The Pistol Annies never know when a new album’s coming. Friendship and a love of strong stuff (country music, men, good times) is the currency that bonds songwriter/artists Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley; the records happen when it’s time.
“The universe tells us when it’s time,” offers the dark-headed Presley.
The ashy blond Monroe picks up, “And we all just know. Then there’ll start to be a song, something starts to swirl that sort of proves it.”
Swirl it did when Lambert texted her friends a verse of what became “When I Was His Wife.” Presley was on tour with Brandy Clark, and sent a verse back ten minutes later. Monroe responded with another verse almost as quick.
“Miranda got ’em, did a work tape,” Presley laughs, “and we were out of the chute.”
Out of the chute and straight onto the open road. Interstate Gospel is the third album from the iconoclastic keepers of a traditional country flame. And it’s not just the music -- though with a band of Matt Chamberlain on drums, Glenn Worf on bass, Frank Rische and Dan Dugmore on guitar, Fats Kaplan on steel, guitar and dobro and Chuck Leavell on piano they were going deep – but the fact that Gospel unflinching attacks the real life, worn at the seams realities country music used to be about speaks volumes to the truth the Annies are seeking.
Whether it’s the plucky post-divorce “Got My Name Changed Back,” the adrift in what we’re supposed to want “Best Years of My Life,” or the throw down church sign redemption of the title track, the Annies are indomitable. High spirited, unflinching, throwing down a gauntlet that epitomizes modern women in their best and worst moments, a lot has happened since 2011’s gold Hell on Heels and 2013’s Annie Up – and it’s all here.
“We make a record when we want to,” explains Lambert unapologetically. “We sing about what we want to. It’s not, ‘Well, what’d we do last time?’ It’s, ‘Hey, what’ve you been doing?’ Okay. Let’s write about it.’
“Even though we are all individuals, we all have the same basic message of telling the truth and being who we are.”
There are knowing nods all around. Beyond the time between albums, there’s been a lot of life and miles beneath the tires – and they know it.
“There’s just the daily ins and outs of stuff, but things have happened, too,” Lambert says.
“Two weddings, a divorce, a baby and a baby on the way,” Presley continues.
“In five years,” Monroe concludes. “And it all gets reflected in the way we write. I think we’ve always been strong women, so now we’re in an even stronger state of mind from overcoming some of the hardest – and most joyous – things you can go through. And it’s all in there.”
All that, and more. From the truth in advertising slow country “Leavers Lullaby” to the gleaming heartbroke once heartbreaker “Cheyenne” through regretting the life not lived tug of “Milkman” straight into the canny camaraderie of “Stop Drop and Roll One,” these are real moments, real people, real emotions.
So real, it’s almost just scooped up off the floor. Monroe smiles as she recounts, “We’d just finished a song out at the farm, and Miranda said, ‘Girls, we’re on fire I think...,” and then she said, ‘So stop, drop and roll one!’ And then our friend Amy, said, ‘I hope we leave this honky tonk covered in men’ when we were all out for one of my birthdays. She’s single, and she really was ready to be covered in men!”
“It’s just a bunch of women getting wild, letting loose,” Presley says. “They might be married, single, at the end of the night they’re not sure.”
Monroe picks up, “On that same trip, Ang woke up and literally said, ‘Get this thing off me! Where the hell is my bra?’”
Lambert laughs, and marvels, “These are actual conversations. All we do it write a melody to them.”
It’s a little more complicated than that. For the women whose harmonic influences run the gauntlet from the Indigo Girls to the Louvin Brothers, Diamond Rio and Restless Heart to The Beach Boys, it is also the frisson of a great band playing live and trying to get the magic to happen in the moment.
“As a songwriter, knowing a comment became a song that became this record,” Lambert begins, “it’s a beautiful thing to see come together. From her saying, ‘Where’s my bra?’ to it turning into the recording of ‘Stop, Drop & Roll One,’ it came a long way. When we hire a band, we hire people who love music as much as we do, and who want to be a part of it. They know we’re songwriters, and these are our stories, so the music needs to follow that.”
“Once we settle in,” Monroe continues, “the players are really listening, and watching. We all move together, because there’s a sense we are all – the players and us – creating this. It’s very powerful when you hear the playback.”
It’s also powerful hearing the raw vulnerable sharing of a narrator facing the worst their child/sibling/partner’s opioid incarceration causes in “Commissary.” Beyond the inevitable self-defense of disengaging, it paints a rough picture of enabling in action.
“She’s heartbroken,” says Presley, “and just doesn’t have any options. She’s to the point this is too much to feel, or do anymore. She just can’t. So she’s got this hard, cold-shoulder attitude, but her heart is breaking in a million pieces.”
“Prison might as well be a death sentence,” Lambert agrees. “You have no access to them. You can’t fix them. You can’t hide what’s going on. The only thing you can do is give them money, but that’s enabling the problem.”
“Really, you could apply this to any situation that is enabling. Teaching a boundary is so hard, and I think it’s cool that we have this song, because it gives people the sense of how you do it. We’re all in different kinds of situations, and to be able to think, ‘This person know how I feel...,’ it makes them stronger going through it.”
Equally penetrating is the Bobbie Gentry-level mystery of “5 Acres of Turnips.” Across a track that swelters, the Annies unfurl a Southern populist gothic portrait of a family farm – and the secrets it holds – with a second verse that tips its visuals to John Prine’s iconic “Angel From Montgomery.”
“We were writing that while this really hot organic gardener was working at Miranda’s farm,” Monroe remembers.
“Literally, writing about gardening while watching someone planting a garden,” Lambert echoes. “But obviously, there’s more. The Granddaddy’s shame is just the family’s secrets. In the South, you don’t talk about that kind of stuff, because it’s too scary. We’re vague in the song, because honestly, we’re vague about this stuff with each other, because everyone knows it’s almost too scary to start digging into it.”
Not that fear has ever stopped the Pistol Annies, who wrote the album INTERSTATE GOSPEL on the road as well as Miranda’s farm outside Nashville. “Coming together, you get these three different artists’ perspective in one, so it has some more punch,” Monroe offers, as Presley adds, “It’s like crutches: something so personal to me, I can stand between them, and sing it.”
Or as Lambert continues, “We’ve all gone through all of it. At some point. We understand.”
“And,” Presley finishes, “telling the truth is easier when we’re together.”
That truth can embrace the heartworn relationship trapped by appearances “Masterpiece,” or the funky, frisky “Sugar Daddy,” which all three admit evokes their Hell on Heels high spirits. Monroe recognizes the knowledge that comes with experience. “I think it’s fun to play with your sexuality, and your power. It doesn’t mean you should run over people and take their money, but you can also use what you’ve got to do whatever you want to do.”
“Yeah,” Presley agrees. “This is a girl who knows what she wants, and she knows how to get it. There’s power in that.”
For Lambert, who’s coming off her biggest touring year ever, and the Platinum success of the critically acclaimed Weight of these Wings, Monroe, who’s spent time making Sparrow and having a baby, and Presley, who’s released Wrangled and is currently expecting, there’s also strength in understanding what drives you. For the three women in various phases of their creative and personal lives, INTERSTATE GOSPEL is shot through with the power of radial tire salvation and a certain kind of freedom.
“There’s a freedom when you’re on the road, when you’re driving and releasing,” Monroe explains. “You’re letting yourself be alone, and just driving – and I think this is actually a good record to drive to, because it’s about getting out there and clearing your thoughts. Just behind the wheel, it’s all out there. And it’s also a cool moment for all those church signs that have a way of popping up, and saying just what you need.”
“We have so many journeys between us, that we’ve been on,” Lambert agrees. “And we all travel for a living, so it’s literally the emotional journey and the travelling on the road. I feel like those little signs come from out of nowhere, always at the right moment. That’s why when Angaleena threw out the title, I knew exactly what it was before we even started writing. I could see it, and that’s everything.”