Country Grammar is a recurring monthly column about country music. The purpose of this column will be to analyze and demystify country releases, large or small, and help halt the notion that Country music is somehow less deserving of introspective analysis than rock, rap, or pop. It will highlight the great moments, and occasionally, dig deep into the bad ones, but the goal is always to bring more attention to a genre that is far too often swept under the rug due to class assumptions or music criticism’s clear rockist past.
Yesterday I was in an Uber (I know), on my way to a difficult doctor’s appointment, the kind only women have to go to. Though I clearly wanted to mentally prepare in silence, my driver wouldn’t leave me alone. He was peppering me with questions I didn’t want to answer, as men often do, until he’d wrangled out of me what my job is. Upon learning that I’m a music editor, most people follow up by asking what kind of music I cover or care about, so I told him rap and country. Most people will leave rap be (ignorance leads to silence), but country they’ll prod at a bit. Why do you like country music? he wanted to know. So I told him one of the major reasons I do: Because country music is a place where people can talk about their pain and turn it into something that makes them feel strong. Specifically, it’s one of the few places where women can safely do this.
Country music is one of the few places in contemporary culture where women can be angry. Women aren’t supposed to be furious or upset with men, or by the cards life has dealt them, or they’re labeled “crazy.” Country women took that word and turned it into a compliment. We’re supposed to keep the peace and be nurturing, gentle, and approachable. Conversely, we’re allowed to be brokenhearted if we’ve failed in any of those areas, but if we don’t have partners, we’re deemed inherently flawed. Women in music are supposed to be sexy (in men’s eyes) and most of all young; we’re supposed to be beautiful and ceaselessly happy and thin while still bearing children, juggling stress, caring for our family and providing love to a partner. We’re supposed to watch men with half our talent fail upward while we get told that our ideas won’t resonate, or that we’re “difficult.”
I love country music because Angaleena Presley is having none of that sh*t — she is angry, and exhausted, and talking about it. Even if a major label still won’t sign her — one of the best damn living songwriters in the genre — because she’s a curvy, 40-year-old brunette with a bone to pick and a sound that’s more barroom than pop ballad. In 2017, Angaleena put out an album that includes contributions from Guy Clark, Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe Chris and Morgane Stapleton (Chris’ literal better half), Wanda Jackson and Yelawolf, and still lords over every guest like a presiding rodeo queen. Yes, you read that right — Yelawolf. When you see guests as disparate as Guy Clark and Yelawolf, sit up and take notice, a person curated this, not a label. Angaleena Presley is country music, and it’s a shame more people haven’t heard her yet.
Before you ask, no this Presley is not related to Elvis — though she namechecks him in the delicately despondent opener “Dreams Don’t Come True,” a fitting ode to her own struggle — but she does carry a torch for Elvis with her taste for the blues and heartbreaking drawl. That same opener is where Lambert and Monroe show up in full Pistol Annies force to help Presley dead her dreams as sweetly as possible. As the literal daughter of Kentucky coalminer — an ever-present trope in the country music world — Presley grew up infatuated with and surrounded by music, but wasn’t able to put out a solo album of her own until her late thirties. She put out Wrangled, her second album, in late April, after a long, hard fight to get her first record, American Middle Class, heard at all back in 2014.
That’s not for lack of trying, and she probably wouldn’t have been able to do it at all, either, if it wasn’t for Miranda Lambert lending her hard-earned star power to the girl group Pistol Annies, and subsequently catapulting the other two members into the public eye. For Ashley Monroe and Angeleena, 2011’s Hell On Heels was the chance to finally be heard. But it was by no means proof of their talent — they’d already been proving that for years. Presley moved to Nashville back in 2000 and landed a publishing deal shortly after, which basically means she’s a great songwriter who couldn’t get through the label machinery. Both of her releases have been on minor indies, neither sparked any radio singles, which means they didn’t sell many copies or turn her into the star any trained ear can hear, buried underneath the lack of sales figures that labels so dearly prize.
And so the story goes, over and over for women in this genre, unless they’re rail-thin blondes with rich families who relocated from Pennsylvania and whose names rhyme with Sailor Rift. No shade, I still bump “Teardrops On My Guitar” every time a crush breaks my heart, but Presley’s latest album is not about crushes or the glittering adolescence of happiness and success. Instead, Wrangled is about what happens after life beats you down over decades, and the kind of spirit it takes to keep rising after you’ve been through enough disappointment and despair to break most people. This is grown woman music, and it’s no surprise that our culture hasn’t valued it, because our culture doesn’t value the grown women who contribute so much to it, continually infantilizing, sexualizing, belittling and ignoring us like we don’t run the whole f*cking place. Wrangled is not an outlaw record seeking to rope and ride dirty, it isn’t really about grit, but having gravel in your shoe. It’s not really outlaw country, but hostage country, a tale of rope burns and burnout over trying to be all things to all men.
So no, Angaleena Presley is not here to tell you about her successful foray into country music. Instead, she’s here to tell you about her pain, her anger, and her frustration. And good Lord, does it ever feel good to hear someone else struggle through these things and emerge with their shoulders back and their head held high. This isn’t all a diatribe against toxic masculinity either, on the title track Presley tosses out “The girls down at church can go to hell,” like it’s a prayer, continuing: “The Bible says a woman ought to know her place / Mine’s out here in the midst of this / Wide open space.” Hers is a heart heart yearning for the freedom to express itself as big and wide as possible, and there’s never a time when the wilderness feels more desirable than when you’re fenced in, by a man, by a genre, or by the forces of an industry beyond your control.
She isn’t done with Christians though, later she devotes a whole track to two-faced, sweetly abusive b*tches on “Bless Your Heart,” and caps off the chorus in a threat of violence. This is a redneck b*tch I can get behind; country radio would clutch their pearls at such brutish behavior. If that and the wide open spaces reference on the title track didn’t evoke the Dixie Chicks in your mind, then “Only Blood” will give you an “Earl Had To Die” chill down your spine. After an abused wife comes back to the church, she gets a *Blues Brothers voice* message from God to kill her vicious husband who happens to be the same pastor who saved her — and all this over a stately honky-tonk piano that would lull a baby right to sleep. Needless to say, religion is thoroughly dealt with on Wrangled. This too, is a break with country’s traditional catering to its core audience.
“I don’t know that anyone wakes up and sets out to be an underdog — you just kind of are,” Presley told Rolling Stone of the battle to be heard, effectively skewering the myth of that role as something desirable, that it’s a small molehill easy to overcome and incorporate into your narrative. Maybe for the likes of Chris Stapleton and Sturgill Simpson — but remember that the genre’s de facto female star, Miranda Lambert, didn’t even chart a single on her excellent last album.
On “Mama I Tried,” a direct homage to Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried” — the first song she ever learned on guitar — Presley details her own attempt to fall in line over roiling electric guitar that would make Simpson himself do a double take. And he gets a shoutout on the aforementioned “Country,” when Yelawolf praises him as the savior of their genre. Little does he know, the person he should be name-checking is the one who roped him into a song that fiercely parodies the very bro-country he’s helping bemoan. Because look, if country music has a savior, it’s not the guy up on the Grammy stage who wrote a fairly traditional outlaw country/brass-heavy record as an homage to his newborn baby. We all know men get intense praise for sweeping, grand dad gestures while women get mocked if they even try to pursue their passion while co-parenting a child.
See, if someone is on the way to crucify and sanctify this genre, it’s gonna be a humorless b*tch who has lived through four decades of sh*t and is still writing barn-burning, rollicking anthems celebrating female resilience like “Good Girl Down,” it’s the woman who is still soft enough to embrace a silvery bluegrass ode to making music for the sake of it on “Groundswell,” it’s the caretaker (you better believe it wasn’t a man) who was with Guy Clark on his deathbed, helping him pursue his passion of writing down to the very last breath on “Cheer Up Little Darling.” His spoken word interlude, co-written by her, is fitting invocation for 2017’s sexist country mess: It seemed like a tight spot, but it’s just a loose end. That is the best example of pain made strong I’ve heard this year. I’ll pour one out and get down on my knees to pray to that scripture. And you know who will be there, on the ground with me? Other women.