Angaleena Presley talks tough, shoots straight, and generally has more outlaw spirit in her pinkie finger than the lion's share of Nashville's overfed, backwards-facing singers, songwriters, and honky-tonkers. She initially achieved mainstream success in 2011, as one third of country supergroup Pistol Annies alongside Miranda Lambert and Ashley Monroe, but ever since she went solo, the Nashville machine has turned a blind eye to her efforts—her songs are too fierce, too honest, and too goddamn true for them to risk setting her loose among the Luke Bryans and Sam Hunts of the world.
In 2014, her crackling debut American Middle Class socked it to the establishment in no uncertain terms, tackling Music Row's superficiality and industry sexism even as she laid bare the wretched costs of America's opioid crisis in "Pain Pills," a heartbreaking ode to those trapped in the jaws of addiction back home in her corner of Kentucky. Now, three years on, Presley is still fired up, and has set her sights square on the trapped-in-amber good ol' boys' club of an industry that's done her wrong.
Wrangled is an emotional rollercoaster with a singular focus, offering meditations on the pressures of high school (countrypolitan bubblegum bop "High School"), and hardships of tour life (the hopeful "Groundswell". No-good men and domestic drudgery (the confrontational"Wrangled") and her desire to fit in despite the inarguable fact that "god broke the mold when he made" her (the rueful "Outlaw") pop up alongside the deceptively sweet "Only Blood" with its devastating twist and the nightmarish gender constrictions she rails against on the biting "Mama I Tried." She gets by with a little help from her friends, too—Morgane Stapleton contributes guest vocals, while her husband Chris Stapleton, Guy Clark, and Wanda Jackson all co-wrote tracks on Wrangled. There's also a slightly more unexpected guest—cult Southern rapper Yelawolf, who appears on the album's most surprising track.
"Country" is a purposeful deviation from Presley's generally more traditional sound; the brassy, ultra-twangy tune sends up bro country's boneheaded tropes with a snarl (and features a few bars from Yelawolf, who shouts out Waylon and Dwight, and thanks god for Sturgill Simpson). Presley lets her bluesy impulses fly free on "Good Girl Down," a defiant, rhythmic stomp with rockabilly legend Wanda Jackson's whiskey-tipped fingers all over it (which makes sense, since Presley cowrote the number with her), and wraps it all up with "Motel Bible," a hell-yeah-and-hallelujah honky-tonk knee-slapper that exhorts us to join in and "hoop and holler, drink some holy fire water, baptized in the name of some good old fashioned fun." It ends things on a high note, and is a nice little reminder that, as introspective and principled as Angaleena Presley is, she's still the kinda person you know you'd have a helluva good time slamming whiskey shots with. Sure, she knows her roots and praises the lord, but you know she's raised more than her fair share of hell and weathered a whole lot of storms, and that kind of authenticity is priceless… and terribly rare down in Nashville.
Last time I spoke to Presley, we spent an hour munching on fried pickles and talking about our respective backwoods hometowns. This time, time constraints got in the way, and I ended up sending her a handful of quick questions to see where she's at now, and to talk about some of Wrangled's more intriguing moments (and do my best to find out whether that Pistol Annies reunion we all want to much will be happening anytime soon). We're also streaming the title track to Wrangled below—the album's out April 21 on Thirty Tigers, with preorders available now.
Noisey: Two years after the release of American Middle Class, you're back - and judging from what I've read on your website, you're still just as fired up about inequality and the rotten business of Music Row as you were before. What kind of message and points were you really looking to get out there this time?
Angaleena Presley: It's just a continuation of my story. The first record painted a picture of where I came from, and this record tells the story of where I was when I first moved to Nashville up to where I am now. I write about what I know. I've spent the last 14 or so years with my nose to Music City's grindstone, and I felt compelled to blow the whistle. This album reveals the pain and joy of navigating this industry told from the perspective of a liberal country girl who believes in a fair shake. The title track we're premiering today, "Wrangled," is soulful and slow burning, with a little dollop of polish—it shows off your less fiery, more introspective side, instead of the more rollicking vibes we find on some of the other tracks. What made you want to make that the album's centerpiece?
"Wrangled" is the glue. As the songs started piling up over the past two years, a theme began to emerge. I had written a lot of metaphorical songs that allowed me to subtly vent my frustrations about my job. "Mama I Tried," for example, isn't just about a 30-something girl who's tired of her mama's bitching. It's also about the process of shopping yourself to a town that doesn't like off brands. "Outlaw" isn't just about a mournful desperado. It's about a girl who never set out to be different. She does what she does, and it lands left of center even when she thinks it belongs in the middle. I intentionally wrote "Wrangled" to tie everything together. One one hand, it's about a woman struggling to find her voice in the midst of her domestic duties. On the other hand, it's my break up song after a long, agonizing relationship with the idea that country radio would grace me with some airtime.
When you sit down to write a song, have you already got the lyrics mapped out in your head, or do you puzzle-piece them in once you've got the music down? What lyric are you most proud of on Wrangled?
My process is totally random. I get ideas from just about anything. I always carry a notebook, and I always keep my heart and eyes open. My husband says I have a staring problem—I say I'm a workaholic. When I pick up a guitar, I never know what's going to happen. My favorite line in Wrangled is probably the first line. "If I had a dollar for every time he tracked his dirty feet across my kitchen floor…" It's real. I can hear my mom saying it. My mamaw too.
I thought it was so interesting that you decided to work with rapper Yelawolf, especially given how you feel about bro country, which has this strange crossover going on with radio rap. He's definitely more of an underground artist, which makes sense for an outlaw like you. Why did you decide to work with him, and how do you feel your track stands apart from, say, some of the other country/rap hybrids out there?
Yelawolf is the OG… He practically invented country rap but couldn't get arrested on Music Row, so he went north to work with Eminem. Next thing you know, bros are doing a watered down version on the country radio. I wanted him on this record because "Country" is a snap moment I had when I would've gone north if that option had been there for me. I had a very disheartening meeting where my publisher told me that my songs were amazing, just not right for the current climate. The climate was partly shady with 100% chance of dudes. Miranda Lambert and Carrie Underwood were the only two women in the top ten for long, long time. So, I went home from that meeting, thought about "the formula", all the trends that were happening on country radio, including rap, and wrote Country as a parody. Yelawolf couldn't have been more perfect for the job. I replaced the silly rap I wrote with the badass one that he wrote when he came to the studio. I'm so proud to have him on the record. What was it like working with Wanda Jackson for "Good Girl Down"? I just saw her on the Outlaw Country Cruise—she was out there with her hair done, in a fringed jacket, still wailing away. She's such an old school rock 'n' roll soul, I have a feeling you two must've gotten along like a house on fire.
You bet we did. She lives up to every aspect of her legend. She's a spitfire, a sweet Oklahoma girl and a rock star all rolled into one. Her wisdom is beyond measure. Writing with her was effortless because every thing she says sounds like a line from a song. I'm so blessed to call her a friend.
Last time we talked, we spent some time discussing "Pain Pills," and the opioid crisis that was ravaging your Kentucky home country and so much of the South. Two years on, has anything changed?
Unfortunately, it's gotten worse. When the doctors finally realized they were killing people and destroying families, they stopped prescribing, and price for pills on the street skyrocketed. Heroine moved in, and people are still dying. There are too many secrets and not enough resources. Addiction is a disease, but it's looked on as a crime or shame. When someone has cancer or diabetes, we empathize and nurture. When someone goes to jail because they'll do anything to get drugs, we scrutinize and abandon. Everyone in my hometown, in some way or another, has been touched by this epidemic and I honestly don't see the light at the end of the holler.
The opioid crisis and Appalachian coal county itself has been turned into a political football. Outside of voting wisely, what can other people do to actually help those in the grip of addiction? How can we actually make changes on a grassroots level?
Personally, I talk about it, and I sing about it. At the heart of addiction, there are secrets and shame. The more we talk about it the more we realize that there's no shame in making mistakes and there's no power in going it alone. Rural America is filled with survivors, tough, wise people who can make something out of nothing. I think it starts with loving your neighbor in that old fashioned way but also taking another more personal step. People need to lean on each other and share their troubles. Honesty and vulnerability are two powerful weapons in this fight. I've got to ask: "Dreams Don't Come True" marks the first time all three Pistol Annies have worked together in years. On a scale of 1 to 10, just how likely is it that we'll see you all onstage together sometime soon?
Not sure about soon but you'll definitely see us together again. We'll never give up hope that the stars will align, no pun intended, and we'll figure out how to get back on the road. We're just all so busy now. It's hard to drop everything and jump on a bus. Someday, Lord willin', it'll happen.
Kim Kelly isn't praying (but sure is hoping) on Twitter.
Photo credit: Becky Fluke / Marushka Media