All photos by Sarah Barlow
It’s a muggy Tuesday night and I’ve trekked out to Joe’s Pub, a swanky Soho joint with expensive drinks and a well-heeled clientele, to listen to some country music. Legendary songwriter Bob DiPiero was there to kick off the first Made in Tennessee Songwriters Series with two sold-out shows that night, both slated to feature the considerable talents of Nashville staples DiPiero, Tim Nichols, Rivers Rutherford, and Kentucky-born spitfire Angaleena Presley (known to fans of the countrified supergroup Pistol Annies as Holler Annie). I went to the later session, and it was a great show—the best acoustic karaoke session imaginable, really. Angaleena more than held her own amidst the trio of grizzled vets, nailing her darkly funny “Knocked Up” while fending off dad jokes. The chemistry onstage was electric and the other songwriters seemed tickled by her presence, but they swerved right out of line a few times by talking about... her boobs. Great idea, guys! Angaleena gave them a closed-mouth smile and took it in stride, but it made it clear that, while country’s good ol’ boy mentality may have devolved into the current bro country wave, old-timers can still act like lunkheads.
I asked her about it the next day after running into her in the whiskey store across the street from my office—too perfect, right?—and sitting down for a couple of cold ones and a mound of fried pickles. Angaleena asked for extra ranch. “It’s a Southern thing. You ever hear that joke, ‘how do you get a Southern girl to suck your dick? Cover it in ranch dressing.' It’s true!” she drawled, collapsing into peals of laughter. Holler Annie sure ain’t much of a shrinking violet, and she’s not shy about sharing her views on everything from gay marriage (“Let people love who they wanna love!”) and marijuana (“Legalize it!”) to her old friend and bandmate, country superstar Miranda Lambert, and her husband Blake Shelton (“he’s the fifth Annie!”).
Make no mistake, though: when you're looking at Angaleena, you're looking at country. She’s a genuine coal miner's daughter from the hills of Eastern Kentucky, with a bloodline that stretches back to the infamous feuding McCoys and a resume that shouts out stints at both WalMart and WinnDixie before she hit the big time with the Pistol Annies. She's fiercely passionate about raising awareness of the pill epidemic that’s ravaging the hills in her unincorporated hometown of Beauty, and penned a heartbreaker of a song about it for her latest album, American Middle Class, with a video to match. You can tell she doesn’t mind raising a little hell, like a sloe-eyed big sister with a heart of gold, a flask of bourbon, and a Camel dangling off her lip—and that just makes us love her more.
Noisey: I got to the Songwriter Series and was like, “Sweet! All these super talented people up there, they’re gonna kill it!” Then half the time they’re just talking about your appearance. Did that bug you, or are you used to it?
Angaleena Presley: I guess a little of both. It’s a compliment and at the same time it’s like, no. I don’t always wear dresses that show off my boobs because then I look chubby. I think it bothered me more when I started in my career, and I was all about, “I’m not here to sleep with people.” But now I’ll make fun of it, and I’ll say things in my show about my boobs. I’ll say things like, “I didn’t get here on talent alone!” I think the best way to combat things like that is just to laugh about it.
It made me think about how strong female characters and strong women have been a part of country for so long, but mainstream country right now only seems to care about boobs and beaches and short-shorts. It doesn’t respect women like it used to.
To me it’s like, we’re all doing the same thing. There’s this big wave of bro country music. It’s like, okay, everybody’s singing about the party, right? Some people are singing about the beer and the fun, but then people like me sing about the aftermath of the party—when you wake up and two months later you find out you’re pregnant by some douche who owns a big honkin’ pickup truck. It’s just which side you gravitate to. I guess it’s easier to go to the party than to think about vomiting after the party, you know? [Laughs] But as far as girls go, it’s not good for women in country music right now. I don’t think a way to combat it is to talk bad about people. I think what you do is write crazy-good songs, get together and do shows, make a sisterhood. You come together! I think that’s happening, and I think there’s gonna be a shift. I got this song title, which I haven’t written yet; I’m calling shotgun on it! It’s “Mama Didn’t Burn Her Bra For Nothin’” It’s like, why aren’t we doing anything? It’s hard to fight something as big as what’s going on right now. But, like I said, the way to do it is to be undeniably great in your art. So, I don’t know. I’m figuring things out.
I think you’re doing okay! You're in Rolling Stone, NPR—everyone’s loving your new album, American Middle Class. You’ve been around for a minute, so you know what you’re talking about, but you also have this fresh perspective that people are really craving. On country radio you won’t hear a lot of songs about unplanned pregnancies or drug addiction in rural communities. I think people are missing that.
People have said a lot of good things about my record, so I guess there’s something to it. I mean, I watch Dr. Phil everyday for my ego: “At least I’m not that crazy! Or, at least my mom’s not that crazy! Or, at least my husband’s not that much of an asshole!” And I mean, my record is autobiographical. I have literally lived every minute on it. For me I think that’s just what I do well. I struggle. Maybe I’m supposed to? Those are the stories I like to tell and connect to. To the point where on Brandy Clark’s record—which is amazing—there’s a song on there called “The Day I Got Divorced” that was actually inspired by my divorce. The day I got divorced. I went from the courthouse to my friend’s writing room and tell about it like, “I got divorced today! Yay!” It was in the papers. So he wrote with Brandy the next day, and was goin’ on about me, and how hillbilly I am. “She got divorced from him, came here and wrote a song!” They wrote “The Day I Got Divorced” that day. My life is crappy enough to make it onto someone’s record!
Imagine, Dr. Phil doing some good. Your work is really quietly political. You’re not really waving banners or standing on a soapbox, you’re just showing what real life is like growing up somewhere where everyone’s broke, and the only place you can work is Walmart, and your friends are dying. I think a lot of people can relate to that. It hits home, you know? I grew up in a town with 800 people. A couple of us made it out, and I guess it’s our job to tell the story.
That’s it. I always felt like that was my job, to talk about it. I try to just talk about it in the most real way that I can. With no bullshit and no stereotyping and no making fun. I just try to paint a picture of what it really looks like. We didn’t even have a Walmart!
Ours was a half-hour away.
Ours was too! Thirty minutes to the closest one.
That’s when you know you’re out there—when you have to plan to go to Walmart.
It’s an all-day thing! I mean, my parents shop at this grocery store where everything they buy is toxic waste. It’s as generic as it can get. I don’t like it! I want them to have a Whole Foods, or at least a whole banana—not space plants thrown in the indoor banana lab, incorporated. They don’t have it! To go to Walmart, it’s getting up early, it takes all day.
Not everyone has that kind of time or resources. It's part of a reality that doesn't get a ton of air time, which is why I think your music strikes such a chord. A lot of people that can’t really relate to red solo cups all the time.
Know what my mama did with red solo cups? She re-washed ‘em. We drank out of ‘em one hundred times, until they cracked. I’m not kidding. She still doesn’t throw them away, to this day. She will wash a red solo cup until it breaks.
If that’s not a metaphor, I don’t know what is.
I know! You don’t waste anything, because you don’t know when you’re gonna get something else.
Your song “Pain Pills” is especially grim. I’ve read other interviews where you mention the inspiration for it—about how you realized that these funerals kept happening, that you kept having to put on your black dress. The pain pill epidemic is decimating these rural Appalachian communities, and we don’t really hear about it.
Apparently there’s this huge wave of addiction in the Mormon community, too—I saw a documentary about it. People who have never so much as drank a cup of coffee, because they don’t drink caffeine, and will go and have surgery, which is how it started where I’m from. Coal miners would get injured on the job, have a knee surgery, and the doctor would say, “Here, this is a vial of heroin, and here’s a prescription for you to get re-filled 79 times.” They don’t know what they’re putting in their bodies! I mean, they have no idea. Kids get hooked on them now because it’s a thing now. I think it started in Arkansas. It’s mainstream because parents have it, they hear about it at school, and they wanna do some! When a kid gets his wisdom teeth out he’ll probably get some. I don’t think people are educated enough to hide their pills. Same thing is happening with these Mormon women, they have a backache, go in, here ya go! Next thing you know, they’re homeless hookers. A woman who had never so much as drank a cup of coffee is now a hooker because she walked into a doctor’s office. That’s effed up. And something’s gotta change. It’s heartbreaking.
If you had all the power in the world, how would you fix that?
Pot! Legal. Make it legal now. Get it everywhere. Put it in dispensers. My mom’s gonna kill me for revealing this, but I’m going to. My grandma just turned 90, and she has dementia. We lost her a long time ago; she’s had dementia for probably ten or twelve years now. She’s the sweetest, she’s like our baby. My mom and her sisters take care of her, and she got to where she didn’t wanna eat anything; she just lost interest in eating. As a last resort, before they put her on the feeding tube, there was a doctor in our hometown who had this experimental medical cannabis thing which was liquid-based. He gave it to her and she started eating everything in sight. She’s gained, like, fifteen pounds. She’s happy, she’s chilled out. She lets us comb her hair. She doesn’t fight as much when they try to get her dressed. I mean, c’mon. I feel like it’s gonna be the tipping point in the evolution of the human race. It’s just this miracle. And I don’t hardly ever smoke weed, but I’m all for the legal pot. I think that’s the solution to the pill problem.
Hopefully you can raise some awareness. That video was bleak.
That’s my dad in the video! The undertaker-looking guy. We’re really close. He’s a big teddy bear— a grizzled, mountain teddy bear.
Does he play guitar?
He can play about three songs. “Wildwood Flower,” “Mama Tried,” and “House Of The Rising Sun.” That’s his whole repertoire. And my mom sang, and her sisters sang. It’s just what we did—we’d play some cards and my mom just sang all the time. She’s a really good singer, but she would never sing in front of anyone.
What would you end up doing if you ended up in Beauty, Kentucky on Friday night?
I don’t even know anymore. When I lived there it was a very different place, it was before the pills, before the economy collapsed. Here’s something amazing though; I won this art and culture award for Eastern Kentucky, and I went to the banquet, and there was also a youth award for 21 and under kids doing really cool things. It went to this organization called STAY, and it was this group of kids that were 16 and 17 years old that decided, “We need people to stay here, because if we don’t, there isn’t going to be a here anymore.” And they organized this group, and it’s all about convincing people to come back home after college. It starts before college, and they say “I’m going to do this, go to college, and come back so there’s a future for here.” And I thought it was amazing, and after it was over I went up to them and went, “If there’s anything I can do to help, I’ll be your poster girl.” And they were like, “We love Pistol Annies, oh my god yes!”
But I hope there’s a shift, and it’s not about getting out and making the place better. Because it sucks now. And it didn’t used to suck. I don’t think the kids know that, because I wouldn’t trade my childhood for anything. I wouldn’t grow up anywhere else. But I wouldn’t let my son grow up there now for anything. If you get some smart, young adults lobbying for jobs and job creation and opening doctors offices, who knows, there might be hope. For me, it was always about getting out, but when I wanted to get out, it was an awesome place to get out of; it was safe, and beautiful, and I just wanted to get out to see the world and play music. But now people want to get out to survive, and that’s sad. It’s escaping.
No one wants to have their home town become a place people want to escape.
Yeah. That’s why I thought the project was so necessary and important. They were so cute, too!
And you grew up 25 miles from where Loretta Lynn is from, too! First time I listened to your record, before reading interviews or anything the first thing, I said to myself was “this is what Loretta Lynn would be doing if she were 30 years old.” Have you met her before?
First time I met her, we played the Opry, at one of their anniversaries. It was us, Lee Ann Womack and some other artists. So I got to meet her at soundcheck, and now, I’ve never played the Opry, or even walked on the stage there, and my first show is with Loretta? So I walked out for soundcheck, and I just lost it, just bawling crying. I got myself cleaned up and went up to her, and was like “how are you?” and she said,“I like the shirt you’re wearing.” I said “thanks, I got it at Old Creek Flea Market” and it’s a flea market in the town in between, and she said “No way, I love that place! I go there every time I’m in town.” And I knew it, I knew she was my girl. That was the second time I met her. By that time, she had listened to my record and knew me by that point and said “They just wasn’t anything else to do in Kentucky except dig coal, was there?” and I was like “No they wasn’t!”
So how did you go from Beauty Kentucky to playing with Loretta Lynn in Nashville?
I started writing songs in high school, I learned to play guitar and I wasn’t patient enough to learn songs; I knew like two or three cords, so I figured I’d write my own. So I wrote all through college, and my songs sucked. They just weren’t that great, and then when I was in college, I was in my dorm and we had the college radio on in the background. All of a sudden, I hear this voice and it was Patty Griffin singing “Sweet Lorraine.” And I rose up out of my bed, and just had this moment when she’s singing “Daddy calls me a slut and a whore.” I was like “Well now if I can say that, I can write some songs!” That opened some kind of Pandora’s Box for me and allowed me to renounce my “good Christian ways” and just really be myself in my writing.
So country music can use the F word after all, huh?
No ma'am, not on the radio at least! I recently learned you can’t even spell a swear word on the radio. Because I wrote this song called “Cheerleader” and in the middle of it she spells out all these curse words. Just the man keeping us down! So anyway, I heard Patti Griffin and played songs at bonfires where people would laugh. I graduated, because my mother made me, I started teaching pre-school because I have a psychology degree and you can’t really do anything except go back to school or be a social worker.
So I taught preschool for a while, and moved to Nashville as a social worker, but moved there wanting to do music, I didn’t know anyone or anything but I wanted to do it. I didn’t want to go back to school. I knew that I had some songs that would make people laugh and cry, so I figured I should try. And it worked, because now I’m in New York City talking to some fancy girl!
Kim Kelly is a fancy girl who grew up in the Jersey Devil's backyard - she's on Twitter: @grimkim