Angaleena Presley is the kind of person who will fix a dragging car muffler by tying it in place with a guitar string, then work the episode into a song.
The Kentucky-born singer-songwriter showed similar ingenuity when she recorded the flick of a lighter for a percussive loop on her homemade song demos, then replicated the effect on her debut album, American Middle Class.
Anybody else might’ve gone with more tried-and-true means of accomplishing those mechanical and musical aims.
Presley’s collection of new songs is grounded in the same country tradition as Loretta Lynn’s “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” and despite being a couple of generations removed, the younger songwriter and member of the Pistol Annies shared the experience of growing up with a coal-mining dad. But Presley has her own quick-witted ways of articulating an Appalachian expat’s vantage point for contemporary ears.
CMT Edge: In the origin story of the Pistol Annies, Ashley Monroe called you up in the middle of the night and asked you to send her your recordings so she could play it for Miranda Lambert. Had you made an album?
Presley: I have this little digital board, and I made all of these work tapes. They’re like self-made demos. One of ’em, I made a loop with a cigarette lighter and then I built tracks around it, like with a guitar and stompin’ a boot. … [Producer] Frank Liddell got a hold of these crazy-ass recordings that I had done, and he really flipped out over it and was like, “What the hell is this? Girls don’t act like this. They don’t make these things.” He decided to make a record with me for fun. …
We built a record around my tracks. It had 10 or 11 songs, and it was a badass little record. We shopped it around and shopped it around and shopped it around, and the general consensus was, “This blows my mind. But the marketing department just really doesn’t know what to do with it.” Then it kinda fell to the wayside until I shared it with Miranda and Ashley. And that’s how Pistol Annies got started.
Pistol Annies provided a proving ground for you. You were the divorced, single mom in the group, and that’s the vantage point you brought to the songs. What responses did you get from fans?
I got, “That’s my life. How do you know me?” Or, “I’m going through a divorce, and I feel the exact same thing. It’s so hard.” People relate to it. So I just get a “thank-you” a lot of times. That’s when it all makes sense.
Without feedback like that, I imagine you could start to wonder whether what you’re writing matters to anyone.
Right. And [music]’s not an easy business to be in. It’s heartbreaking and gut-wrenching and stressful and not glamorous and not easy.
When [I was] a little girl, in my mind, I was gonna get to Nashville, and this guy in a gold suit was gonna come up. I’d get out of a limousine. He’d have a contract. … Then the next week, I’d be in a feather boa, jet-setting to the Grammys. That ain’t how it is. And it takes so long to really get that picture out of your head. … There’s a little part of me that is still that little girl thinkin’, “One of these days, it’s gonna be all sequins and rainbows.”
You’ve talked about skipping school to make pilgrimages to Loretta Lynn’s homeplace in your teens. What songs of hers were most important to you?
“Fist City.” “Coal Miner’s Daughter.” “One’s on the Way.” “You’re Lookin’ at Country.” “Rated X.” I mean, just all of them from her. But then also people like Carole King. I loved Carole King. And I loved Sheryl Crow.
I guess if you’re asking [what I was into] around that time, there was such a mix. Pearl Jam, I loved. I was trying to explain to Jed, my little boy, the other day. I was like, “Jed, this is the band that made mommy start wearin’ papaw’s squirrel-huntin’ flannel shirts to school — blood and all.” … The glue is just that I loved music. That’s the only thing I’ve ever been passionate about.
Your parents insisted that you go to college, and you got a degree in psychology. What did you get out of that?
Well, the reason I picked psychology as a major is because it had 42 hours of free electives. And I wanted to be done with college. Don’t get me wrong. I’m so glad that I went. And I actually, for my profession, picked a wonderful area of study because I did learn so much about, number one, my own crazy. …
I feel like I’m a really good judge of character, and I feel like it’s part education and part intuition. So I’m lucky to have the education part to back up my weird mountain intuition thing that I think I got from my mom. The other thing is, it gave me a chance to grow up before I came here and tried to be a rock star or whatever. I didn’t start writin’ good songs until halfway through college.
People don’t always expect complex analysis from country songwriting. You write songs loaded with tangible details, but you also do a lot of reflection on what those details signify.
Well, I was an English minor. And with the 42 hours of free electives, I took a bunch of women’s studies [courses] and creative writing and all of these really fun liberal arts classes. When I co-write, people get so mad at me because I’m like a cutthroat editor, and I learned that in college. To be a good writer, the first thing you have to learn is less is more. In songwriting, you have three minutes to move someone.
Also I cannot stand the misuse of tenses. I mean, it drives me up a wall. … Like, hardcore grammar police. I’m like, “No, that’s a misplaced modifier!”
And you’re able to balance tangible detail with thoughtful examination.
I came here to be a writer. I didn’t come here to be a star. It was just that when I got here I realized that nobody in their right mind is going to cut these songs, so I’m gonna have to sing them myself. … The writing is always, to me, the first thing. And I want it to be smart. And because I’m from where I’m from and I am who I am, it falls into the country world.
On this album, you’re playing with world views that aren’t supposed to be compatible. What kind of tug of war is going on between facets of your identity in “Better Off Red”?
I should talk about my dad, who is maybe a saint. He’s a remarkable human being. He’s so even-keeled. He would step in front of a train for anybody even if he didn’t know the person. He has a little house in a holler. He has a four-wheeler and a ridin’ lawnmower and a Chevy truck and a big-screen TV — and he is so happy, so content. That’s the tug of war. It’s like, if I never had all of these big dreams or whatever, could I ever have been like that? There’s something about staying home that’s like a security blanket that I just threw away.
You can never forget that you wanted something else or that you’ve had other experiences.
And I feel blessed. I’ll never take my experiences for granted because I want to have these experiences. But there’s a part of me that looks at my sister. She loves living in the country. I’ve begged her to move to Nashville. … “You’re crazy. I ain’t movin’ there. I ain’t comin’ to that city.”
It’s like, “How can you not want to? How can you not want to go to Europe? How can you not want to eat Thai food three nights a week?” I’m not supposed to want these things. And for some reason, when I was a little girl, I used to tell my mom, “Well, you don’t even know because I’m supposed to grow up in New York anyway.” I thought God dropped me in the wrong place.
So that [song]’s me dreaming of not having these dreams. It’s the dream of not being a dreamer. Because if you’re born a dreamer, then that’s what you are.