For devout fans who have been following the Pistol Annies’ feisty, honky-tonk creed since the 2011 debut Hell On Heels, the preachings of Interstate Gospel are familiar: face sadness with sass. Take the man for all he’s got. Pick your favorite vice and tune out. And have the backs of your fellow hell-raising women.
But for all that sounds familiar about this latest LP, there is a sense of revived ingenuity on Interstate Gospel, stemming from the songwriting. The Pistol Annies (comprising Ashley Monroe, Angaleena Presley, and Miranda Lambert) collaborated to write every one of the fourteen tracks. In the five years since their previous release, life has revealed its full spectrum of emotion to the Annies through marriage, divorce, and giving birth. While the tracks on Interstate Gospel may not embrace the autobiographical label, an undeniable feeling of maturity and tenderness steers the album in a new direction for the trio. The narratives and characters are stitched together with a complexity and depth that would make old-time country storytellers proud.
Their expertise shines through the most on standout tracks “Cheyenne” and “Milkman.” Lyrically, both songs explore the complexities of womanhood but approach the matter through starkly different lenses. “Cheyenne” is an ode to a woman who “lives for the nightlife and trashy tattoos,” yet the Annies refuse to reduce her to simple honky-tonk stereotypes, reminding listers that everyone has a backstory that’s shaped them: “Her daddy says she was destined for sadness / And her Grandmama Lily’s to blame for the madness.”
This is far from the only time on the record that a person’s roots are the subject of empathetic musings. Over the pluckings of an acoustic guitar, the women trade verses as they try to bridge the gap between a traditional mother and a rebel daughter on “Milkman.” They indulge in imagination, picturing the freedom that could have been possible for their mother had she only had an affair rather than devoting herself to domestic duties. The most stirring moment comes when they pause to consider the underlying emotions behind the mother’s judgments: “If I could be more like Mama / Maybe she wouldn’t judge me / Sometimes I think Mama / Wants to be more like me / But it’s too late ’cause her hair’s gray.”
A testament to Interstate Gospel’s versatility, the women explore heartache from both sides of the coin on “Masterpiece,” and “Leaver’s Lullaby.” The first is a sobering portrait of a woman who has fought for her love yet knows it’s time to pull the plug on a relationship that’s already dead. With a tinge of heartache in her Texas twang, Lambert poses the ultimate question: “Who’s brave enough to take us down?” Those familiar with country music’s canon of love songs will recognize lyrical nods to George Jones, Tammy Wynette, and Lambert’s solo catalog in the final verse: “Baby, we were just a country song / I’m still doin’ time, the King is gone / I tried to stand by my man / We were makin’ plans.” It is not presumptuous to argue that the Pistol Annies belong in the company of such country music legends.
Monroe takes the lead on “Leaver’s Lullaby,” where she is the one walking out to the sounds of mariachi horns, telling her lover to “run along, little daddy, take the dog and the house and dang me.” While “Leaver’s Lullaby” adopts the Annies’ usual standard of impenetrable emotions and tongue-in-cheek goodbyes, there is a crack in the ice large enough for the heartbreaking line, “There’d be no such thing as leaving / If just loving somebody was enough,” to slip through.
Despite the album’s notable reflective turn inward, the signature rambunctious attitude that has come to define the trio is, thankfully, not missing from the record. “Got My Name Changed Back,” is an up-tempo victory song for the newly-divorced, lead by Lambert. Yet, when all three women join together for signature lines like, “I broke his heart and I took his money,” the song explodes in a burst of about-damn-time to-hell-with-him energy. Their proclivity for dark humor makes an appearance on “Stop Drop and Roll One,” where the Annies lyrically echo their hit, “Taking Pills,” by alternating testaments to their substances of choice, singing, “One’s got the Tylenol, one’s got the Adderall / One’s got the drink in her hand.” (But one thing they all agree on is that when life goes up in flames, it’s time to “stop, drop, and roll one.”)
The tracks on Interstate Gospel reflect the very thing that makes the Pistol Annies so successful: distinctly different voices, characters, and perspectives coming together to create one narrative on the dramas of everyday womanhood. Just as the Annies shed their individual egos and solo-catalog expectations to make this record, listeners are able to immerse themselves into the stories of these songs until the line between the individual and the universal is drowned out by a bluegrass jam.