Less than six years ago, country singer-songwriter, and guitarist Angaleena Presley was basking in the mainstream country spotlight with fellow Pistol Annies members Miranda Lambert and Ashley Monroe. The trio’s 2011 album, Hell on Heels, went certified Gold, off the strength of its million-selling title track.
Early career success didn’t translate into a Music City fairytale about a literal coal miner’s daughter from Kentucky hobnobbing her way to radio airplay. Happily ever after doesn’t come that easy for an independent-minded artist like Presley, and as she’s quick to point out, there aren’t many women on commercial country radio in 2017.
Although the other two Pistol Annies are among Presley’s collaborators on sophomore solo album Wrangled (issued April 21 by Thirty Tigers)—co-writing and performing on opening track “Dreams Don’t Come True”—her current roots-based musical direction is a whole different rodeo from her pop-friendly past. It’s a semi-biographical set of songs about an artist letting go of grandiose dreams of superstardom, focusing instead on growing a grassroots fanbase.
Presley recently chatted with She Shreds about her recent album and the lack of women at the top of the country music charts before giving some business and performance advice for aspiring country musicians. Wrangled is out now.
She Shreds: “Dreams Don’t Come True” is kind of a bummer on first listen. But really, it’s just realistic. If you’re a creative person, you don’t know what your career path is going to be. Is that what you were trying to say with that song?
Angaleena Presley: I think it’s not so much about dreams don’t come true. It’s about expectations [that] don’t come true. It’s more about having this grandiose idea in your head and walking around with that hanging over you. You end up not feeling good enough because you didn’t reach this fairy tale place that really never existed anyway. So it’s not really a sad song. It’s not realistic to think some dude is going to give you a Cadillac five minutes after you move to town, even though that’s what we see in the movies.
I like the song “Country.” When [guest artist] Yellawolf does his rap, what he’s saying is more country than any of the songs that list the things you list off. I don’t know if y’all were going for that irony or not, but it’s there.
It’s really a parody of everything that’s still going on with country radio. It makes fun of the trends and the things country people are supposed to like. In the past 10 years or maybe even more than that, there practically haven’t been any women in the Top 10 on country radio, or even in the Top 30. I think a lot of female writers who write songs for females to sing have gotten the backlash from that.
There was a moment in my career where I had a meeting with my publisher, and I was told that there’s just not a lot of girls cutting songs right now. I realized it’s not that there’s not a lot of girls cutting songs. They aren’t getting played on the radio, and the label heads are not signing them. You had label heads saying, “Well, we have two girls already right now,” and they are still saying that. I’m 40, and I’ve got nothing to lose. I don’t think country radio is ever going to play me because I don’t play their game. If there’s anybody that can blow the whistle, I’ll blow it. I don’t care. But really what I was saying with the song is “there’s more substance out there than this.” But if this is what you want, I’ll give it to you in my own silly way and make my own list of things that might make you a little bit uncomfortable!
What happened with Yellawolf is I had written a rap part for this song. I’m not a rapper, so I’m not going to be that hypocritical—I’m not going to make fun of country rap guys and then try to do it myself. I knew I wanted somebody on there who could really do it. A friend of mine met Yellawolf and introduced me to his music. I thought, “man, he’s the real deal.” He invented country rap. It’s like if Eminem grew up in Alabama. So through a friend of a friend, I invited him to come over to the studio. He liked the song and said, “Yeah, I’ll write you a rhyme.” It’s all his words. He said the f-word twice, and I was so glad because now I don’t have to say it. For me, I like to be subtle about the digs that I take. I try to be clever and hide them away. That’s what I did in “Country,” but here comes Yellawolf with balls of steel, just laying it all on the table.
Sadly, you don’t have to worry about it being played on the radio just because he cusses…
Exactly. It was all in good fun. I’m not against anything. I’m for equality and everybody getting a fair shake. That’s not what’s happening right now. I don’t want to take anything away from anybody. Heck, I love Blake Shelton. I sang on a bro-country song, “Boys ‘Round Here.” It’s just that we need some more girls around here.
“Outlaw” is about how you don’t suit this anti-establishment image that’s cast on you simply because your music goes against the grain.
Nobody wakes up and says, “I’m going to be the underdog! I’m going to get pushed down and get my heart broken so many times that eventually I’m going to be so callous and so brave.” Everybody wants to be a member of the good ole boys’ club. It’s just that they won’t let us in. I don’t set out to be an outlaw. I can admit that I want to be at the award shows and be recognized for the work that I’ve done. It’s just that the work I do seems to scare those types of people.
The term “outlaw,” going back to the ‘70s, was more about artists wanting to write their own songs or have control over what songs they recorded. They wanted to do things on their own terms beyond what the business was allowing at the time. It was sort of a punk and indie rock kind of attitude before people knew what that was.
You’re right, it’s about artistic integrity and not conforming to get rich and famous. You have to choose if you want to get rich and famous or be an artist, and to call yourself an artist you kind of have to follow a certain path. It seems like the words artist and outlaw are intertwined, because true artists by accident are outlaws. We are the working-class heroes of the music business. We don’t get the big money or the big venues or the big awards, but I think we write songs and make music that is timeless. So maybe we get the big payoff in the end, when we are broke and dead. Townes Van Zandt is a perfect example of that. I don’t know of any songwriter alive that doesn’t just revere him, and he never really in his lifetime got the accolades he deserved. And of course he was an outlaw in every sense of the word. He was a bit reckless.
You could say similar things, except for being reckless, about the late Guy Clark (a legendary songwriter from Texas). You wrote a song with him (“Cheer Up Little Darling”) for the album. What was it like working with him?
He was such a great guy. He was so wise and so confident. He knew that he was great and knew that he was smart. He took his time. I was already kind of a slow writer anyway, and I don’t know if it’s a bad thing but he taught me to be even slower. He said to me so many times that if you force it, they’ll know it… It’s something you can’t force if it’s going to be authentic. It comes from some other, bigger place, and sometimes we just have to wait. If anything, I learned that for him. And I learned also to not close the door on new artists. You can get to this real comfortable spot in this town where you’ve found your people and you know who you want to co-write or hang out with. Guy never closed the door. He was always looking for new inspiration and younger artists to come in and teach him things. Him being who he was, I think it’s a really amazing quality that he was so eager to learn.
In terms of that, do you see someone like [rising country artist] Maren Morris and think about what sort of song you could write for her?
I do. On the record I wrote “High School” with this group called Walker County. It’s two sisters. I think Sophie was 17 or 18 when we wrote the song, and Ivy was about to turn 21. I met them, and writing with them has been one of the greatest experiences of my career. It’s so refreshing, and they have great ideas and are great vocalists. Sister harmonies: you can’t get much better than that. So you bet your sweet A-S-S that I think about what song I could write with Maren! I know Maren, and she’s an awesome girl.
A lot of the advance attention for the album was about “Mama, I Tried,” framing it as a tribute to Mama Tried.” Was it a nod to the late Merle Haggard?
Believe it or not, Oran (Thronton), who produced the record with me, and I wrote it a week before Merle Haggard died. It creeped both of us out in a way. “Mama Tried” is the first song I learned to sing and play on guitar. My dad taught it to me. I knew that I wanted a song on this record that is sort of the flipside of that. It’s about talking to a mom who had such high expectations for you, and you’re just not living up to them. She wanted me to be all these great things, and I tried but didn’t get there.
It’s sort of like the reverse of Bobbie Gentry’s “Fancy,” where a young woman becomes everything her mom wanted her to be.
It’s two-sided because the girl in the song isn’t mad at her mom or anything. She’s saying, “I tried to do this, and I’m glad that I tried because I’ve made all these friends and been around the world singing these songs. But I might not get to where you thought I would get.” It’s not just a way to say that to my mom, but for me to say it to myself. It’s letting go of this grandiose ideal that you’re going to be rich and famous and win fifteen Grammys and have your own TV show. I just had to have a mental reckoning with that. “Mama Tried” is the first song I learned on guitar, so how about “Mama, I Tried” at this point in my life and career to just be okay with who I am and where I’m at.
What was it like working with Wanda Jackson on “Good Girl Down?”
It was so great. She is a hoot. I just want to absorb her wisdom. She’s been in the music business for so long and she’s always been an outlaw. She was the first man or woman in country to dance. You weren’t allowed to dance. Elvis danced, and here’s Wanda Jackson dancing. The clothes she wore were just provocative, and she just kept right on going and doing her thing and became an icon in this business. Yet she’s still just a sweet girl from Oklahoma. She is down to earth. She’ll tell you that she loves her husband more than anything in the world and he’s the only man for her, but she did date Elvis.
Awesome. Did you work on just the one song with her, or did you write something for her next album? I know she’s doing an album with Joan Jett as producer and has worked with Nashville songwriters.
I think she’s cutting the song, too, for her album. When I went to do the record, I had to call and ask her permission. “Miss Wanda, I really love this song. Can I cut it for my record?” “Well I guess so, honey. Go ahead and do it.” I played her the track, and man she was just tapping her toes. I was so relieved because I was scared she wouldn’t like it.
“Groundswell” and “Hotel Bible” come across as nods to a time-tested country music trope—stories about a musician’s life on the road.
“Groundswell” is like, I’ve come through these personal ups and downs in this business, and I realize that the answer is going back to the fans and getting out of this business side and getting on the road, meeting people, singing, paying those dues, and building a fanbase. That’s what I’ve been doing the past year and a half. I’ve been laying the groundwork. I thought, “Wow, Pistol Annies have a Platinum single out,” but that doesn’t mean you have a platinum number of fans once you break off as a solo artist. To Pistol Annies fans, I’m that brown-haired girl in the middle. They don’t know my name. So it was a big wake-up call to realize that I had to go back out there and pay those road dues.
“Groundswell” is sort of the downside. “Motel Bible” is about how once you’re out there, it’s so fun. I’ve had moments I wouldn’t trade for anything. The fans are so great. You’ll have a show and then go back to that city, and see two or three of the same people wearing your t-shirt. It’s exciting, like I’m starting to be a real country and western singer. I wanted to end the album on an upbeat because I do feel like I’m in a great place right now. I feel like I’m at the beginning of something instead of the end of something. I have new goggles that aren’t jaded anymore. I’m on the Jason Isbell train to freedom, and I’m going to ride it until it bucks me off.
To wrap this up, what’s some advice you’d want to give younger artists who are interested in entering your field? What’s something you wish you had known 15 or 20 years ago?
For me, I wish I would have started a band in my garage and started playing gigs. As far as music business advice, I came to Nashville thinking I’d get some bigwig to put me on a bus. The best way to do it is to just start playing music, grow your performance chops, grow some fans, and grow a love for life on the road. On the road, it’s not glamorous. You might think it is, but eating chili dogs at truck stops at 3 a.m. can start to weigh on you after a while. Also, stick to your guns and follow your gut, even when it breaks your heart. That broken heart might be the road to a new heart you never even knew you could have.