At In Review Online, I’ve written short takes on two new projects from the Pistol Annies universe. First, there’s my condensed take on The Marfa Tapes, transporting campfire recordings from Miranda Lambert, Jack Ingram, and Jon Randall. (The extended version is available here.) And then there’s my investigation of Rosegold, an Ashley Monroe album that qualifies as a bit of a disappointment, though by no means a disaster. (I’ll stan The Blade forever.)
If I had to live forever with just one “Solitude,” I’d probably pick the one on The Popular Duke Ellington. And if forced to choose a favorite “Amazing Grace,” I reckon it would have to be Aretha’s. But proverbial desert islands notwithstanding, I’m not sure I believe in quote-unquote definitive versions of songs, and I’m not sure that Miranda Lambert does either. On The Marfa Tapes—a reel of non-produced campfire recordings made with Jack Ingram and Jon Randall— she sings “Tin Man,” just as she’s probably done at every concert since the song first appeared on The Weight of These Wings. The version here is not radically different from the original, but it does have a slight variance in tone, a casualness that comes with familiarity. She’s not reading it into the public record so much as she’s settling into familiar contours, reacquainting herself with what must seem like a lifetime of memories. At the end of the song, she complains that one of her strings was buzzing, but her pals aren’t here for any self-effacing bullshit. “That was your brain buzzing,” one of them says.
All 15 songs on The Marfa Tapes have a similar looseness. On Wildcard’s “Tequila Does,” the only other familiar tune here, Lambert briefly forgets the words, eliciting giggles. In “Geraldine,” she makes what seems like an impromptu decision to imitate the stutter and skip of a vinyl record (“G-g-Geraldine! Geraldine!”); there is more laughter, and a spontaneous uptick in the song’s bristling energy. Harmony parts sound like they are being worked out in real time. Nearly every song is bookended by jokes, encouragements, or general expressions of enthusiasm from the three performers (the word “fun” comes up a lot), and you can also hear the wind blowing over the microphone, the rustling of trees, the hollow thump of guitars and other gear. This ambiance is crucial to the vibe, creating a connective tissue of warmth and camaraderie that stitches these ragged performances together. Meanwhile, not a single one of these performances sounds like it’s meant to be the definitive take, nor like there is even any interest in achieving a definitive take; The Marfa Tapes is nothing if not a celebration of performance, the way the right song at the right time and in the right company can spark irreplaceable joy. These songs aren’t being immortalized, but savored; not embalmed, but discovered.
They are all thrillingly low-key, single-take, bare-bones renditions, performed by just the three musicians under the starlight of Marfa, Texas. (Pitchfork’s Sam Sodomsky describes the album as “somewhere between a demo collection, a live album with no audience, and a lo-fi left turn.”) And if none of the songs sound authoritative, they all sound pretty perfect in their own shaggy way. For most listeners, the standouts will be the big, sad ones: “In His Arms” dreams of the one who got away, while “Waxahachie” traces a post-breakup trail of tears. I’m just as fond of the lighter ones: “Two-Step Down to Texas” suggests that Ingram and Randall share Lambert’s affinity for “old sh!t,” while “We’ll Always Have the Blues” is a breezy shuffle, complete with some rough whistling. Country pros that they are, all three songwriters have a knack for melancholy, chronicling heartache with precision, detail, and economy. (Random line: “I don’t wear my ring no more/ kids and time will learn to love us both.”) But even the saddest songs are played with a palpable sense of joy; they revel in the pleasure of sharing music together, if only for a moment, if just for a night.
“I’ve got a track record,” admits Miranda Lambert on her seventh solo album, as if we don’t already know it; as if we haven’t seen the supermarket tabloids, or carefully considered her unassailable catalog of songs about kerosene dreams and mama’s broken hearts; about loving and leaving, often in a shower of gunpowder and lead. Wildcard references the darkest implications of those songs occasionally, obliquely, noncommittally; in “Way Too Pretty for Prison,” Lambert won’t be bothered to dirty her hands bumping off a cheatin’ fool, though you could perhaps talk her into hiring someone to make it all look like an accident. The restlessness that runs through Lambert’s songbook is nevertheless crucial subtext here, often out of sight but seldom out of mind: This is an album that uses personal history and public mythology as context for hard-won serenity and joy. It turns admissions of personal weakness into declarations of strength; it lends wisdom to songwriting tropes that have occasionally teetered close to youthful caricature. For all the justifiable talk about how Wildcard is distinct in Lambert’s catalog— how it’s her party record, her rock and roll record, her New York record— its power is felt most fully when you know the backstory.
This fresh chapter does bring some shake-ups, notably in the producer’s chair; until now all of Lambert’s albums, including the three with Pistol Annies, have been helmed by Frank Liddell. For this one she enlisted Jay Joyce (Brothers Osborne, Ashley McBryde, Eric Church), who swaps lived-in earthiness for a glistening sheen. Wildcard revels in surface-level pleasures; “Mess with My Head,” tightly-wound pop perfection, delivers a high that’s every bit as rapturous and ephemeral as the one-night-stand that it documents. The album sounds as loose and as colorful as any Lambert has made: The guitars are gnarly and loud, the drums have plenty of snap. Lambert’s pop songs are confectionary delicacies; “Track Record” rides a featherweight New Wave synth, while “Settling Down” surrenders its anxieties to chiming guitars and swirling keyboards. Elsewhere, Joyce dresses up the rootsier material with stylized remove; “Holy Water” brings in a gospel choir and swamp-rock sleaze, and “Way Too Pretty for Prison” feels as sturdy as a classic R&B ballad, as trashy as a garage rock knockoff. In “Locomotive,” harmonica wails over an off-the-rails groove, and the singer wails even louder; it’s raucous country-blues filtered through the New York Dolls’ scruff. Lambert has always been equal-parts country traditionalist and country disruptor, and Wildcard cleverly calls back to some of the pioneers whose disruptions in the 1980s and 1990s are almost taken for granted today; you might think of the agitated rock and roll attitude of Steve Earle circa Guitar Town, but more than anything Wildcard nods to the kineticism and elasticity of King’s Record Shop, the landmark album from Rosanne Cash— a trailblazer whose influence looms large over Lambert and so many of her peers.
Lambert and Joyce keep the feel so light and breezy, you might almost overlook the high level of craft, evident even when Lambert indulges in frivolities (all of them welcome following the magnificent but demanding ballast of 2016’s The Weight of These Wings, still her deepest album). “It All Comes Out in the Wash” hawks detergent and promises, no matter what you’re going through, that this too shall pass; it’s proud down-home cornpone but savvier than it seems, and Lambert reads its hokey vernacular as holy writ, wringing countless delights from her deep Texas drawl. “Tequila Does,” Wildcard’s purest honky tonk, sounds at first like it may collapse under its heavy-handed bordertown rhymes (“with a blonde senorita/ and a tall margarita”), but it reveals itself to be a smart piece of writing with a timeless premise: Dudes generally don’t live up to their lofty promises, but booze is pretty reliable. It’s one of the happiest songs you’ll ever hear about going home from the bar all by your lonesome. And what about “White Trash,” which opens the album amid a flurry of digitally-processed banjo notes? Maybe Lambert’s thumbing her nose at the purists, or maybe she just feels like country music is meant to be a gas.
Of course there’s another big shake-up in Lambert’s life, and that’s Brendan McLoughlin, the New York City cop Lambert met and married in the year spanning Interstate Gospel and Wildcard. Perhaps newlywed bliss is one explanation for the album’s cheerful countenance, but Lambert seems to intuit something that Chance the Rapper learned the hard way: Writing persuasively about contentment is easier said than done. To that end, Wildcard isn’t as carefree as it sounds. In “How Dare You Love,” one of a couple of Ashley Monroe co-writes, Lambert describes romance as something that happened to her when she was looking the other way, its capriciousness exciting but maybe a little disconcerting. (Can anything that gives also take away?) “Settling Down” is a tug of war between her inbuilt wanderlust and her aspirations for hearth and home; she’s “one heart goin’ both directions,” with “one love and a couple of questions,” and the song abides tension rather than offering a conclusion. Wildcard wraps up with the neon squalor of “Dark Bars,” where Lambert is sober and not especially sad but still drawn to the dingy ambiance of heartache and desperation. What does it say about her that she concludes her most unsettled albums with songs of healing, and her most bucolic one with a song of unease? On Miranda Lambert albums, there are no uncomplicated emotions.
Lambert’s history makes both her frivolities and her complexities feel weightier. Indeed, the most rewarding way to experience Wildcard is to imagine that Lambert’s still playing the same restless, sometimes reckless characters she’s inhabited since her debut, deepened by wisdom and experience. She feints in that direction in “Way Too Pretty for Prison,” where Lambert and Maren Morris realize they’ve got better things to do than play Thelma and Louise, a prospect that Lambert and Carrie Underwood were all too happy to entertain just five short years ago. And of course there’s “Track Record,” which picks up a heartbreak thread running through “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” (where she was vengeful and violent), “Love Letters” (where she was rueful), and “Things That Break” (where she realized just how easily she makes a mess of every good thing that comes her way). “Track Record” doesn’t erase or downplay that history, but it does view it through a lens of grace and understanding; for what may be the first time, Lambert goes easy on herself. “Can’t help it, I’m in love with love,” she admits, a hungry heart whose biggest fault is the intensity of her devotion. She makes a similar case for herself in the folksy “Bluebird,” where her loves and losses are seen in the broader context of her own flinty resilience. That’s the point of “Locomotive,” too: “I don’t run out of steam,” she boasts, and what these songs amount to is a total recontextualization of the heartache narrative she’s been writing since Kerosene, one she sees clearer than ever as a tale of hard knocks, survival, and maturation. “I know a thing or two about broken hearts,” she sings in “Dark Bars.” Maybe that’s why she ended this album on a relative downer: For as frisky and innocent as these songs may sound, every one of them is a song of experience.
The Pistol Annies—Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe, Angaleena Presley—have about a hundred different superpowers between them. Truth-telling, trash-talking, myth-making, hell-raising—their virtuosity runs both deep and wide. One thing none of them are great at is sugar-coating, and on Interstate Gospel—their third and most accomplished album—they are proudly, defiantly, even confrontationally unvarnished. “I’m in the middle of the worst of it,” Monroe sings toward the start of the album—and then comes the knife twist: “These are the best years of my life.” The group has always written about women deep in the shit—sometimes dumped upon them, sometimes self-generated—yet even their most desperate protagonists take the shitstorm in stride. Most weather it with their sense of humor intact; some come through it newly self-reflective; more than a handful are aided by booze or pills, and try though you might you can’t blame them. Interstate Gospel may be the most troubled Pistol Annies record yet, stacked with songs about divorce and regret, but this is a band whose jocularity and compassion seem directly proportional to the enmity faced by their characters. In other words, this is also their most rollicking, joyful, and confident album, the one with the funniest jokes, the most sophisticated blend of hazy autobiography and richly-detailed fiction. “We’re on fire, I think,” Lambert muses at one point, and it’s a line with double meaning—both a statement of emergency but also a not-so-humble acknowledgement that the Pistol Annies are on a hot streak.
That streak encompasses at least a half dozen classic albums between them, estimating conservatively; Monroe’s Sparrow, striking for how it finds room for personal expression within an established lineage, came out just a few months ago. It’s masterful in a different way than Lambert’s contemplative The Weight of These Wings or Presley’s razor-edged Wrangled, and one of the chief accomplishments of Interstate Gospel is how it showcases each Annie’s individuality but also the strength in their bond; the specificity of what each Annie does is sharpened, not flattened, by their fellowship. Maybe that’s why they chose to open the album, after a quick prelude, with “Stop, Drop, and Roll One,” a band introduction and theme song. (“One’s got the Tylenol, one’s got the Adderall, one’s got a drink in her hand,” they summarize, and if you’re not sure who’s who, just listen to when each voice enters the scene.) Presley’s verse on the song showcases the ease and economy with which she can tell a story: “Get this thing off of me, where in the hell is my bra?/ This hurts a lot more than the last time we did Mardi Gras.” Meanwhile, “Leavers Lullaby,” a goodbye letter from a woman born to run, is voiced by Monroe, reflecting a thematic strain that would have fit neatly among Sparrow’s assembly of gypsy hearts and wanderers. “Best Years of My Life” opens with a line that seems like a Monroe special—“I picked a good day for a recreational Percocet”—yet it’s almost more satisfying to imagine the line penned for her by an alternate Annie, the fruit of their sisterly camaraderie and intermingled sensibilities.
As for Lambert, she can’t help but be at the epicenter of what’s nearly a divorce album. Her severed ties with Blake Shelton comprise the most tabloid-worthy breakup among the Annies, and she addressed the matter at length on The Weight of These Wings, a double album where she took stock, admitted fault, and largely found virtue in Being the Bigger Person. Somehow, singing divorce songs under the Pistol Annies banner frees her to chronicle dissolution and its aftermath with an expanded range of emotions, including grief, shame, liberation, and glee. The grief and the shame come primarily in “Masterpiece,” a late-album stunner performed almost as a Lambert solo track, and of a piece with The Weight of These Wings. Here she agonizes over oblivion, anguishing over all the hard work that can go into keeping a marriage afloat just for it to capsize anyway (“like nothing ever happened,” she laments). Considerably perkier is “Got My Name Changed Back,” a courtroom jamboree that turns lemons into lemonade and a divorce settlement into rebirth (“Now who I was ain’t who I be/ I got my name changed back,” Lambert exults). That’s the Interstate Gospel prism, one where it can be easier to see the joy and relief in separation than in sticking it out. There’s no sadder line on the album than the pungent country one-liner Lambert lets loose on “Best Years of My Life,” about a woman who’s stuck: “He don’t love me but he ain’t gone yet.” Meanwhile, each Annie gives voice to wisdom and the healing power of time on “When I was His Wife,” a song of experience if ever there was one. “His love was enough to keep me satisfied/ I said that too when I was his wife,” sings Monroe, another leaver’s confession.
Pistol Annies are uniquely gifted at upholding the Lady Bird doctrine, where paying careful attention is really an act of love. That’s true even when their impish humor and their passion for archetypes veer close to cartoonishness; their empathetic streak is always there to save them. Less caring writers would let “Cheyenne” lapse into cliché, what with its protagonist who loves trashy tattoos and country music. When Lambert hits the longing in the chorus—“If I could treat love like Cheyenne/ If I could be just as cold as the beer in her hand”—it feels like the most nakedly autobiographical sentiment on the whole album. Likewise, the randy “Sugar Daddy” could have been a lark (“My sugar daddy’s got a rhinestone suit/ Got a snake in his boot,” Monroe coos), but it’s noteworthy here for its brazen celebration of feminine agency. Their propensity for empathetic nuance brings unresolvable ache to “Milkman,” which tries to unravel the complicated threads connecting mothers and daughters but ultimately tangles them further; and to “Commissary,” which addresses addiction and enablement by putting the tough in tough love.
Of the three Pistol Annies records, Interstate Gospel sounds the most sure-footed as it straddles country’s past and its present; it prizes both traditionalism and pop punch, and it sounds classicist without fetishizing analog austerity. (This catholic conception of country marks some of the year’s most enthralling albums, including Eric Church’s Desperate Man and Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour.) Working with producer Frank Liddell, who helmed all of Lambert’s solo joints, the Annies give equal stature to close harmonies and thunderous drums, finger-picked acoustics and fuming electric blues. The title song is an old-timey frenzy, pounding church pianos colliding with rollicking bluegrass. Presley’s biblical dad jokes (“Jesus is the bread of life, without him you’re toast”) split the difference between Grand Old Opry cornpone and Dixie Chicks irreverence. Elsewhere, “Cheyenne” lilts to a folksy fiddle, while “Sugar Daddy” crackles with loose electricity. These arrangements manage to surprise without ever seeming ostentatious: Listen to how “Got My Name Changed Back” ends on an Andrews Sisters high, or to how “5 Acres of Turnips” morphs from sepia-tinged regret into a psychedelic dream sequence.
It’s that song that may be Interstate Gospel’s true linchpin: In a rural multi-generational epic, the Annies whisper about dark family secrets. (No specific allegations are made, but there’s talk of “generations of shame” and ominous holes in the ground.) But when the lurching honky-tonk blossoms to its coda, Presley sings amazing grace: “Something beautiful comes out of this dirt,” she declares. Just like that, deep shit is redeemed, through good humor, joyful intent, and sheer force of will—proof of the Pistol Annies’ superpowers working at their peak.