From songs about economic deprivation to kicking against small-town rules, a new wave of female artists are shaking up the country scene. Alex Macpherson reports
It’s now been six years since country’s first lady Miranda Lambert released what, at the time, seemed to be a curio – but in retrospect was a game-changer for female artists in the genre. Lambert’s Pistol Annies trio was a side project for the platinum-selling US megastar with her friends and fellow songwriters Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley. And their 2011 debut album Hell on Heels was an ostensibly slight collection – a mere halfhour in length – whose light-hearted, sarcastic tone was at odds with the increasingly weighty feel to Lambert’s solo records as she sought to graduate from her career’s early anger to a more serious maturity.
In the six years since, Hell on Heels has sparked acclaimed solo careers for Monroe and Presley that mark them out as two of the most vital voices in modern country. It has revived a sense of purpose in Lambert – now making the most ambitious and wide-ranging work of her career – and created a space for a spectrum of female songwriters to thrive within the genre. Some of them, such as erstwhile Lambert songwriter and childhood friend, Kacey Musgraves, have smoothly crossed over to pop and hipster audiences. Others, like Brandy Clark, whose debut album was a collection of songs she had written for other artists but deemed too risqué, have gained cult fanbases but also critical accolades such as Grammy nominations.
This year, the cast continues to expand. Presley’s second album Wrangled, along with Trophy, the third album from Sunny Sweeney and an impressive debut from Natalie Hemby, Puxico, all showcase the breadth of characters and voices that the new wave of country now holds. What they have in common are sometimes industry links – Hemby has written for both Lambert and Sweeney, while fellow Pistol Annies Lambert and Monroe pop up on Presley’s album - but deeper than that, they’re linked in spirit by their preoccupations.
Certain motifs recur – the rural America depicted here is one strung out on a prescription pill epidemic and stricken by poverty. Pistol Annies sang of a travelling band of musicians’ addictions into a jaunty rollick on Takin’ Pills (2011); Clark explores self-medication blunting human agency on Take a Little Pill (2013); and Presley found the darkest comedy in a town’s tragedy on Pain Pills (2014). From this year’s Trophy, Sweeney narrates the track Pills from the perspective of a woman who’s long quit running into an old party buddy and simultaneously conveys her relief at escaping his path and the thrilling remembrance of her hedonistic years. Meanwhile, economic deprivation is portrayed by turns as shellshocked grief (Pistol Annies’ Housewife’s Prayer); politicised fury (Presley’s American Middle Class) and a defiant front-porch rock-out (Clark’s Broke); and, on album highlight Cairo, IL, Hemby finds an elegiac beauty in a hollowed-out town that “used to be a beauty back in 1891”.
Indeed, nostalgia is a dominant emotion on Hemby’s first album in her own right. The sound, all gently rippling guitars and brushed drums, is sepia-toned and when she sings about time-honoured traditions and the memories held in church pews, it’s heartfelt. Puxico is a thoroughly lovely album – but Hemby’s peers get more mileage by kicking against small-town strictures while exploring the affection that remains.
On Presley’s debut album, American Middle Class, the Kentuckian’s class consciousness was the driver of her anger. On its follow-up, Wrangled, patriarchal institutions get it in the neck as Presley chooses liberation again and again. “The Bible says a woman oughtta know her place,” she reflects on the title track and concludes: “Mine’s out here in the middle of this wide open space.” On the delicately lilting Only Blood, an abused preacher’s wife takes a gun to her husband in the final stanza; and Mama I Tried is a glorious sorry-not-sorry for Presley’s innumerable failures to live up to a feminine ideal. The same Bible she rejects for smothering her reappears on the album’s final track, Motel Bible, in which religious imagery is used, cathartically, as a means to cutting loose.
Rural social mores aren’t the only received wisdom Presley seeks to upend. In an era when exhortations to greatness and self-belief are ubiquitous, Dreams Don’t Come True is a sorely needed anti-inspirational ballad, an anthem to failure that feels like the antidote to every clichéd self-help slogan on Instagram. Those pain pills pop up again – along with a teenage pregnancy for good measure – on High School, but they’re accompanied by an incisive dig about the construction of traditional masculinity when Presley sings of a high school athlete following in his father’s sporting footsteps: “Boys don’t cry, he’s gotta be tough – so he pops a little pill when the pressure’s too much.”
Sunny Sweeney first emerged around the same time as Pistol Annies debuted but the Texan has always been more of an outsider to the country industry. Her third album, Trophy, is her best yet by some distance, Her most show-stopping moment on Trophy is the kind of ballad that devastates like only country can. Bottle By My Bed’s title is a deliberate red herring to evoke alcohol, Sweeney has said. Instead the song rakes over her emptiness at being unable to have a baby and the balance between her public free-spiritedness and her private agony. A while after it was written, Sweeney became pregnant; one-and-a-half weeks before she had to lay down her vocals, she miscarried. The raw emotion stops you in your tracks.
Country songwriting is about concision and precision as well as emotional resonance. Like all folk styles, it turns on repeated tropes – not in the sense of being generic but in the sense that a familiar story told in a new way is as valuable as a less recognisable narrative. Recurring motifs, each given a subtly new spin, add to an individual artist’s dimensions when considered within their discography. But looked at as a whole, they work in conjunction with other artists’ songs in the genre to form a larger tapestry of rural life. In 2017, country music expands in every way at once.
Alex Macpherson is a freelance journalist who also writes for The Guardian and New Statesman.
Angaleena Presley: on her new album, ‘Wrangled’, the American country artist takes aim at patriarchal institutions.