Pistol Annies: Interstate Gospel Album Review
Whenever I think about Pistol Annies, I think, invariably, of something Ashley Monroe told an interviewer shortly after the trio formed in 2011. Talking about her nickname within the group—“Hippie Annie”—Monroe explained, “I always said I was a hillbilly hippie. I want everybody to be fine; I want everybody to be calm and love each other, and the world to be bright and pretty. But I’ll do yoga while I’m watching ‘Cops,’ because I’m a redneck, too.”
Like the band’s music, the quote is funny, honest, and liable to give you just a little bit of whiplash; “Cops”—not squirrel gravy or making your own clothes or some other rural fetish on which one could hang a medal of authenticity, but a reality TV show about trashy people in the heat of some really bad luck.
Though often framed as a rebuttal to the polish of modern country, the band never seemed like they were trying to stop time or return to an imaginary place of roots. If anything, what makes them stand out is the suggestion that these old, unvarnished sounds—honky-tonk, southern rock, tinges of bluegrass—are compatible not only with modern attitudes but with the concision of pop. In the world of Pistol Annies, “daddy” is less the weatherworn figure of self-sacrifice than the guy talking conspiracy theories over Christmas turkey, and the proverbial bottle—country’s totem of personal decline—isn’t filled with whiskey, but prescription pills. Their songs’ protagonists—women, always women—are either sacking up or breaking down, “third-generation bartenders” with bumper stickers that read Honk If You’re Horny limping toward the next car payment. For them, the good old days is just a corny idea you might use to sell country music.
Plenty has happened in the five years since their last album, Annie Up. Monroe and Angaleena Presley, both of whom were primarily songwriters-for-hire when the band began, have become successful solo artists, releasing some of the better country-adjacent albums of the decade (Monroe’s Like a Rose and Presley’s Wrangled, among others). Miranda Lambert, already a platinum-selling artist when the Annies started out, solidified herself as the most visible—and bankable—feminist in country, and one of the sharper living songwriters in general. As for their personal lives, I defer to Lambert, who in a recent interview described the passage from Annie Up to Interstate Gospel by saying, “We have stats. We have two ex-husbands [Presley, Lambert], two husbands [Presley, Monroe], two kids [Presley, Monroe], one on the way [Presley], and 25 animals.” In a video of the interview, you can see Lambert ticking these markers off with her finger like battle scars, then turning to the DJ and smiling—with full teeth—a tight smile that seems to say that that’s the last any of them have to say about that.
Co-produced by longtime collaborator Frank Liddell, Interstate Gospel is earthier than Annie Up, and a little more poised than their 2011 debut, Hell on Heels. There are flashes of bluegrass (“Interstate Gospel”) and New Orleans funk (“Sugar Daddy”) and big-sky psychedelic rock (“Commissary”)—sounds that frame the band not as industry veterans but as outlaws and mountain mamas. The album’s cover pictures them barefoot, and the sound follows.
Like a lot of great country music, the songs here are staked not on novelty but on convention, on familiar stereotypes captured in unfamiliar depth. Take “Cheyenne,” the bad girl with the trashy tattoos set in motion by sadness so powerful it almost looks like freedom. Or the small-town housewife of “Milkman,” who passes into old age satisfied with the delusion that she kept her regrets a secret. Or the new divorcee of “Got My Name Changed Back,” who comes on like a paradigm of self-sufficiency before confessing—with a bitterness I have almost never heard outside a rap record—that at least she got the fucker’s money. As always, the premium remains on real talk, which the band dispenses with the unsparing resolve of someone who’s been listening the whole time but has not been paid attention to until now.
These are attractive characters, and repellent ones; women you either want to be or talk shit about. The most nuanced of them—on “Best Years of My Life,” “Milkman,” and the haunting “Commissary”—seem animated not by anger but by guilt so deep-seated it has become chromosomal. Like the polar bear sent into an existential tailspin because he feels cold, the women on Interstate Gospel seem not at odds with themselves so much as the roles to which they’ve been assigned.
Listening to Interstate Gospel, I felt a reservoir of sympathy for my mother. Thrice married and thrice divorced, survivor of domestic abuse, holder of a dozen careers, well-educated but as foolish as any of us, nobody has taught me more about the transformational power of loss. And still, I have watched her laugh and watched her be happy; watched her, hours after signing the papers on her second divorce, standing at the blender with a margarita in hand telling my kid brother to tell his teachers she couldn’t help him with his homework because, in her words, “Mom got drunk.” (He did; the school called.) Stubborn, funny, occasionally regretful, and proudly proud, she soldiers on.
These songs—the hot mess of “Stop Drop and Roll One,” the numbed reckoning of “Best Years of My Life,” the regrets of “Milkman” and the redemption of “Interstate Gospel”: These are my mother; these are what I know of mothers; these are what I think of when I think of strong women. And yes, women, and not men, who mask their pettiness with justification and their regret with self-pity. I remember the day when my mother called me from the steps of the courthouse, happy as could be that she had once again reclaimed the name with which she was born. Hopped-up, bittersweet, twice bitten, and unshy, it sounded a little like this.