Angaleena Presley‘s her first meeting with Guy Clark is forever burned into her memory.
She remembers feeling scared to death while heading to his place to write music with one of her idols. At the time, she thought, “How in the heck did I get here?”
“We went down into his workshop where he has all of his guitars, and it’s like a museum,” she said over the phone during our CMT.com interview. “Everywhere you look, is tidbits of music history, pictures of Townes Van Zandt, and he had this wall of cassette tapes behind him.”
That day, Clark got right down to business by showing Presley a photo that he kept on his desk.
“He stuck it in my face and he said, ‘This is a picture of my wife, Susanna Clark. And I wrote this song about her,'” Clark told her. That’s when he performed “My Favorite Picture of You” just for Presley. Any Clark fan in that moment would have had an outer-body experience, and that was definitely the case for her.
After singing the song about his late wife, Clark handed Presley his guitar and requested an original in a kind of Nashville handshake.
“‘Now you play one,'” she recalled, mimicking Clark’s croak. “And I went from my out-of-body experience, to, ‘Oh, my God.’ And the deepest of fears came over me.
“But I played a song, and his reaction was, ‘Goddamn it, that’s brave.’ So I passed the test.”
One thing she doesn’t remember is the song she played that day. She was too preoccupied trying not to screw up in front of one of country music’s most revered storytellers. But the meeting started a new friendship which led to standing writing appointments between the two artists.
One of Clark’s favorite songs they wrote together is the inspiring waltz, “Cheer Up Little Darling,” which appears on Presley’s groundbreaking new album Wrangled. Opening with a recitation by Clark, Presley sings, “Cheer up little darling/Don’t be so sad/There’s a time and a place/For the blues that you have had/Hold what you got babe/Never give in/It feels like a tight spot/But it’s just a loose end.”
Clark died at age 74 in May 2016 following a long illness. At his memorial service, Steve Earle, Rodney Crowell and Sam Bush each made it a point to tell Presley how much the song meant to Clark in his final days.
“They would come up to me and say, ‘Man, Guy played me that song y’all wrote. It’s really good. He’d play it all the time,'” Presley recalled. “It was like, ‘I don’t feel worthy. I can’t.'”
“Guy taught me so much about bravery, for one thing,” she added. “I don’t think I could have made this record or spoken the truth if he hadn’t told me that it was OK and set this example of ‘Hey, I don’t take any shit from anybody.’ I just feel fortunate that I got to spend as much time with him as I did, and I miss him every day.”
Presley’s artistic bravery is evident on on Wrangled. From line one of the opener “Dreams Don’t Come True” with Pistol Annies’ Miranda Lambert and Ashley Monroe, the entire 12-song collection kicks the listener in the teeth by exposing some harsh truths about today’s society and the business of making it in the Nashville music industry.
“My way of fighting the system is to be clever, subtle and sneak things in,” she said. “Every song on this record has a double meaning. They’re all metaphors, except ‘Cheer Up Little Darling.’ That was just a little gem of life advice.”
She uses a doo-wop groove to address teenage pregnancy in “High School.” She mixes religion with murder in “Only Blood,” co-written with Chris Stapleton. Then she goes punk on “Country,” which lists tired stereotypes that are constantly used in today’s mainstream country. Her favorite part of the song is Yelawolf’s surprise rap breakdown.
“We just willed him to be on the record,” she said. “When we cut the track, we left a space for him just in case, because at that point, I had not ever spoken a word to him. A friend of a friend somehow got him the work tape that I had made, and I guess he listened to it and came right over. He just sat there, wrote what he wrote, and now here’s my little sucker punch and then here’s his big kick in the balls. He’s the only rapper I know who can rap in waltz time. It’s just amazing.”
She also co-wrote “Good Girl Down” with rock legend Wanda Jackson.
“I’m 40 and I’m not ashamed of it,” Presley said. “But it doesn’t help me out a whole lot as far as keeping up with the younger kids. But I look at people like Lucinda Williams, Wanda and Loretta Lynn, for goodness sake. They’re still out there killin’ it. Women are so strong. I can’t even put it into words. And it makes me really glad that I’m a woman and it inspires me to inspire others.
“I’ve been in this town for 15 years now, and every major label has passed on me at least twice, and I’m still here,” she added. “I’m still making music. So aside from all the politics, I just hope I made a record that will stand the test of time and hopefully, ‘help me to live forever,’ in the great words of Billy Joe Shaver.”
Presley is on tour through summer. Her next show is Thursday (April 27) in St. Paul, Minnesota.