Women in country have often sung about the terrible positions men have put them in. Pistol Annies sing about the terrible positions women have put themselves in.
Why do we become suckers for these fool men? What will our kids think? The trio of Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe, and Angaleena Presley ask those questions. Their third album as a trio, Interstate Gospel, foregrounds their intelligence and vivacity, and it’s the best 45 minutes listeners will spend on a record in 2018.
The album also boasts their best song to date in “Milkman,” a backwoods Madame Bovary. A callback to Trio’s Dolly Parton-written 1987 country hit “ Wildflowers” and Reba McEntire’s 1986 “ Whoever’s in New England,” “Milkman” is the grim next-generation reckoning. A mother resents her daughter for the cigarettes Mama never smoked and the whiskey Mama never poured. If only she’d loved the milkman, Lambert and Presley sing. “If I could be more like Mama, maybe she wouldn’t judge me/Sometimes I think Mama wants to be more like me.” This simplicity, coupled to an arrangement—a Chuck Leavell piano fill here, some acoustic Fats Kaplan picking there—as prettily arranged as a dinner table, requires years of discipline. It hollows out Lambert’s rollicking 2011 comedy hit “Mama’s Broken Heart.”
Coming off triumphs like Lambert’s 2016 double album The Weight of These Wings, Presley’s second album Wrangled (2017), and Monroe’s marvelous Sparrow (released last April), Interstate Gospel is a showcase for scrupulous record makers. These women love singing for its own sake, and they’re at their most powerful when they exchange verses or harmonize—a formal embrace of feminine solidarity, a shawl to wrap around themselves when it gets cold at night.
And the album burbles with crosstalk. The mom in “When I Was His Wife” could’ve been the mama in “Milkman”; Monroe’s honey-sweet verses embody what could’ve been, Presley’s conversational timbre what is, and Lambert’s vowel-snappin’ twang suggests good times forever. (Presley’s enunciation of “I’ve got the hankering for intellectual emptiness” in “Best Years of My Life” would convert Sinatra to Tennessee bourbon.)
If Pistol Annies’ tales of women popping pills after the kids leave for school have never faded like gingham dresses, credit the cultural moment. Thanks to #MeToo, Interstate Gospel unfolds like journalism refracted through art. A rolling and tumbling number like “Got My Name Changed Back,” the closest thing to a rote gesture, gains poignancy a couple songs away from “5 Acres of Turnips,” an account and an accounting of several generations of toil: “We all gather ‘round/Another hole in the ground.” An unexpected chord change in the last 40 seconds points, formally, to a way out for the women.
This shit-kicking instrumental finesse distinguishes Interstate Gospel from its predecessors. Frank Rische and Dan Dugmore kick up a thick guitar cloud on “Sugar Daddy” for almost 40 seconds before Lambert’s entrance. Glenn Worf plucks his bass to striking effect on “Stop Drop and Roll One.” A mariachi arrangement universalizes the dilemma in “Leavers Lullaby,” i.e. “what it costs to feel free”; it also, crucially, lets a little of the air out of it. Constitutionally incapable of staying serious for more than two minutes, the Annies understand levity as device and mode of living. The way they see it, life is so shitty you gotta laugh.
Know what’s shitty too? Country radio, playing fewer songs by women than ever, despite the best efforts of Maren Morris (whose “Rich,” a single from a summer 2016 album, finally entered the Country Airplay top five last week) and Kelsea Ballerini. Whether Interstate Gospel finds a safe chart home we’ll soon know. If not, well, Lambert, Monroe, and Presley understand what it costs to feel free.