s your sound or the spirit of your songs that goes against the grain more?

AP: Thank God for Miranda Lambert, because she has blazed the trail for our kind of music. She’s been singing about what she feels since she started, and she never compromised. She was lucky enough to have this platform to do it from the beginning. And she just did it and did it and did it and pushed and pushed and said, “Here I am and I’m not going away.” And now she’s a superstar. She has opened the door for so many artists, like me and Ashley, to come out and say, “Hey, I can do that too. I can sing about stuff that might make you uncomfortable, but hey it’s the truth. And I’m gonna sing it. I’m here and I’m not going away either.” I think that she has changed country music. I’m so honored to be a part of her world and to kind of follow in her footsteps.

NC: Even with all the hard work she’s put into winning people over to what she does and who she is, it wasn’t a given that Pistol Annies would get the reception you’ve gotten in country. And then you’ll also do something like release vinyl on Record Store Day. In addition to the country world, you have the attention of rock critics who typically only go for country from the Outlaw era and earlier, who love Hank, Cash and Loretta.

AP: Well, those are our heroes and those are the people who inspire us. Hopefully we’re following in their footsteps too. If Waylon were alive, I hope that he would love our record and want to come sing on it.

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