Miranda Lambert, standing right next to her, immediately speaks up.
“She’s full of s---,” Lambert says, and roars of approval rise from the pews in the storied Ryman Auditorium.
“Name Changed Back” is what the Annies are all about. When the song went online last week, the tabloid media reduced it to a blast at Lambert’s famous ex-husband, country star Blake Shelton. And that may have been true, in part. Which gets to one of the trio’s gifts, the ability to deliver songs that can be both soul-baringly specific and universal. The audience at the Ryman responds to “Name” and the set’s other tales of domestic dysfunction (“Unhappily Married”) as if cheering on Lambert while also acknowledging their own struggles with this complicated thing called human relationships.
“It’s girl power, it’s real life, it’s heartache, it’s victories, it’s all that wrapped up in one,” says Tammy Winn, 50, a fan who came to the Ryman show from Cincinnati and is spending most of the time on her feet mouthing lyrics. “These girls have brought back what real, true feelings are to country music.”
In an industry saddled with bro-country cliches, the Pistol Annies are an escape and a throwback. They are a reminder of a time when Kitty Wells didn’t wanna play house and Loretta Lynn’s love for you was as deep as your pocket. The group can go big, busting out a kind of bravado that borders on camp, or deliver perfect harmonies over simple ballads plucked on acoustic guitars.
There have been other all-woman supergroups, such as the 1980s trio formed by Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris and the Honky Tonk Angels (Lynn, Parton and Tammy Wynette), assembled a few years later. But the Annies — Lambert, Presley and Ashley Monroe — probably have more in common with the Dixie Chicks. They’re a group instead of a celebrity one-off, and they’ve packed their three albums — 2011’s “Hell on Heels,” 2013’s “Annie Up” and the new “Interstate Gospel,” out Friday — with originals that are unflinchingly honest.
The morning after the Ryman show, Presley, 42, Lambert, 34, and Monroe, 32, meet at a restaurant in Nashville to discuss their new album and the band in general. Over coffee, they talk about some of the personal battles — Lambert and Presley have been through divorce, Monroe struggled with pain pills — that have sometimes inspired their songs. But they don’t dwell on the darkness. Like old friends, they take delight in recounting the good times, whether secretly helping Monroe’s then-boyfriend and now-husband surprise her with an engagement ring or the incident on the tour bus when Presley, admittedly super-drunk, leaned over to give Monroe a wedgie and ended up ripping her thong right off. “These panties cost 30 dollars!” Presley laughs as she recounts Monroe’s reaction.
They also explain why they believe the Pistol Annies work. All three have solo careers. And despite the fact that the band is a huge critical and commercial success — their first two records were Top 10 on the Billboard 200 — their main formula is to have no formula.
“We don’t ever talk about the technical stuff,” Presley says. “Like, maybe we should do up-tempo or maybe it should have this fade. We just write songs.”
“We don’t even know when our next record will be, or if it will be or how it’s going to sound or what it’s going to sound like,” says Lambert.
“We try not to think of any of the business stuff, nothing of that. We just let the songs come. And then, once we have a big pile of songs, then we say, ‘Okay, this is what we have here,’ ” says Monroe.
Three writers, one group
The Annies formed in 2011 when Lambert and Monroe, both prodigies signed to record deals as teenagers, went on a camping trip. By now, Lambert was four albums into a booming solo career, Monroe was struggling to find her way — Columbia had held up her debut, “Satisfied”; it would eventually come out — and Presley was a writer with a young boy who had been signed to a publishing deal not long after leaving her native Kentucky for Nashville.
Hanging in Lambert’s Airstream, she and Monroe were inspired to punch out a series of songs without any idea what they’d do with them. Then Monroe played Lambert a bunch of Presley’s songs on Myspace. Lambert insisted they call Presley and recruit her to form a band.
“She was, like, at home putting her baby down,” says Lambert. “And she was like, ‘Are you all high and drunk?’ ‘Well, maybe, but we still want to be in a band with you.’ ”
“Hell on Heels” came out in 2011, a huge hit that included Presley’s perfectly constructed ballad “Lemon Drop,” the Andrews Sistersish-swing of “Bad Example,” and the swaggering, quasi-theme song “Takin’ Pills.” The 2013 follow-up, “Annie Up,” was just as successful.
This time around, their longtime producer, Frank Liddell, admits he had doubts when he got the call to start work on another album.
“What’s the point of making another one of these?” he says. “Are you going to cover new ground? That’s in my brain. And then, when I went back and listened to the songs, the songs were good. With this record, it wasn’t as tongue-in-cheek. It’s funny. It’s got the humor of the Pistol Annies. But they’re all older. Miranda’s been married and divorced. Angaleena’s fixing to have another kid. So they’re whatever, five years down the road, and I feel like there’s a little bit less of their alter egos in this and a little bit more of themselves.”
Liddell points to two songs in particular, “Commissary” and “Masterpiece,” which form a kind of moody, mini-suite near the end of “Interstate Gospel.” Presley says “Commissary” is deeply influenced by the opioid crisis soaking the part of Eastern Kentucky where she’s from.
“I don’t know anybody from where I’m from who hasn’t been personally touched by it, whether it’s family, friend or a co-worker,” says Presley. “I have a song called ‘Pain Pills’ on my [first solo] record, and that was from 11 different funerals that I went to.”
“Masterpiece” is a torchy ballad that details the breakup of a relationship that is, as Lambert sings, “up there on the wall for all to see.”
They all contributed to the song, as is standard, even if one of them is the primary writer.
“It’s about any great love story, whether it’s friendship or relationship that had to come to an end,” Lambert says. “And one person is going to have to be the one to say it.”
“I think it could be about her Blake,” says Presley. “I’ll just say it. But I think it could be about us, too.”
It was the first song they had written together in two or three years.
“We really dug in, too,” says Monroe. “We’re proud of the words in that song. We took our time. We made sure that every line mattered.”
“All I had was the melody and just humming it,” says Presley. “So I just started humming that melody, and I think Randa’s the one who sang, ‘Baby, we were just a masterpiece.’ ”
Onstage, when one Annie is taking a lead — they often trade verses, just as they share the writing — it’s common for the other two to hang back, hold hands or lock arms and slip into a do-si-do. This time around, they can’t do much touring. Presley found out a week before they were going to start recording that she was pregnant. (She’s remarried.) With the baby due early next year, a Pistol Annies tour will have to wait. Instead, along with the Ryman show, they’re doing a Nov. 2 gig in New York and a third in Los Angeles on Nov. 7.
Their performance at the Ryman, for decades the home of the Grand Ole Opry, feels like more than a concert. Many women in the crowd stand for the entire set, waving a fist at the chorus of “Unhappily Married” or tearing up during Monroe’s performance of “I Hope You’re the End of My Story.” She wrote that love song for her now-husband, John Danks, a former Major League pitcher. (He has the lyric inscribed on the inside of his wedding ring.)
There’s also a moment when a woman, clearly drunk, decides to rise out of her pew, grip the stage and take a position directly under the trio. That’s not cool. A bouncer tries to move her. He gets bit. Lambert isn’t afraid. She takes off her guitar and hands it to Presley, kneels and reaches out to the woman, gripping her arm as if to comfort her. But as soon as she has led her to the side, Lambert lets security take over and she’s back, high-fiving Monroe as she retakes her spot behind a microphone.
“We don’t get to play shows much,” says Lambert. “We’re best friends. And we work really hard on this music. And we only have three shows before she pops, and I want them to count. I realized during the second verse that everybody in the room was looking at her and not us, and I don’t like that.”