Nearly 75 years ago, in January 1944, Billboard magazine published its very first country chart, topped by pop crooner Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters trio’s bubbly version of a song called “Pistol Packin’ Mama.” On Thursday night, at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, that song played on the P.A. system to herald the onstage arrival of Pistol Annies, the irresistibly sassy trio comprised of Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley, who packed the sold-out show with traditional honky-tonk edged in swaggering rock & roll and laced with sweet gospel harmony.
The trio’s first full-length show together in nearly seven years delivered 75 fiery minutes of material from all three of their albums, including the forthcoming Interstate Gospel, to the delight of a largely female crowd that was engaged and enthralled from the outset.
Kicking off with the deliciously seductive new tune “Sugar Daddy,” which led into the fizzy, electric “I Feel a Sin Comin’ On” from Annie Up, Lambert then introduced “Bad Example” from the trio’s 2011 debut Hell on Heels by telling the crowd, “We hope to set a very bad example for y’all tonight.” Introducing themselves by their chosen nicknames: “Lone Star Annie” (Lambert), “Hippie Annie” (Monroe) and “Holler Annie” (Presley), the latter rubbed her belly and introduced “Baby Annie,” whose visible presence admittedly forced the singer to wrestle with her microphone stand at times.
Long regarded for their refreshingly fearless and candid approach both on and offstage, during the debut of the tender new tune, “Cheyenne,” Lambert was forced to caution an over-served fan who approached the stage, telling her, “You’re not going to steal our show. This is our night.” That minor issue dealt with, she introduced their next song by listing a few of the other circumstances and distractions the three have encountered since forming the group in 2010. “We’ve had two husbands, two ex-husbands, two babies, one on the way, and 25 animals,” Lambert said. “Needless to say, we’ve lived a lot of life and some of it was happy and some of it was ‘Unhappily Married.'” Domestic discord was also addressed in Presley’s lighthearted “The Hunter’s Wife,” before Monroe took the spotlight for the somber “Dear Sobriety.”
The trio also paid tribute to Elvis Presley, whom Lambert identified as “the one man we all want to marry,” with a chilling version of the King’s 1956 hit, “Love Me,” recorded not long after he made his one and only appearance on the Grand Ole Opry, on the same stage where they were standing. Lambert’s soaring vocals on the tune were particularly strong, washing over the hall and ringing all the way back to its historic stained glass windows.
Other new songs in the set included the heartbreaking “Milkman,” about the often complicated relationship between mothers and daughters and the rollicking “Interstate Gospel,” which Presley noted was wholly appropriate for the Mother Church of Country Music since “it was inspired by none other than Jesus.” It also kicks off with what is surely one of the best opening lines of any country song this year: “Jesus is the bread of life, without Him you’re toast,” yet another testament to the trio’s gift for mixing reverence with unexpurgated cheek. The emotional highpoint of the night, in terms of the trio’s new material, was perhaps “The Best Years of My Life.” With its references to the advantages of “recreational Percocet” and “intellectual emptiness,” the ironically titled tune is tinged with steel-guitar sadness and quiet devastation. To their credit, though, the mood shifted as Presley introduced the next number by saying, “This song is not about anyone in this band; it was very difficult for us to write about this,” after which Lambert sneered, “She’s full of shit.” The song, “Got My Name Changed Back,” not only speaks to every woman who has ever spent their hard-earned money to reclaim their post-divorce identity on paper, but also represents what should – if there is any justice – be a genuine hit single at country radio. It also includes a full-circle moment as far as the live show is concerned, with an irresistible Andrews Sisters-inspired vocal break mid-song.
The trio closed the show with longtime favorites “Taking Pills” and “Hell on Heels” before an entrancing acoustic encore of the romantic ballad, “The End of My Story.” Three truly outstanding solo artists, Lambert, Monroe and Presley, like the Halley’s Comet of Country Music, burn even more brightly as Pistol Annies, appearing just long enough to delight but leaving luminescent memories in their wake.