Groundswell: An Interview With Angaleena Presley

The former Pistol Annie's brazen new album reflects on her time in the music industry and the future it holds for women.
Angaleena Presley
Thirty Tigers

“I mean, I don’t want to get run out of town and everyone not like me anymore. I just … want to tell the truth and be honest about things.”

This is the tension that animates Angaleena Presley, between candor and its consequences. The country artist wrote her first album, American Middle Class, about her hometown of Beauty, Kentucky, delivering narratives of personal tragedy, redemption, and the searching that comes in between. Songs like “Pain Pills”, which describes an ongoing crisis of misdiagnosed pain medication, and “Grocery Store”, which crafts short sketches of working-class discontent, leave her nervous when performing in Kentucky.

“Those are my people,” Presley said in a phone interview with PopMatters, “and I don’t ever want to hurt anyone’s feelings. I don’t want to patronize them, because I think that they are one of the most amazing cultures that exist today. They’re survivors, they’re wicked smart, they’re strong, they’re resourceful. But I do tell it like it is, so I do get really nervous when I play in my hometown, but they’re always supportive and they understand that this is a talent that I’ve been given, and if they are the fodder for my art, then so be it.”

This year, Presley released Wrangled, her second solo album. Like American Middle Class, it is written as a series of personal narratives, but the album’s cover art — which features Presley bound in ropes with a bandana tied around her mouth — and promotional materials address the country music industry’s exclusion of women from major labels and radio stations. (Women were featured on just 23% of the 2016 year-end Billboard Hot Country Songs chart.)

“In my opinion, it’s discrimination, and we have laws that are supposed to protect us from that,” Presley said. “In any other corporate entity, women are protected, but it just doesn’t seem to apply in this business.”

The album’s songs hint at this imbalance (“Dreams don’t come true/They’ll make a mess out of you,” she sings on “Dreams Don’t Come True”), but Presley is clear to note that she does not want to position herself against the music industry as an institution; she simply wants it to allow the same opportunities for women that it does for men. Hers is a mission of advocacy rather than dissent.

“It’s not that I’m against anything,” she said, “I know a lot of the guys who are having some success right now, and they’re great people. I wouldn’t ever want to take their music away. It’s just that I want to start conversations about how can we give more females the same opportunities?”

Yet criticizing the industry which controls your livelihood can result in a backlash. Country radio can be unforgiving toward those who step out of line (the Dixie Chicks saw multiple singles fall out of radio airplay after they criticized George W. Bush for his impending invasion of Iraq in 2003), and while Presley does hold some fear of retribution, she was emboldened by her relationship with the late country and folk artist Guy Clark. A series of weekly writing appointments over the course of two years yielded one song (“Cheer Up Little Darling”), but it was the close friendship formed between the two that inspired the album’s tone and direction. Where Presley could navigate Clark’s unpredictable moods, the cantankerous Clark served as a model of artistic conviction.  

“Guy was smarter than everyone and he was a better songwriter than everyone and he was not afraid to tell you so,” Presley said, “and it was really inspiring to be around. I don’t know if I hadn’t had that relationship with him … if I would have found the courage to make the record I made.”

In Clark’s final months, Presley assumed an active role in caring for him, taking him to doctors’ appointments and moving him into his nursing home. The album that grew from this intimacy is, in part, a literal and spiritual reflection on her time in the music industry, which accelerated quickly before coming to an abrupt halt.

Presley moved to Nashville in 2000 and, like many aspiring country stars, wrote songs for more established artists. Her first breakthrough came in 2008 with the release of Heidi Newfield’s “Knocked Up”, which she wrote with Mark D. Sanders and eventually recorded herself for American Middle Class. She later landed songs on albums by Ashton Shepard and Miranda Lambert, the latter of whom invited Presley to form a band, Pistol Annies, with her and Ashley Monroe. The band leveraged Lambert’s celebrity into an arena tour, allowing Presley to experience stardom before developing a fan base of her own.

Presley assumed her time spent touring with Lambert and Monroe would lay a foundation for her solo career — but it did not, as she would soon learn. “There were a lot of dues that I hadn’t paid and I didn’t realize that the due-paying never seems to stop,” she said. “When I started doing my solo career, I thought, ‘I’ll have all these fans. They’ve seen me in all these places.’ And I didn’t have all those fans. I realized I have to get in a van now and do my hair in broom closets and stand at merch tables just praying that someone will come and buy something and want me to sign it … by doing Pistol Annies, I got to skip a step, and that is the ridiculously hard work of starting a groundswell and finding a fan base and touring.”

The first album Presley recorded never found a home in Nashville and remains unreleased (“Music Row was just so scared of it,” she said.). A few songs from the album, “Pain Pills” and her recording of “Knocked Up,” ended up on American Middle Class, but the experience introduced Presley to the harsh realities of the music industry. American Middle Class found a home on an independent label, the Texas-based Slate Creek Records, and the wave of critical acclaim it received propelled Presley to her first solo tour, which spanned the United States and Europe.

Still, her career was fragile, and a middle-class upbringing prepared Presley for the persistence it required. Though she now feels a measure of stability, watching her parents live paycheck-to-paycheck created a permanent anxiety in her. “I’m from the working class,” she said, “my answer to every problem is, well, I need to work harder. I need to roll my sleeves up and get in there and do more. I don’t think I’ll ever escape that, and I hope I don’t, because I think a lot of who I am, my character, and a lot of my art is founded on that. I want lots of money, but I think I’ll always have a tin can with a lot of cash in it buried in my yard.”

If her work ethic is deliberate, her songs are anything but. They derive not from fixed concepts, but rather from dreams, pop culture, and the poetry of everyday life — the themes follow. “People are so poetic and I don’t even know if they realize that they’re doing it,” she said. For Presley, that poetry is built from honesty and vulnerability; she is drawn to phrases which allude to the fullness of human experience in as few words as possible.

“Bless Your Heart”, which exposes what Presley deems “fake empathy,” took inspiration from the book The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown. The book addresses the mechanics of condescension disguised as concern, specifically the phrase, “bless your heart,” which connotes empathy but often implies superiority. Presley builds a character around the phrase, “You’d knock a girl down/So you could feel tall/You’d burn Cinderella’s dress/So you could feel like the hottest girl at the ball,” she sings, culminating in a chorus that quotes directly from Brown, “If you bless my heart, I’ll slap your face.”

It is this ability to understand the full extent of what a short phrase can imply, to realize its emotional and narrative potential, that is Presley’s great gift. She is a disciplined and precise storyteller, able to suggest intricate personal histories through metaphors or allusions. The discipline is intentional. “I’m a vicious editor,” she said, “you can ask any person I’ve written with. When I am in co-writes, it usually winds up with people throwing out ideas and me saying, ‘No, we can say that with less words.”’ Concision, she says, “makes more of an impact … it forces you to find better words.”

You feel the weight of that impact in a song like “Only Blood”, which charts a relationship between a woman seeking salvation and a preacher from marriage to domestic abuse and, ultimately, vengeance. Each turn hinges on the phrase, “only blood can set you free,” its meaning shifting with each repetition, until the narrator shoots her abusive husband. “I’ve talked to Jesus/And he’s been telling me/Only blood can set me free,” Presley sings before the song’s final chorus. If you look at the song from the right angle, you may see a loose metaphor for Presley’s experience in the music industry: from infatuation to disillusionment toward acceptance and an assertion of independence by writing songs rooted in her perspective.

“I write the best when I write what I know and what I’ve seen,” Presley said, and even when her songs aren’t literal transcriptions of her life, they extend from her emotional experience. “I think my albums come about because of what I’m going through in my life,” she said. “American Middle Class was, ‘This is my background, this is where I’m from, this is how I grew up, these are my people, and this album is: This is what I’ve done for the last ten years, this is my experience in the music business.'”

The pained intimacy that follows this approach mirrors many of the artists Presley considers her peers, both in their aesthetic and lyrical decisions and the ways they’ve sidestepped country’s insular, fraternal gatekeepers through social media and streaming. She cites Jason Isbell (“The king of this model”), Sturgill Simpson, Margo Price, and Chris Stapleton as sources of inspiration. Like Presley, each favors working-class narratives of loss, disappointment, and redemption over the escapism promoted by many major label artists. While not a formula for significant commercial success, it has found an audience in those who seek a balance against radio singles that tend to focus more on the ecstasy of new romance and hedonism than its consequences.

At this point, Presley has no illusions about following her idol, Loretta Lynn, into stardom, “I think there was a lot of frustration for me earlier in my career, because it was a dream that I had, it was a goal that I had,” she said. “Now, the frustration has turned into, ‘I don’t really give a shit anymore,’ now I’m just gonna sing about it and talk about it, using song as therapy to get past it … I think that this record is really just venting and me shedding my skin of that and being okay with that not being my reality, because there are other ways to be heard.” But if there is one quality she does still hope to share with Lynn, it is the ability to inspire young artists.

“When I was a little girl, I wanted to grow up to be Loretta Lynn and I really believed that I could, and I don’t know if that’s the case anymore. I want little girls to be able to dream like that and currently, if you look exclusively at country radio and how many females are signed to major labels, it’s not really a reality. It’s three slots — for every girl. That’s not enough slots.”

Presley hopes the space for women in country’s mainstream will expand, but even if that expansion takes longer than she may hope, she can take solace in helping to create a new kind of dream, one with fewer gatekeepers and more room to be vulnerable.