The Pistol Annies have never had a big hit single, but you wouldn’t know it from seeing them in concert. At a recent gig at New York’s Town Hall, some of the rowdier concertgoers in attendance —young women, mostly—sang along with every word of every song. A particularly impressive feat, given that their new album, Interstate Gospel, had only come out that morning, giving concertgoers a matter of hours to memorize its contents by evening. The album’s eager reception is, among other things, a sign of a troubling gender imbalance in the country music industry.
In spite of there being a “whole generation of women before us,” said Miranda Lambert, one of the the Pistol Annies, to Time, “over the past three or four years, it has been very male-driven.” That makes the all-female group, consisting of Lambert, Angaleena Presley, and Ashley Monroe, a rare exception. As Jessica Hopper reported in Elle, trade publication statistics show that female artists got just 10.4 percent of airplay in 2017, down from 13 percent in 2016. The trend seems deliberately cultivated. In 2015, one industry consultant made the artless comparison of country radio to salad: male artists were the foundational lettuce, female artists the occasional tomato. To which Lambert responded:
“We’d like to dedicate this one to our collective boyfriend, Elvis Presley,” Angaleena Presley said, to introduce their one cover at the Town Hall show, of Elvis’s 1956 record “Love Me.” Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, best-known for elevating novelty songs to an art form with the Coasters, had written the song years earlier as a parody of country music. The lyrics are meant to be comically sentimental, an abject distillation of unrequited desire and self-flagellation: “Treat me like a fool / Treat me mean and cruel / But love me.”
In spite of its parodic intent, Elvis delivered the song, on his second album for RCA, with resolute conviction. It became a Number 2 hit. The released version is eclipsed by one taped a decade later for Elvis’s ‘68 Comeback Special, in an informal session with his Sun Studios band, which returns it to the style of the mid-fifties country music it was written to impersonate.
The Pistol Annies picked up where Elvis left off: the original’s loping shuffle became a glacial waltz, the virtuoso lead vocal an ethereal three-part harmony, the already sparse backing arrangement reduced to just an acoustic guitar, lightly strummed by Monroe. It was a simple, beautiful performance of a simple, beautiful song, but it was a complex event: three 21st-century female country singers covering a song made famous by the 20th century’s first male rock star, written by white R&B songwriters as a parody of country music.
It’s nothing new for country music to position itself between parody and sincerity, though veering off-balance in either direction can be a fatal mistake. The Pistol Annies walk the line like a tightrope. Their songs frequently center on a truism or cliché thrown off balance: “Bad Example” or “Unhappily Married.” It’s a classic country music device, belying the music’s reputation as traditionalist and conservative. These songs aren’t expressions of cliché, they’re about cliché, about the ways received wisdom fails to describe lived experience.
It’s a well-worn truth that American music is born in the twilight hours between Saturday night and Sunday morning, on a walk between the bar and the church. This marriage of heaven and hell is manifest in both words and music, sometimes in the relationship of one to the other—as in Ray Charles’s 1954 R&B hit “I Got a Woman,” a rewrite of the gospel song “It Must Be Jesus.” “On the Back Row,” by Jerry Chesnut and Norris Wilson, recorded by Del Reeves, Jerry Lee Lewis, and George Jones, finds its singer in a church, attending a wedding—that of a woman he met in a bar to the man she left him for. (He plans on going back to the bar afterwards.)
As for the Pistol Annies, they too have come full circle. The title track of their debut, “Hell on Heels,” recounted a deal with the devil, describing the attainment of power through seduction. This one, “Interstate Gospel,” is about a road trip as an allegory for religious faith, with church signs dotted along the highway. The religious theme is new, at least for the group, but the gospel choir makes for an illuminating comparison. When the Pistol Annies first formed, Lambert was the only one with much name recognition, having started her career the decade before, and gone on to become one of country music’s most successful and critically acclaimed artists in recent memory. But even then, the three acted as equal partners.
The joining of voices that is fundamental to gospel recurs throughout American popular music, including in the “girl group.” This is one context in which to read the Pistol Annies, on a trajectory that runs from the Shangri-Las to Destiny’s Child. It’s a rarer formation, though, in contemporary country, a genre that foregrounds lone voices offering personal testimony. The most recent widely successful all-female vocal group in country music is probably the Dixie Chicks, who belong equally to an older Appalachian tradition, unified in the “hillbilly music” that predated the split between between folk and country.
For the Pistol Annies, though, the closest precedent is the Trio, a collaboration between Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, and Linda Ronstadt. Their self-titled 1987 album is superior to the splashier country supergroup that preceded them in 1985, the Highwaymen. Comprising outlaw country icons Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, and Johnny Cash, it was full of personality, but not much harmony—literally and figuratively speaking. Trio nods towards both gospel (the traditional “Farther Along”) and girl group pop (Phil Spector’s “To Know Him is to Love Him”).
There is also a resemblance to the “family band” tradition in country and folk music, which less typically, but foundationally, emphasizes harmony: the Stanley Brothers, the Louvin Brothers, and of course the Carter Family (with an honorable mention for the Andrews Sisters, whose “Pistol Packin’ Mama” served as entry music at Town Hall). But the Pistol Annies invert the kinship relation: instead of taking the same last name, they have taken the same first name. Lambert is “Lone Star Annie,” Presley “Holler Annie,” and Monroe “Hippie Annie.” They are joined not by lineage but by a fantasy identification. As a representation of female friendship, this invites comparisons outside of music, to archetypes in romcoms and sitcoms. To an extent, The Pistol Annies fit this mold, and even have a theme song, the debut album’s “Takin’ Pills.”
But this is not Sex and the City relocated to the country. The themes of the songs are more often self-deprecating than they are glamorous, with as many hours of the day taken up by work as by leisure. “Beige” takes place at a shotgun wedding, “Lemon Drop” is a catalogue of debts, “Trailer for Rent” finds a woman ditching both a beat-up trailer and the deadbeat in it. The new album’s “Commissary” tells a story of addiction and incarceration, over a musical texture surprisingly reminiscent of krautrock. Rather than a celebration of an active single life, we just as often hear of marriage and isolation. “In a nutshell,” Lambert told the Tennessean, “this record is based around our stats, which are two husbands, two ex-husbands, two kids, one on the way, and 25 animals.”
It sounds like standard fare for country music, but not lately. In Rolling Stone, Jonathan Bernstein recalls the climate surrounding Annie Up, the Pistol Annies’ second album:
[T]he album was released during a critical shift in country jump-started by the record-breaking success of Florida Georgia Line and Nelly’s “Cruise,” which hit radio just a few weeks before Annie Up. In the ensuing five years, mainstream country has mostly embraced the template that “Cruise” offered: male voices singing about partying and women over slick, pop-savvy production.
That year, New York magazine critic Jody Rosen gave this tendency the designation “bro country,” and the name has stuck. Bro country not only emphasizes electronic production styles, but overt demonstrations of masculinity, as often as not crossing the line into caricature.
And yet, there is something of a family connection between bro country and the Pistol Annies. At the time of Annie Up’s release, Miranda Lambert was married to one of bro country’s major figures, Blake Shelton, now famous both as a judge on The Voice, and for having subsequently become entangled with fellow Voice judge Gwen Stefani. Interstate Gospel seems to have been precipitated by the recent Lambert-Shelton divorce, leading to ample tabloid speculation over songs like the lament “When I Was His Wife” and the celebration “Got My Name Changed Back.”
“Love Me” is general enough to be sung by anyone, but these songs of marriage and divorce are not. In its engagement with received wisdom, country music often takes gender roles as its objects of inquiry. You might say George Jones’s entire body of work is about the failure to perform masculinity correctly, according to the dictates of social convention. By nature, the song’s voice includes a perspective. A lyric like “I can hardly bear the sight of lipstick on the cigarettes there in the ashtray” would, at the very least, have been telling a different story had Tammy Wynette sung it. Dolly Parton’s songs also frequently include a gendered perspective; Porter Wagoner would have had no business singing “Just Because I’m a Woman.”
But in song, it’s not only the singer’s gender that plays a part—the listener’s gender can become part of the story as well, particularly when its words are in the second person. Songs frequently speak to us. The pop songs of the early 20th century were sometimes written for characters to sing to each other in plays or movies, but heard on the radio, they were detached from the setting that would make them into dialogue. That context was provided by the listener.
This allows for two ways of hearing that kind of song: you either identify with it, imagining yourself as the “I” the singer represents, or you’re addressed by it, imagining yourself as the “you” of its words. For pop music, with its abundant romantic themes, the distance between the “I” and the “you” is an infinite horizon. The challenge is the same one we face in most of the conversations that make up our daily lives: that the desires of the speaker and those of the listener are not necessarily congruent.
The lyricists of Tin Pan Alley mostly tried to solve this problem by achieving some kind of neutrality—songs like Cole Porter’s “I Get a Kick Out of You” or Rodgers and Hart’s “I Could Write a Book.” Most of the songs that make up the Great American Songbook have lyrics that could credibly be performed by both men and women, regardless of early 20th-century gender roles. At the same time, it’s hard to avoid noting how many of its greatest lyricists, like Porter and Hart, were gay men.
But after The Feminine Mystique and the Miss America protests, things got a lot more complicated. Joni Mitchell told Musician magazine that it was several years into her career before she felt she could use the second person in her songs:
Dylan sang a lot of personal things saying you. As a male that’s better. It’s easier for a man to go “you.” I’m sure that when he says “you,” part of it is actually a “you” and some of it is an “I.” But I hadn’t used that device. I had been writing “I” this and “I” that. And it was easier to stomach or something because when I started writing “you” people said, “Who does she think she is?”
This problem is rooted in the very language we speak, with masculine forms taken as general. Women are often confronted with “the illusion that any case which is made for man automatically includes woman,” in Kaja Silverman’s phrase, just as men often avail themselves of the benefits of that illusion. But both men and women sometimes fail, or refuse, to conform to convention, as the songs of Dolly Parton and George Jones attest.
The gender imbalance of contemporary country radio suggests that today, listening modes are settled in advance. Bro country is the ideal case: a lot hanging out with the boys, a lot of leering at women. The ex-Mr. Miranda Lambert’s “Boys ‘Round Here” sums it up:
The boys ‘round here
Drinking that ice cold beer
Talkin’ ‘bout girls, talkin’ ‘bout trucks
Runnin’ them red dirt roads out, kicking up dust
Scenes like these bring to mind John Berger’s description, in Ways of Seeing, of the portrayal of the human figure in classical painting. On the canvas, he wrote, “men act and women appear.” On country radio, men speak and women listen.
Women in music have always had to reckon with that assumption, as each of the Pistol Annies do in their solo work. But there’s an added dimension to doing so as a group. In the New York Times, Patty Loveless described the music of the Pistol Annies as “like a conversation of friends, friends getting together and talking about issues.” Not only are their songs written collaboratively, they are sung as dialogue, trading off verses and coming together in close harmony. Other women are frequently mentioned by name, but when men are addressed, they tend to be objectified.
In this sense, their music is a response to bro country—in fact, the Pistol Annies contributed backing vocals to “Boys ‘Round Here,” while Shelton and Lambert were still an item. But their own second album, released later that year, includes “Girls Like Us,” speaking instead for long-suffering wives and girlfriends.“Don’t Talk About Him, Tina” counsels a friend to get over an ex who sounds like one of the boys on Shelton’s porch—ideally with a quick rebound. The new album’s “Stop Drop and Roll One” finds them partying harder than their bro country contemporaries, with little regard for how they come across to onlookers.
“This record isn’t just for women,” Lambert told the Tennessean. “It speaks from women about women, but it’s for people.” Country music deals in specifics, indexing deflections, reversals, and rejections of the general rule. Contrary to the assumptions of contemporary country radio, that’s what people are.
In an essay at n+1, reflecting on her relationship to rock music as a teenage girl, Erin Sheehy remembers simultaneously wanting to be the “girl version” of her favorite musicians while also nursing crushes on them. “My heroes and my sex symbols were often one and the same,” she remembers, “a predicament that strikes me as unique to women.” One possible response to this predicament is the one the Pistol Annies carried out at Town Hall: fantasizing about Elvis doesn’t have to stop you from playing his song—or your own. The question is whether the men who listen to and program country radio can handle the same predicament.