Over the past decade, the Pistol Annies have assembled a substantial canon. Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe, and Angaleena Presley are so consistent and prolific, independently and in their supertrio, they elicit hyperbole.
As a group they write polyphonic songs in which voices weave buoyantly between each other, making a show of feminine solidarity while undercutting it. As solo artists, each puts a distinct spin on modern country, but commonalities emerge in their songs: women’s roles in country music and in life; love in the moment and over the long haul; generational conflict, compromise, exasperation. They share a vision, and it comes into focus when they sing together.
Although only Lambert was a star before the group formed in 2011, Monroe and Presley have been as productive since then. In the five years since their last group album, Annie Up (2013), they’ve all released at least two albums, with the group’s new Interstate Gospel, out since November, coming right after Monroe’s Sparrow, out since April.
Lambert is the hookiest of pop-country queens, responsible for hit ballads, giant arena-rock bangers, and some of country’s deftest fusions of acoustic guitar twang and electric power chords; musically as well as lyrically, she rocks with a grand sense of scale. Monroe and Presley, while equally committed to craft and functionalism, are markedly more traditionalist — Presley in the details and plot twists she brings to realist anecdotes of class struggle, Monroe in her marvelously streamlined, violin-tinged countrypolitan style.
On the Pistol Annies’ group debut, Hell on Heels (2011), their songs were cutesy and almost cartoonish in their folk melodies and cheerful miniatures, but they’ve since broadened. In addition to the usual tight writerly discipline, Interstate Gospel abounds with guitar noise, stomping beats, longer and more brooding songs, combining the restraint of classic country with a pop schemer’s voracity. The complexity of this music is collaborative.
If they don’t become even more commercially successful than they already are, you can blame the sexism of country radio, but blame also the paradoxes in their approach, less because they’re a group in a genre where solo performers dominate (the Dixie Chicks still tour!) than because they’re caught between genre conventions.
Interstate Gospel isn’t a blustering rock album or a cautiously intricate folk album or a slab of musical taxidermy; it includes rock songs and folk songs, tangled knots of riffage (“Sugar Daddy”) and mournful weepers that build to wordless cathartic moments (“Leavers Lullaby”). There’s warm strumming and playful plucking, and a fuller, more integrated picture of country. Musically, it’s their sturdiest and most expansive album, messy and rowdy within a conventional mainstream country blend. It synthesizes multiple strands of history but stops short of the blazing party music Lambert has recorded on her own.
Lambert, Monroe, and Presley write songs steeped in model country themes — marriage, family, longing — that also depend on relatively new gender roles, things for women to sing about, ways for women to position themselves. “Got My Name Changed Back,” in which they chirp an ode to divorce with triumphant, relieved glee (“I broke his heart and I took his money!”), typifies their stance.
Sometimes the tension between tradition and transgression is an explicit theme: in the contemplative “Milkman,” a straitlaced mother and a rebellious daughter envy each other; the daughter wishes the mother had “loved the milkman” and enjoyed her life, while resonant guitar picking radiantly fills the space. Beyond the scope of a single family, “Milkman” imagines a larger generational shift away from conservatism. It’s about the group’s place in country music.
Taking their metaphors literally can be a dangerous game. At their feistiest they risk presenting a shallow picture of their genre and themselves, as reviews praising their feistiness in itself have made clear. Interstate Gospel’s quieter moments often rivet like the rockers don’t. In “When I Was His Wife” each verse lists nice things about the man in question, ending with the refrain “I said that too when I was his wife”; Lambert, Monroe, and Presley swap verses, giving the impression that all the ex-wives are talking to each other, as the tart guitars cry.
Meanwhile, the wife in “Best Years of My Life” is married, bored, miserable, singing her pain over waves of rippling pedal steel and plucked arpeggios that echo throughout the space. The singer in “Cheyenne” could be the mother in “Milkman”: acoustic guitars strum furiously and the violin wails, as Lambert observes another woman in a late-night bar, admiring her insouciance. “If I could move men and mountains with a wink and a grin/if I could treat love like Cheyenne,” she wishes.
By learning about this idealized party girl whose heart can’t be broken, we learn about the singer who imagined her. Such layers of distance and persona produce a song about the futility of living up to an archetype (“I bet she won’t even cry when it’s over,” Lambert speculates, but what if she does?).
In such company, some of the rowdier songs, like the thudding “Stop Drop and Roll One,” seem cursory. Their overall need to unite multiple country styles and performing roles on the same album narrows as much as it expands their range, because they twist themselves into occupying only the overlapping space.
Ashley Monroe’s Sparrow has a much narrower range, and it captivates. This is no rock album — it’s a bone-simple genre exercise, folksy adult countrypolitan updated for modern recording. Always the subtlest Pistol Annie, she’s also the most warmly luscious singer. Since the beginning, her moody ballads have shown off her voice most becomingly. She has gradually progressed toward a totally, cohesively melancholy album — and here, finally, it is: 12 rosy, polished, dejected heartsongs.
Even compared to her previous albums, Sparrow glows with a sepia-tinged studio glaze, gliding over coiled layers of piano, florid guitar chords, glossy violin hooks supplying drama and urgency; her voice, a buttery, textured thing, is as smooth and rich as the music. Thematically there’s no range at all — the whole album plays like a sequel to “I’m Good At Leaving,” the roadhouse-swing ballad that closed her last album, The Blade (2015), a confession of commitment anxiety and the itch to move on (“I’m bad at hearing babies screaming/I’m good at leaving”). Sparrow is a drifter’s lament. Even the songs ostensibly about other topics return to restlessness somehow; “Mother’s Daughter” and “Daddy I Told You,” in sketching parental relations, highlight her own need to escape, whether in reaction or in imitation.
Without making explicit statements or dispensing with ambiguity, the pop functionalism of genre exercise can reveal a genre’s current state in the symbolic imagination. Sparrow says as much as Interstate Gospel does about the conflict between evolving gender roles and traditionalism’s long shadow. In the stylized retro crafting of the music as well as the lyrics, Monroe assumes you’re familiar with country’s history as marriage music — as a genre, it has dramatized and enshrined monogamy — and uses divergent lyrics and music to create a portrait of someone adrift, cut off from the familial/historic/cultural roots the music implies, looking for something always out of reach.
She could be “Cheyenne,” but she’s more conflicted than Lambert’s imagined protagonist in that song; as the Pistol Annies put it in “Leavers Lullaby,” she’s “paying what it cost to feel so free.” She wants the happiness and stability those violins and acoustic guitars remind her of, but she’s also hooked on what Joni Mitchell called the refuge of the road. Even the sex songs are moody, more about desire as a way to solve or forget about other problems: both “Wild Love,” which soars over strings so theatrical that it recalls country-disco, and “Hands on You,” whose spiky guitar chords flash in the dark, are songs that burn with a controlled sizzle, longing for satisfaction because satisfaction equals obliteration.
The opening “Orphan” uses the album title’s metaphor in the opposite way you’d expect — the sparrow knows how to fly and leave the nest, but instead she is stranded and alone. As the violins and piano march along, lending the song a spooky grandeur, she asks the album’s central question: “How do I make it alone?”
Sparrow and Interstate Gospel rock and ache, simmer and fly. Persistently, in ways particular to country music, these albums examine the weight of tradition.