I don’t believe Ms. Presley will care what I think of her new album. But I’ll write up a review anyhow, just in case…
If you have read her interview, one of the year’s best, with Rolling Stone Country, you will know the background to this album, one of the year’s best. As I too have found in my twenties, the best way to exist in the world – a world where there are only about five women on country radio (and I’m counting Karen and Kimberly from Little Big Town as one woman) – is to live it your way.
Wrangled is a political album – one with an astonishingly good title – that hopes to change the status quo. It is no coincidence that Presley keeps a note from Loretta Lynn by her bed; Lynn dared to speak about morning-after pills in her music back when women were still referred to as “girl singers.” The Rolling Stone article describes Wrangled as seeing “the secrets and the slime” under the surface, which is very fitting for Lynn as well. Presley shares fellow Kentuckian Muhammed Ali’s desire to deliver opponents a knockout blow while the music floats like a butterfly.
A working mother, Presley remains a relatively independent artist; she released Wrangled on Thirty Tigers, which also puts out records by Lucinda Williams and Sam Outlaw. Who needs the majors when the songs are this good? How can Presley send her kid to college, though, when she isn’t earning what she deserves to earn? The new movie The Last Songwriter, with some elder songwriting statesmen warning that writers are not being fairly compensated for their commercially-driven art, should change the game.
In the meantime, here are twelve songs that kick against the pricks of commercial country radio. In the UK we have our own country station, “Chris Country,” as well as broadcasters like Bob Harris, Ricky Ross and Baylen Leonard. We thus await Presley’s London gig here in July, as she follows Ashley Monroe and Miranda Lambert, who both came to the UK in spring 2016.
The three Pistol Annies wrote the opening track on Wrangled, an ironic ballad called “Dreams Don’t Come True.” Presley is very much the George Harrison of the Annies, and Harrison wrote “All Things Must Pass” and “I Need You,” so there! “Dreams Don’t Come True” sounds like a track Lambert couldn’t dare put on her major-label double album, but which must be sung every day in East Nashville, where all the cool cats live. Let’s hope she or Kacey Musgraves think to cover it and kicks the system from within. “Glass slippers give you blisters” is a heck of a line.
At what point will it be okay for the Kaceys and Angaleenas to sell records to a mainstream audience (I say this even as Musgraves can sell out the four-thousand-seat Royal Albert Hall in London)? Is it coming soon, when the executives of major labels realize the huge market for authenticity and multi-dimensional superstars?
The song “Country” features Alabama native Yelawolf, and a very vocalized chorus with a “yee-haw!” thrown in for good measure. It should be listened to by every radio programmer who pays a mortgage thanks to sticking with safe tracks. But will it? As Presley told Rolling Stone, it was a research project: she listened to country radio, then listed all the clichés in a “Subterranean Homesick Blues”-type song. It’s both bitter and sad – something’s gotta change, but will the majors listen to her?
“Mama I Tried” is proper country-rock, with some magnificent chords in the chorus giving lie to the depressing lyric: “Always the bridesmaid…” Album closer “Motel Bible” is rockabilly for the modern age, with lots of religious references and a fun chorus: “I see heaven all over this place/ And I got holy spirits, motel bibles and amazing grace.” That’s poetry, that is. Then she says “suck on that” at the end of the song, finishing off the album with one more attitude-filled dig.
The title track offers a lyric from the perspective of a cattle rancher’s wife (used as a metaphor for Presley the musician) over a slow, Stapleton-esque groove. It’s stunning. “Outlaw” has her refusing to be “a renegade,” but surely this is tongue-in-cheek. Margo Price, Nikki Lane and even Sheryl Crow are three ladies who will take this song to heart; they don’t need the radio and “the hit parade” but I am sure they’d like a bit more money.
“Bless My Heart” (“If you bless my heart I’ll slap your face!“) shares with “Outlaw” a sumptuous groove that echoes the best of Brandy Clark, another fantastic lady whose sexuality makes her a hot potato in the still-conservative world of country radio.
Presley does have fans in some key country figures who appear on this album. The late Guy Clark, a dear friend of Presley, is the co-writer on the tender lullaby “Cheer Up Little Darling,” while she wrote “Good Girl Down” with Wanda Jackson, the rockabilly queen who is likely mates with Loretta Lynn. “Only Blood,” a fun and superbly-sung little song about murdering people (or is it about Presley the country musician?), was written with up-and-coming songwriter Chris Stapleton (remember that name…).
“Groundswell,” about her fans, is anthemic. “It’s a rainy night in Georgia, and I’m praying that the t-shirts and the records will sell / One more song, one more show / One more penny in the well” is the way of life for independently-minded musicians. I hope to become one of them in 2018. Should I back out now? “It’s hard work but it’s worth it when I see those eyes.” I’m sold.
The second chorus references her cousins from Kentucky, showing local pride in the Mint Julep state. Kentucky should be so proud of Presley, and so should country music. Lambert is making the transition to “outlaw,” so why not let in another woman? Or twelve? Or twelve hundred? There’s something in the air, and the revolution’s here.