Two of Angaleena Presley's most beloved items sit in her bedside drawer: a card from her hero Loretta Lynn, and a joint, whose twin was cremated in the pocket of mentor and songwriting partner Guy Clark.
"When he passed away, I took [Clark's caretaker and companion] Joy some cornbread," Presley tells Rolling Stone Country, sipping on tea at an East Nashville coffee shop in a black baseball hat and T-shirt with the word "squirrels " written across the front three times in neon, like a sign for a rodent nudie bar. "She was like, 'I need you to do me a favor. I need you to roll me a joint.' So I rolled it, and then she asked me to roll another. She put one in Guy's pocket, and I have the other. I don't know what to do with it. If I were Guy, I would have gotten in the car and blazed it then and there. But I'm not Guy."
Clark, toking from the great beyond, might beg to differ. Wrangled, Presley's second LP, is a shot fired back at the Music Row machine that has made it impossible for voices like hers – honest, direct and, yes, female – to succeed on radio. Six years after the debut of the Pistol Annies, her trio with Miranda Lambert and Ashley Monroe, she's yet to sign a major label deal, even after the critical success of her first solo offering, American Middle Class. And it's not for lack of trying, either: the Kentucky native and actual coal miner's daughter never set out to be a Nashville rebel. In fact, she wanted in. As she sings on "Outlaw," "I don't want to be an outlaw, I don't want to be a renegade / I wanna be a straight-shootin', high fallutin' rider on the hit parade."
"I don't know that anyone wakes up and sets out to be an underdog – you just kind of are," she says, speaking softly, like someone who knows the coffee shop etiquette well. In fact, if you came to this café on any normal day that Presley is in town, you might be able to spot her chugging away on her laptop after dropping her son off at school, drinking something hot and maybe wearing a Minecraft T-shirt. She likes video games: it feels good to win.
These days, what makes Presley an outlaw is how unwilling she is to conform to what works on country radio – and her particular penchant for telling the truth, even if that truth isn’t quite so pretty. Her characters get pregnant and pop pills: like Brandy Clark, she talks about what happens after those romantic small-town nights on the dock with the crickets a-chirpin' and condoms a-breakin'. She sees the secrets and the slime beneath the surface, and the reality that trounces carelessly away at dreams, like a toddler stomping on some bubble wrap. But there was a point, when she was promoting American Middle Class, when she realized she wasn't always being as honest as she could be.
"When I put out my last record, the first question I kept getting asked was, 'What do you think about the fact that women aren't on the country charts?'" she says. "And in my head I wanted to say, 'I don't know, and it's pissing me off!' But I would give these generic answers: 'It's cyclical, it's all going to come back around.' It made me mad because I lied to people. I wasn't honest about how I was feeling. I was a minion, and what I realized over time was that I was perpetuating this problem by not talking about it."
On Wrangled, she doesn't just talk about it: she deconstructs it to the very bits and bones, taking a skewer to it as well. "Country," the song that inspired the trajectory of the album, is a blast at the genre's worst clichés and tropes. Written after her then-publisher rejected a batch of tracks that didn't jive with the bro-friendly climate, it's a spitfire satire of just how far country radio has jumped the shark. Yet, somehow, she's the one still swimming in infested waters.
"I went home and was real sad. So I listened to country radio," she says, then adding, deadpan, "well, for five minutes. I just took all of those trends that were happening – the arena roar and, 'Let's make a list of things that country people are supposed to do in life!' and say the word 'country' 75 times, and I wrote this song and was like, 'Well here, will you pitch this? Will you give this a shot?' He didn't think it was very funny."
Though "Country" doesn't set the sonic tone for the record – it's spat out rapid fire to a Dick Dale-goes-Ramones beat with a verse from rapper and Alabama native Yelawolf that calls out Sturgill Simpson and bemoans the absence of Dwight Yoakam on the radio – it's the most direct thematic clue to what's to come. "She's a stand-up artist," Yelawolf says. "She had a kick-ass attitude in the studio. It was before noon when the whiskey bottle got cracked. Luckily, I had already laid my verse. I was useless by 1."
Tracks like "High School," "Wrangled" and the Wanda Jackson co-write "Good Girl Down" do double duty: the pettiness of the teenage years act as a parable for the pettiness of Music Row, and the pressures of Music Row as a parable of the crushing defeat so many witness every day, when their fantasies don't match their realities. Presley's felt it all, as a female artist fighting to move the charts or score a record deal, and as a mother who's had to sacrifice PTA meetings for riding in the back of a dirty van to a show where she may or may not break even.
Still, for as much rejection as she'd already faced, she still agreed to shop some of Wrangled's songs around to labels and various industry folk, finding herself in a familiar position – i.e., once again coming up empty. "They were like, 'I don't know, I hear something bigger here! But let's wait, slow down,'" she says. "I had to, again, go through the process of 'pick me! pick me!' and then, you know what? I got, 'We love it so much, but we don't know what to do with it.' Or, 'We've already got two girls on the label.' Which, ok? Your quota is met? Is that a general rule? Because guess what guys? That's against the law. I don't understand why that doesn't apply."
Presley took the record to Thirty Tigers instead ("I'm not throwing myself to the wolves anymore," she recalls deciding), and put together a collection that tries to make sense of an unfair and broken system, where talent gets you nowhere near as far as testosterone. "Mama I Tried," inspired by Merle Haggard's classic "Mama Tried," charts her battle to play the game and pretty up, but is less a sigh of defeat and more of a permanent battle cry, with some of the sharpest country-rock guitar never heard on radio. Her manager, Charlie, now has "Mama I Tried" tattooed on her arm. "She's 35 and doesn't have kids," Presley says. "She's career-minded, and perfectly fine with that."
"Making the decision to be the whistleblower for country radio lunacy is either going to sink me or allow me to fly. But at least I'll know I've been honest"
Songs like "Dreams Don't Come True," the mournful and wickedly smart album opener co-written with Monroe and Lambert, charts a Nashville fall from grace even more directly – and manages to parody pop success as much as it fetishizes it. "I'd make hit records, and get hooked on drugs," she sings, "but I wound up pregnant, and strung out on love." Presley was hanging out with her two Annies when the track was created ("We never really make an appointment to write songs, we make an appointment to drink beer and somehow along the way songs get written," she says), and it was Monroe who pushed her to be even more frank.
"What I had was, 'when dreams don't come true,''" she recalls. "And Ashley was like, 'You don't need that when in there.' It's just, dreams don't come true.'" A few minutes later, Presley gets a group text in the coffeeshop: it's Monroe and Lambert, and it cracks the seriousness in her face into a smile. "Their ears musta been burning," she says.
But there are layers of redemption, too. The gorgeous "Groundswell," written with Ian Fitchuk, is on ode to making things work organically. For her, it's a fan base, but it could be for anyone who builds things from the bottom up. "Angaleena writes what she knows and from as real a place as anyone," says Fitchuk. "'Groundswell' is somewhat of a love song to the people who come out to shows and support her cause. Angaleena is fearless when it comes to speaking her mind and opening up her heart."
Presley crafted the cheeky murder ballad "Only Blood" with fellow Kentucky renegade Chris Stapleton ("Even he doesn't get played on the radio, and he sells more records than Beyoncé"), whose wife Morgane appears on the track, but the album's most poignant collaboration is "Cheer Up Little Darling," which was Clark's last co-write before his passing last year. Featuring Shawn Camp on Clark's guitar and mandola, it begins with the Texas legend speaking some of the lyrics. "Seems like a tight spot, but it's just a loose end," he says. Presley was there in Clark's final days, singing the song to her mentor once he'd moved to hospice, arranging his shaving kit or fetching his hat. Among many things, she credits him with giving her permission to admit her talents. "He knew he was the best songwriter in town, and he owned it with such grace," she says. "And I'm a good writer. I can admit that now."
Clark had Number One songs in his day, but not when he sang them himself – for as much as he was admired and revered, he wasn't exactly a household name. It's a direction that Presley is more comfortable with these days, and is fast becoming the only feasible option for many women like her who are refusing to pander to country radio, when they know that, even if they did, it probably wouldn't work anyway. Even at her superstar level, her Pistol Annies mate Lambert hasn't had a hit from her most recent release, The Weight of These Wings, and, as a double album full of introspection, it doesn't seem like that was even the goal to begin with.
"You can't fix things until you admit they are broken," Presley says, "and on this record I am admitting I am broken. The system is broken. Brandy Clark: same story. Kacey Musgraves: same story. Sunny Sweeny: same story. Ashley Monroe. The list goes on and on. It's doesn't make sense. Making the decision to be the whistleblower for country radio lunacy is either going to sink me or allow me to fly. But at least I'll know I've been honest. Which is what I'm good at."
However that whistleblowing pans out, it will most certainly make Presley an outlaw. Wrangled is a conversation starter, and a lesson, too – if you stop worrying about pleasing country radio, you may not make millions, but you'll make art. An un-smoked joint, like a little rolled baton, sits by her bedside as a reminder.
"I am really nice and passive, and I don't have the courage to be an outlaw," she says. "But I have the courage to tell the truth. If that lands me in the outlaw pile, then hell, I'll party with them all night long."