If last week’s Artist-in-Residence performance at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum was all about highlighting Miranda Lambert’s considerable skill as a songwriter, last night’s follow-up show made the case that she’s an equally compelling bandleader when joined with her Pistol Annies cohorts Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley.
Lambert, the Hall’s 15th Artist-in-Residence, shared the special occasion with her two friends, playing only Pistol Annies songs — including three from their upcoming new album Interstate Gospel — instead of her acclaimed solo material. It was a tour of the trio’s best-loved songs from 2011’s Hell on Heels and 2013’s Annie Up, showing the breathtaking emotional range between the rowdy “Takin’ Pills” and the devastating “Dear Sobriety.”
“We are reading from our hymnals, if you haven’t noticed,” said Lambert, gesturing to lyric sheets in front of all three members. And indeed, the Annies seemed to be shaking off some of the rust after a lengthy hiatus that dated back to 2013, eschewing technical perfection for stripped-down performances that would resonate. Aside from a couple of one-off appearances in the midst of Lambert’s solo sets, Wednesday night’s show was the first full Pistol Annies performance in five years — a time period during which much has changed in the personal and creative lives of its members.
For starters, Lambert divorced fellow star Blake Shelton (an event to which they cheekily allude in the snarling, rockabilly-tinged new song “Got My Name Changed Back”), while Monroe got married and gave birth to her first child. Presley, meanwhile, will welcome her second child in the coming months. Each of them has put out multiple albums in the break, pushing their individual artistry forward in exciting ways.
In some sense, the Annies’ multi-hued songs are an accompaniment to those changes, fearlessly chronicling the struggles and triumphs of women from different backgrounds and at different stages of their lives. Portrayals of youthful lust in “I Feel a Sin Comin’ On” or chronic recklessness in “Damn Thing” stand on equal footing with the more grown-up, palpable exhaustion Presley sings about in “Housewife’s Prayer” or the salty, withering sadness of “Trailer for Rent.”
Oftentimes, they combine those conflicting feelings into a single song. “Unhappily Married,” from Annie Up, lands some funny lines (“May as well keep going / hell, we made it this far”) even as it depicts a gnawing discontent. The Annies do it again with the new song “Best Years of My Life,” wryly joking about popping a “recreational Percocet” as they watch their youth drifting slowly out of frame.
“We sing a lot about unhappiness and that makes us happy,” said Lambert at one point during Wednesday’s show. That double-edged approach — humane, humorous and profane all at once — is why it’s so thrilling to have the Pistol Annies back in action.