At first, the Pistol Annies seemed almost too good to be true. Here was a one-of-a-kind band begun out of the blue by one-of-a-kind singers and songwriters Miranda Lambert, the proven chart-topper of the group, and Angaleena Presley and Ashley Monroe, who’d accumulated their share of credits in Nashville, a band whose 2011 debut album Hell on Heels was a fantastically feisty breath of fresh air for country music.
Two years on, it’s clear the Annies are not only very real, but very here to stay. Their days of collaborating under the radar without any expectations are gone, though. So they knew exactly what they wanted to do on their second album—up the ante, or in their words, Annie Up.
The title’s no bluff. Instead of smoothing the edges, slathering on the slickness or playing it the tiniest bit safe, the Annies have returned with an even bolder song cycle than the first. And the way sparks fly when these three put their heads together, it’s no wonder the Smoky Mountain cabin they holed up in to plan the new album later burned in a wildfire.
Wildfire is also an apt metaphor for how the Annies’ music caught on. They were an unknown quantity when they stepped up to the microphones during the Academy of Country Music’s April 2011 television special Girls’ Night Out, but they finished that year with an album that debuted at No. 1 first on the iTunes all-genre chart, then on the Billboard country chart—an especially impressive feat considering Hell on Heels was initially only available for download—and that won over country, rock, roots and pop critics alike. Besides topping The Nashville Scene’s Country Critics Poll, it was, for example, one of only three country albums to make Rolling Stone’s list, Lambert’s Four the Record being another.
Fans quickly embraced Hippie Annie (East Tennessee-born Monroe), Holler Annie (Kentucky-born Presley) and Lone Star Annie (Texas-born Lambert) as a trio of modern hillbilly heroines, identifying with them as women who’d be a hell of a lot of fun to hang out with and hanging on every unvarnished word they sang. It didn’t take long for the Annies to graduate from performing a few songs in the middle of Lambert’s set to drawing crowds in their own right.
Recalls Lambert, “We did our first headlining show, and we didn’t know if people would know us from Adam. We didn’t have a single. We got out there, and people sang every damn word to every song. We were shocked. I mean, completely shocked.”
Not even the sharpest minds in the music business could manufacture a group with that kind of instant impact. The Annies’ origin story drives home the fact that there was nothing the least bit prefab about them. Here’s how it went down in a nutshell: during a songwriting and reality T.V.-watching slumber party at Lambert’s place, Monroe couldn’t shake the feeling that she needed to call up Presley—another co-writer and gal pal—and get her to email her songs over for Lambert to hear. It didn’t matter that it was 2 a.m.
“Looking back at that, that was absurd,” Monroe admits with a laugh.
Lambert agrees, “Like, who does that?”
The three of them felt such singular chemistry that they committed to the group before breathing a word about it to their managers, publishers or labels. Says Lambert, “I didn’t know Angaleena at all, but I heard myself saying, ‘Let’s start a girl band!’ I didn’t think about the consequences. I didn’t think about my solo career. I didn’t think about anything. I just knew from hearing her record and hearing what we were writing that it had to happen.”
It had to happen not only because Lambert, Monroe and Presley have a ton of fun making music together, but because they’ve found in each other kindred spirits unafraid to apply their smarts and sass to confronting the mundane messiness of life, when precious few other contemporary country performers are willing to go there.
Presley hasn’t forgotten what Loretta Lynn’s straight-shooting records did for her growing up. “We had a record player in the kitchen,” she says, “and every night after dinner, me and my mom would do dishes to Loretta Lynn. Every night, I swear, my mom would just sing at the top of her lungs, and I would sing. And it was like Prozac for her. I saw my mom lean on those songs and sing ‘em loud and just be mad and get that out of her system every night, while she’s doing these things she doesn’t want to do and my dad’s laying in there on the couch. My goal is for a mom and a little girl to do dishes to our records.”
The Annies’ first batch of songs earned them a shout-out in the memoir of iconic country-rock troubadour Neil Young—his take is that they’re “writing their asses off”—and an invitation to perform during Lynn’s 50th anniversary celebration on the Grand Ole Opry. That night, their idol seemed to instinctively get what they’re about. Monroe remembers Lynn declaring “Pistol Annies, that sounds like something I’d make up.” When they sang “Coal Miner’s Daughter” with Lynn, Presley’s dad was so moved that he waved his own “Retired Coal Miner” cap in the air.
As striking as Hell on Heels was, there’s nothing like hearing the Annies go all-in on their new album. From start to finish, they tell it like it is with grit, glee and gumption. “Hush Hush”—a hooky, hard-swinging hillbilly rock number, and the lead single—is a colorful confession of family dysfunction. Verse by verse, they lay it all out there: a mother’s maddening denial of her son’s stint in rehab, a father’s obsession with conspiracy theories, an attempt to diffuse the tension with a bit of herbal enhancement.
“Everybody’s got a story about family,” says Monroe. “I’ve yet to meet a family that’s perfect. But everybody’s gonna act like they are, which blows me away.”
“I get so mad,” confesses Presley, who started that song in the car by herself on a particularly frustrating day and finished it with her band mates. “It’s like when I was writing ‘Housewife’s Prayer.’ I’m either gonna burn my house down, or I’m gonna sit down and write a song. Luckily I have that outlet, because if I didn’t, I’d probably be in prison by now.”
In the lilting honky-tonk ballad “Being Pretty Ain’t Pretty,” the Annies complain about the cost and futility of trying to live up to unforgiving female beauty standards day in and day out, sentiments no doubt shared by an army of self-identified Annies. Says Presley, “Ashley tweeted about buying make-up and then buying make-up wipes to wipe it off, and spending all this money, and how it’s like throwing money down the drain. And then we wrote that song one night while we were just hanging out. We don’t make appointments, necessarily, to write a song.”
A case in point: the song “Unhappily Married” started to take shape while the three of them were supposed to be sitting perfectly still, getting their hair and make-up done for a performance at the 2012 Country Music Association Music Festival.
“We were getting in trouble with our glam people,” Lambert says, “because we just kept looking at each other, and they kept telling us, ‘Face Forward!’”
“It’s a good way to get eye liner on your ear,” Monroe confirms.
Where “Unhappily Married” is a clear-eyed and cuttingly clever portrait of a threadbare marriage, “Trading One Heartbreak For Another” is one of Presley’s “divorce phase songs,” and a powerful one at that. It gives voice to the very particular pain of a newly single mom who has to watch her young child cry for his missing daddy. There aren’t a lot of songs written from such an emotionally complex perspective these days.
That’s one of the songs on which Presley sings lead. On others, it may be Monroe or Lambert who take the melody. Sometimes they all trade verses. And since each of the Annies possess entirely distinct voices and delivery styles, there’s not much danger of mistaking Lambert’s nervy twang for Presley’s sumptuous, reedy singing, or getting either mixed up with Monroe’s beautifully bruised mountain timbre.
The team of producers on Annie Up—led by longtime Lambert producer Frank Liddell and rounded out by Chuck Ainlay and Glenn Worf—had the Annies circle their microphones and record their three-part harmonies face to face. The intimacy of the setup, plus the many, many hours of stage singing these hillbilly heroines have put in since their first trip into the studio, make the harmonies pop. In fact, a lot of what you hear is their in-the-moment tracking vocals.
The risk-taking spread to the studio band, which was anchored by Worf on bass, Fred Eltringham on drums and Randy Scruggs and Guthrie Trapp on a variety of acoustic and electric guitars, mandolin and, in Scruggs’ case, banjo. The resulting range of musical dynamics on the album is a rarity in this age of texture-flattening, volume-cranking production. Opener “I Feel a Sin Comin’ On” gets all the way from ‘grassy a cappella singing to crash-and-bash cowpunk and back, “Unhappily Married” has its equally dramatic highs and lows and the deliciously smart-assed string band romp “Damn Thing” proves that the down-home instrumentation isn’t merely on hand as a prop.
In sound or spirit, no two tracks are exactly alike, thanks in part to the life experiences the Annies have to draw on in their forthright songwriting.
“Between the three of us,” Presley playfully observes, “we have an ex-husband, two husbands, a kid, and a college degree.”
No doubt about it; the Annies can stand on their own. Their voices are literally the only ones represented in the singing and songwriting on the album. Not even honorary Andy Blake Shelton has a co-writing credit this time. But Lambert, Monroe and Presley also have an uncommon ability to speak to and for their audience, especially their female fans. Those fans are bound to make a sing-along anthem out of “Girls Like Us,” a song the Annies wrote for all the women in their lives.
Says Lambert, “We’re three girls with three different lives and three different points-of-view, but really, if you get a group of women in this room and you talk about problems, everybody’s gonna yell out ‘amens’ and have stories to tell.”
“I always tell people, ‘We’re just everyday people. We just happen to have been given a gift, and it’s our duty to get up there and share it. But when we walk off that stage, we’re just like everybody else.’ We shop at Wal-Mart and we have periods and we get in fights with our husbands and all that crap.”
The bottom line is the Pistol Annies have forged their own vital and thoroughly contemporary relationship with country’s tradition of truth-telling.
As Presley puts it, “I mean, we’re not doing anything new. Loretta Lynn did it way before we did.”
Adds Lambert, “We’re just doing it for our generation, bringing it back home.”