Miranda Lambert’s Pistol Annies have never been more important than they are right now
For the Pistol Annies, sometimes a song arrives whether or not all three members of this country-music supergroup are ready for it.
One example? “Best Years of My Life,” a casually devastating account of adult-onset disappointment that begins with Ashley Monroe delivering this instant classic of an opener: “I picked a good day for a recreational Percocet.”
“That was her line, and she likes to get up real early in the morning and start writing songs, which we hate,” Monroe’s bandmate Angaleena Presley said with a laugh, recalling a sleepover writing session at the home of the group’s third member, Miranda Lambert. “But she was sitting out on the balcony and woke us up with that, and we were both like — ”
“‘Damn it,’” Lambert chimed in.
“We had to get up,” Presley added. “We knew immediately.”
Commitment to the tune — that’s what has defined the Pistol Annies since 2010, when Lambert briefly paused her hugely successful solo career to form the trio with her old friend Monroe, herself an acclaimed singer, and a then-struggling Nashville songwriter whose work had impressed her.
You could hear it on the band’s hit debut, 2011’s “Hell on Heels,” with its clever ditties about struggling to make ends meet. And it was there on “Annie Up,” from 2013, in a perfectly realized lament like “Unhappily Married.” (“You’re going bald and I’m getting fat,” it goes, “I hate your mom and you hate my dad.”)
Yet the Pistol Annies’ craft has never run deeper, nor felt more important, than it does on their latest album, “Interstate Gospel,” which debuted this week atop Billboard’s country chart.
On Wednesday night the trio will celebrate with a performance at the Country Music Assn. Awards, where Lambert is also up for several prizes, including female vocalist of the year and single of the year for “Drowns the Whiskey,” her No. 1 duet with Jason Aldean.
Like the earlier records, “Interstate Gospel” has some great laughs, as in the cheeky “Sugar Daddy” and the rowdy (and self-explanatory) “Stop, Drop and Roll One.”
But the record is also full of poignant, unsparing dispatches from women’s lives at a moment when male artists outnumber female on country radio by about 10 to 1.
“Milkman” explores the complicated relationship between a daughter and a mother who disapproves of her lifestyle. “Commissary” recounts an older sister’s visit to a younger brother behind bars.
Then there’s the handful of tunes seemingly inspired by Lambert’s widely publicized divorce from fellow country star Blake Shelton. In the anguished “Masterpiece,” the singer compares a failing marriage to a painting “up there on the wall for all to see,” then wonders, “Who’s brave enough to take it down?”
And though “Got My Name Changed Back” is funnier and more revved up, it’s still giving voice to an underrepresented perspective in rhymes as expertly phrased as “Spent an afternoon at the DMV” and “Now who I was ain’t who I be.”
Over lunch by their hotel pool during a recent trip to Los Angeles, the women — Presley is 42, Lambert is 35 and Monroe is 32 — told me they hadn’t gone into making “Interstate Gospel” with an eye toward correcting country music’s gender imbalance.
“I don’t ever want to come across as preachy,” Presley said.
But Monroe acknowledged she takes pride in fans telling her they can relate to songs not delivered from the point of view of a dude in a beat-up ball cap.
“I think it’s about people feeling understood,” Lambert said. “This song’s about your day sucking or divorce or somebody you love being put in prison. We’re not preaching to you — we’re talking to you because it happened to us too.”
“It’s the honesty,” Monroe said, a familiar talking point among country stars that nonetheless rings true with an act as frank as this one.
Asked whether the tabloid scrutiny of her marriage tempted her to put her guard up this time, Lambert scoffed.
“I don’t care what they write,” she said, adding that once you’re famous, “you could walk down the street and pick up a piece of trash and they’re gonna talk about it.”
If anything, she went on, the mistruths in gossip columns only made her double down on record.
“We sing the truth. Take from it what you will,” she said.
Lambert’s overall attitude toward her own celebrity is refreshingly unimpressed. And yet she admits to playing the game when necessary, as when she puts on a smile when the camera finds her in her seat at an awards show.
“That’s hard,” Presley said, “especially when you already suffer from resting bitch face, which I do.”
“Oh, me too,” Lambert agreed. “But I’ve gotten better at it.”
With the CMA Awards in mind — along with Nashville’s persistent man problem — I wondered aloud what the Pistol Annies thought of one tune nominated for song of the year: Chris Janson’s very iffy “Drunk Girl,” in which the singer is basically asking to be congratulated for not assaulting a woman he takes home from a bar.
“Leave her keys on the counter, your number by the phone / Pick up her life she threw on the floor,” Janson sings, “Leave the hall lights on, walk out and lock the door / That’s how she knows the difference between a boy and a man.”
At first the women said they didn’t know the song. Then Monroe began shaking her head silently.
“Well, clearly Ashley doesn’t want to talk about it,” Lambert said, which seemed to change Presley’s mind on the subject.
“I’m lying. I do know the song, and I’ll say one thing about it,” she said. “We don’t need to be rescued. We can get as drunk as we want, and we can get cabs.”
Lambert, who insisted again that she hadn’t heard “Drunk Girl,” asked if that’s really what the song is about.
“Seriously?” she said. “Everyone should try harder. There’s better ways to write songs.”
Are we living in something of a low-effort era?
“Uh-huh,” Lambert replied, nodding. “It’s a cop-out, all of it.”
At that, Monroe flashed a pained-looking expression. “I don’t care,” Lambert told her. “Why are you worried about it?”
“I’m not,” Monroe said. “I just don’t want to talk about Chris Janson. It’s not relevant to our music.”
Yet “Drunk Girl” is relevant, I said, as a demonstration of the blinkered thinking that the Pistol Annies are working against. As happened earlier, the women seemed to back away from a position of protest.
“We’re not on a soapbox,” Presley said. “We’re doing dishes and writing songs about it.”
Lambert said there’s room for all kinds in Nashville, even if most current country music leaves her cold compared with the “timeless” stuff she was raised on.
Some of the veterans she reveres — Patty Loveless, Trisha Yearwood, Reba McEntire — are admirers of the Pistol Annies, which Lambert said means “everything” to her and her bandmates.
Indeed, Presley said she was blown away when Yearwood — whose music she “used to sing so hard into my hairbrush that I knocked my tooth out one time” — visited the group backstage after a recent taping for a CMT special.
But then that was just one of many places Presley can’t believe her songwriting has taken her over the past eight years.
“My house was getting repossessed when this band started,” she said, adding that “Housewife’s Prayer,” from the Pistol Annies’ debut, was “literally me thinking about burning it down so I could get the insurance money before they took it away from me.”
“That’s why we love her,” Lambert said.
“How you like me now?” Presley went on, waving at her glossy surroundings. “Sitting by a coffin-shaped pool in California, eating manchego cheese.”
It sounded like the first line of a new song.