NASHVILLE — As an acclaimed songwriter whose songs don’t fit the mold of what’s popular on radio, Angaleena Presley is considered an “outlaw” in country music. That was never her intention.
“I didn’t set out to be an outlaw,” Presley said wryly in an interview. “I set out to be a rich songwriter who has all these gold records on the wall. And maybe a Grammy someday.”
Presley — best known as one-third of the Pistol Annies, alongside Miranda Lambert and Ashley Monroe — has embraced her outsider status with a new album. “Wrangled,” released in late April, chronicles Presley’s journey and frustrations in the country music world through an absorbing collection of a dozen songs.
Country music is known, as the popular saying goes, as “three chords and the truth.” But it’s such a tight-knit community that outspokenness can still be risky, particularly about challenges within the business. Some artists are candid about the struggles in interviews, or on social media, or through songs; recent examples include Charles Kelley’s “Leaving Nashville,” Caitlyn’s Smith’s “This Town is Killing Me” and Lauren Alaina’s “Three,” all painfully honest ballads about the difficulty of launching a music career.
Now Presley and several other contemporary artists are going even further, embarking on unique, creative ways to shed light on a very tough industry. For Presley, it’s the concept of her whole album, a bold move. “The themes in the record — they’re metaphors that go along with my experience in the music business as a woman and as an artist who tried to be forward thinking. And I just don’t really fit into any mold,” she said recently at an event in Nashville.
The most jarring track is called “Country,” written after Presley’s publisher told her that he had given up pitching her songs to other artists. “He said, ‘We love what you do … but it’s just the climate right now,’ ” Presley said. “It was at the height of bro-country — every single melody was just guy, guy, guy, guy, talking about girls in Daisy Dukes and all that stuff.”
So Presley fired back with a fast-paced rock song (with a rap interlude by Yelawolf) that cheekily calls out every bro-country cliche, from truck tailgates to cutoff jeans. “Rather than shoot my mouth off, I went home and wrote this song and turned it in the next day, and said, ‘Here, how about this?’ ” Presley recalls. Her publisher was not amused.
In the title track, “Wrangled,” Presley tackles the feeling of being held back, written through the perspective of a rancher’s wife (“If you didn’t know that it was about the music business, you would just think it’s about this woman who needs to get out of the house and have a little fun,” Presley said.) “Groundswell” is about when she realized she needed her own fan base as a solo artist. “Dreams Don’t Come True” is, well, self-explanatory. Same with “Outlaw.”
“Only Blood,” a Southern gothic murder ballad written with Chris Stapleton, also has a deeper meaning. “It’s letting go of that dream-slash-nightmare of the commercial country world and knowing that there’s going to be backlash, and knowing that a lot of people aren’t going to like it, that I’m talking about this stuff,” Presley said in an interview. “And you know what? I’m okay with that.”
Presley is bolstered by the fact that she’s on an independent label, Thirty Tigers, which relieves the pressure of trying to write mainstream hits. Still, the album “took a lot of soul searching. ’Cause it’s really scary to break a taboo. But who else is going to do it?” she said. “I have nothing to lose at this point.”
Meanwhile, other artists are also speaking up outside of music. Last week, Maren Morris — one of Nashville’s breakout stars and a recent Grammy winner — penned an essay in Lena Dunham’s Lenny Letter newsletter called “Moving My Beloved Country Music Forward,” a frank discussion about the double standards of lyrical content expected from female singers.
“The frustration I’ve had with the perspective of women in country music … is that you either have to sing about being scorned by a lover or sing about thinking a boy is cute and wanting him to notice you,” she wrote. “On top of having to make songs that are down the middle and noncontroversial, there are the aesthetic pressures for a woman to be pretty and sexy but not sexual or have desires beyond winning a guy’s affections.”
Morris struggles with this idea because it’s so far from her natural inclination as a songwriter. “I write about sex and the self-inflicting pain of being the a—— at the end of a long relationship, being young and drunk with your girlfriends, or just having a meaningless but fun (and sometimes necessary) fling,” she wrote. “Things that don’t always make me look like a puritan saint, but they’re unflinchingly honest.”
Challenges for women in country music — from less radio play to sexism in a male-dominated industry — is a much-dissected subject, but it’s rare to see an influential artist so elaborately call out the genre. Morris, who is starting to work on her sophomore album, ended the essay with a plea to country music: “As long as there’s respect and we allow each other to continue growing, we can move into the future in a really inspiring way.”
And with the new surge of podcasts, singer-songwriter Kelleigh Bannen recognized it as an opportunity to connect with fans and educate people about country music. After launching as an independent artist after she parted ways with her label last year, Bannen started her “This Nashville Life” series. Each podcast episode explores a different segment of the industry — radio, songwriting, marketing, image management, etc. — in which Bannen interviews an expert and offers anecdotes about her own experience.
“We say the podcast is part love letter, part hate mail, part how-to guide,” Bannen said in an interview. “I love this business … but I talk about frustrations I’ve had or obstacles I’ve bumped into. I want to try to demystify some of it.”
This means discussing everything from the thrill of writing a killer song to how demoralizing it feels to play that song for a room of uninterested music executives. While the conversations offer fascinating glimpses behind the scenes, Bannen said she’s still figuring out the amount of information to share.
“I don’t want to sound like I’m complaining or whining. I think that happens a lot when women voice their opinion or maybe give negative feedback about something,” she said. “So that’s kind of been a fear: How truthful do we get?”
Coincidentally, that’s the theme of Bannen’s new single, “Church Clothes” (written by Liz Rose and Nicolle Galyon), about a couple who looks quite happy to the outside world despite the fact that their relationship is crumbling. To Bannen, it’s the perfect parallel to her project.
“I’m learning through the podcast and other things that being transparent — and showing up in the less-than-perfect version — is maybe more compelling than the really glossy version of yourself,” Bannen said, calling “Church Clothes” the type of song that Nashville does best. “Country music and Nashville songwriting does tell the truth really well. And when we do it really well, it’s really impactful.”