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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.

Rick Di­a­mond / Getty Images

An­galeena Pres­ley: on her new al­bum, ‘Wran­gled’, the American coun­try artist takes aim at pa­tri­ar­chal in­sti­tu­tions.

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