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Pistol Annies - Interstate Gospel (Album Review)

Monday, 26 November 2018 Written by Simon Ramsay

Over the last decade there’s been about as much chance of finding emotional depth and unfiltered honesty in mainstream country music as there has been hearing a succession of female artists emanating from the airwaves of Nashville’s most popular radio stations. Whether they can change the latter is debatable, but what’s certain is that this supergroup (featuring Miranda Lambert, Angaleena Presley and Ashley Monroe) are back with an album that exudes truth from every beautifully bittersweet, traditional country note.

It’s immediately telling from the record’s sleeve notes that ‘Interstate Gospel’, which arrives five years after the trio’s sophomore outing ‘Annie Up’, is a different kind of Pistol Annies album. This band was originally conceived as a fun-filled outlet for hard living and loving alter egos, but there’s no mention of Lonestar Annie (Lambert), Holler Annie (Presley) or Hippie Annie (Monroe) this time around.

What began in 2011 as a rootsy brand of country hijinks, where wry hilarity got drunk and had a meaningless fling with cutting observational accuracy, has developed into something of a soul-baring, deeply personal vehicle that possibly leaves the album’s protagonists less exposed than if the same material had featured on their solo efforts.

“In a nutshell, this record is based around our stats, which are two husbands, two ex-husbands, two kids, one on the way, and 25 animals,” Lambert recently told the Nashville Tennessean.  

It’s easy to take what we know about Lambert’s high-profile divorce and find extra meaning in heartfelt confessionals like Masterpiece and When I Was His Wife, not to mention the spunky, Mrs Robinson-esque grooves of Got My Name Changed Back. Monroe’s writing about marriage, meanwhile, results in the delectable Leaver’s Lullaby and haunting Best Years Of My Life.

Such veracity boasts added resonance because, unlike many modern country acts who regularly collaborate with outside writers, the songwriting here is entirely the work of auteurs who’ve done it all themselves. The result is a collection of sharply drawn, bitingly accurate small-town vignettes where youthful female dreams and aspirations have crashed into an adult brick wall built from complex relationships (This Too Shall Pass), matriarchal disapproval (Milkman), tough love (Commissary) and the weight of one’s lineage (5 Acres of Turnips).

It’s a world populated by well-drawn characters who jump out of each song as they negotiate their hardships using illicit substances, dangerous liaisons and ill-advised wish fulfilment. All of which is delivered via top drawer storytelling, wonderful one liners (“Even old Moses was a basket case”) and a captivating blend of introspective melancholy, enchanting melodies, the odd spitfire bit of honky-tonk and, in contrast to past releases, a tapestry of instrumental textures that add important colour to the emotional universe of each track.

Pistol Annies initially struggled for recognition due to the emergence of Florida Georgia Line and the once dominant, now fading bro-country scene, but in conjunction with Kacey Musgraves winning best album at this year’s CMAs, the tide may well be turning back towards artists of substance and, in particular, strong female musicians with the potential to break down the barriers that still exist on Music Row. At a time when most commercial country sounds like watered down, mass market pop music with a faint dash of twang, ‘Interstate Gospel’ is a fountain of authenticity and hope in a desert of superficial mediocrity and despair.  

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