By Deborah Evans Price.
From the Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings supergroup The Highwaymen to Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt’s famed Trio, friendship and creative chemistry have inspired some of Country Music’s most successful collaborations. Debuting with their chart-topping album, Hell on Heels, The Pistol Annies is the latest group of distinctive personalities to forge an enigmatic new act.
“We all have something to say as individual women and as individual artists,” Miranda Lambert said of herself, Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley. “You put all three opinions together and all three lifestyles and what we’ve all been through, and it just felt like that we were saying something that most people think and don’t actually say. I’m like that in my solo career. I take risks and I’m honest in my music and we just carried it out with this Pistol Annies project.”
“All three of us have different influences, but they all three have the same characteristic—honesty,” Monroe added. “Miranda loves Merle (Haggard). I love Dolly and Angaleena loves Loretta. We’re all very much inspired by the three of them. If you go back and listen to their records, you can relate to what they’re talking about.”
Although record companies sometimes encourage artists into collaborations that look commercially promising, that was not the case with The Pistol Annies. “Miranda and I have known each other for seven years,” said Monroe. “One night we were at her house and I asked if she’d ever heard of Angaleena Presley. I’d written with her a few times in Nashville. She said she hadn’t, so I went and got my computer and started playing her some stuff. She flipped out. She said, ‘That’s the girl! That’s our missing link!’ It fell together as easy as that.”
Presley said the collaboration felt natural from the beginning. “We sat down and wrote these songs and we didn’t overthink it,” she said. “We didn’t have any method to the madness. It’s just songs from three different girls’ perspectives and I guess a lot of people can relate to it.”
“The chemistry was there from the very beginning,” Monroe added. “We just started writing songs. We just sat down and were inspired. That’s how it happened. We weren’t trying for anything. We were just looking to write real songs about real things.”
Before teaming with the Annies, Monroe had released a digital album, Satisfied, on Columbia Nashville in 2009. Presley has recorded an unreleased album and is looking for a deal. Lambert, of course, is an established headliner with multiple hits under her belt, including 2010 CMA Song of the Year “The House That Built Me” (written by Tom Douglas and Allen Shamblin).
The Pistol Annies’ album, Hell on Heels, was released in August, two months ahead of Lambert’s fourth album,Four the Record. When asked if she was concerned about how their debut might affect her latest solo outing, Lambert responded, “That did cross my mind, but I thought if it (Pistol Annies) was that organic and felt that right, then it had to be right. The music came so easily to us three, and the chemistry that we had made me realize that I needed to put my hesitation aside and let the music lead and just see what happens.”
The result was a No. 1 album. Hell on Heels was initially a digital-only release, and the demand from fans caught the label by surprise. When brick-and-mortar retailers began clamoring for physical copies, Sony Music Nashville rushed to oblige. Lambert said the trio was taking a little vacation in Mexico to celebrate the album’s release when they received word that it might debut at No. 1 on Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart. “It kind of shocked me to be honest,” she said, “because we didn’t have product. It was just digital.”
“The great thing about The Pistol Annies project is it came from a very musical place,” said Gary Overton, Chairman/CEO, Sony Music Nashville, noting that Lambert’s manager Marion Kraft first mentioned the project to him. Intrigued, he asked to hear music and the trio came by to play some songs live. “We first talked about doing four sides, but the music kept flowing. It was cool and there was a sound, so we ended up making a whole record. Then we said, ‘Well, there’s really not stuff on here that we thought was immediate go-to-radio, so let’s put it online and see what’s out there.’ And it was like bang, a No. 1 Country album. It just shows when there is great music and great artistry, people will find it.”
Overton noted The Pistol Annies album has further enhanced Lambert’s profile in the industry. “I think a lot of the industry has really gained a huge appreciation for Miranda,” he said. “At a very tough time in our business, she scanned 1.4 million on the Revolution album, which is very difficult to do right now. But in the meantime, she wrote a new record and did this side project, which is a No.1 Country record. I think a lot of people gained even more respect for her artistry.”
Working on the project was an enjoyable process, and in that spirit the trio adopted pet names, dubbing themselves Lone Star Annie (Lambert), Hippie Annie (Monroe) and Holler Annie (Presley). The only outside writer who contributed to the album was Lambert’s husband, Blake Shelton, who co-wrote on “Family Feud” and earned the nickname Pistol Andy.
“The girls had come to our house because we wanted to spend some time together, pick out the songs and to maybe write some more,” Lambert recalled. “We were sitting at the house and Blake had cooked us dinner. None of us are great guitar players. We have different styles, but Blake was there and he’s such a great guitar player, so we handed him a guitar and said, ‘Play something. We want to write a song.’ He ended up working up this really cool melody. We just wrote it together, all four of us, so he snuck one in on it.”
The album boasts a diverse cache of songs from the sassy “Bad Example” (Lambert and Monroe) and humorous “The Hunter’s Wife” (Presley) to “Beige” (Lambert and Monroe), a poignant tale of unplanned pregnancy. “You’re gonna laugh. You’re gonna cry and you’re probably gonna give your husband a good talking to,” Presley said, describing the contents of the album.
The title track, “Hell on Heels,” written by the trio, captures their feisty spirit. “It just felt like that was, in a nutshell, what we’re about. It’s a catchy title and catchy phrase,” said Lambert. “It makes people go, ‘Why didn’t I think of that?’ I just feel like it encompasses everything that The Pistol Annies are.”
The album also includes more somber fare such as “Housewife’s Prayer,” which Presley began writing when she was going through a divorce. “I was real broke, real depressed, desperate and didn’t know what I was going to do,” she said. “I thought about burning my house down, taking the money, getting me and my little boy an apartment and having a new start. But instead of doing that, I picked up my guitar and started writing a song about it. I played it for the girls and they helped me finish it.
“I like ‘Housewife’s Prayer,’” Presley continued, “because it represents a time in my life that was one of the hardest times I ever had and it reminds me that I had the strength to get through it. It reminds me to make better choices and not go back.”
“Lemon Drop” is also a slice of Presley’s life. “That’s a true story,” said Presley. “I was going home to Kentucky and my car broke down. I pulled over and saw my muffler had come halfway off. So I opened the trunk of my car, clipped a guitar string off, tied it on, drove on home and then drove back to Nashville. I drove around a while with my muffler tied up with a guitar string, so that’s where that idea came from. That whole song is what my life was then, trying to make it, struggling and keeping the faith.”
“Boys from the South” originated with Lambert. “I was driving home from the airport real late one night, trying to keep myself awake,” Lambert recalls. “I was going from Texas to Oklahoma and I was thinking, ‘Man, I love where I live, going home to Blake, my cute Southern boy waiting at home on me.’ I just thought it would be a cute song.”
Fans got a chance to see The Pistol Annies live when they opened dates on Lambert’s 2011 tour, and there are plans for more shows. Lambert is hoping that exposure in Pistol Annies will fuel the solo careers of her two pals. “I just want the world to hear these people,” she said of Presley and Monroe. “They need to be out there because they are great. I hope that this helps to build their individual careers as artists and they can go and do their own things, release their own albums and will always still come back and do Pistol Annies stuff. I just hope that the world hears us together and hears us individually.”
At press time, Monroe was working on her Warner Bros. debut and Presley was looking for a deal. “I’ve been in Nashville eight years and I don’t know how many times I’ve been told I’m too country for Country,” she said. “I did one record with (producers) Frank Liddell and Mike Wrucke. People loved it, but people were scared of it. We’re still shopping it, but I have complete faith that we’ll get it out there. If you liked The Pistol Annies, you’re gonna like Angaleena Presley. I hope that The Pistol Annies sets a precedent for me and Ashley and every other artist who is writing songs from their heart and can’t find a place for them.”
All three women agree that they plan to make music as The Pistol Annies for a long time. “One of our goals is for each of us to have our own tours and to stop every month and do a Pistol Annies reunion,” said Lambert. “We’re hoping to be making music together until we can’t sing no more.”
On the Web: www.PistolAnnies.com
© 2011 CMA Close Up® News Service / Country Music Association®, Inc.