Putting together the tracks of Wrangled, the new disc from acclaimed singer-songwriter Angaleena Presley was very similar to the process of putting together a puzzle, the Kentucky-born songstress says.
“There’s a lot of people that I’ve collaborated with. It’s been over two years since I put out my last record,” she admitted to Billboard. “The songs came along one-by-one, and as my list of songs piled up, I started to see a theme developing. I started writing with Oran Thornton, who produced the record with me. He and I wrote ‘Mama I Tried’ and ‘Motel Bible.’ I had already written ‘Cheer Up, Little Darling’ and ‘Bless My Heart.’ After Warren and I wrote those songs, he built a track for me. I am a producer — studio nerd, and had all these studio work tapes that I had done. When you put them together, it just fit — and became this recipe for this new record. I got Chris Stapleton’s wife, Morgane, to sing on the track that I wrote with Chris — ‘It’s Only Blood,’ which is the Gospel-kind of murder ballad. I think you could call it Southern Gothic. Somebody called it that,” she says, humbly.
Presley lays her emotions on the line many times on the album, with the title track having a significant double meaning for the Pistol Annies member.
“As a female in the music business, especially in Country, it’s hard to get your voice out there. There’s a lot of dudes. They’re great. I know a lot of them, and they are great people. But, the girls are great too. I just felt like it was time to start the conversation about more women being on Country Radio. Wrangled is sort of my love song about that. On one hand, it’s about a woman who is overwhelmed with her domestic responsibilities, but it’s also a metaphor in my experience for navigating this industry, and trying to find my space as a female vocalist.”
Wrangled also has a great historical significance with the appearance of “Cheer Up Little Darling.” It’s the last song that Guy Clark had a role in writing before his passing last May. The two were particularly close.
“Guy and I had become really great friends. We had a standing writing appointment every Wednesday for about five years. Sometimes I would go over, and he wouldn’t be feeling good, but that day, he was on fire. He was hopping around, and it was like hanging out with the Heartworn Highways guy. I had never gotten to see that side of his personality before because his health wasn’t that great. But, on this day, he had the idea already. It was kind of a take-away from the Gospel song ‘Farther Along.’ We wrote that song so quick. I know that the universe and the stars aligned for me to be there that day. I lean on that song so much, and it’s such a gift that he gave to me — and to anyone else who is struggling with just how overwhelming it is to just be and to survive, to navigate your career and your home life. Sometimes you just have to take a breath, and tell yourself that you can’t fix the world. Just sit down, make a list of what you need to do. It’s such great advice. I can’t tell you how many times I look at my calendar and think ‘There’s no way. It’s too much for one human to do.’ Then, I think about that song, and sometimes, I even have to play that song. I am just so thankful that he shared that insight with me, which I know came from a way bigger place.” Clark’s guitar and mandola both appear on the track, thanks to Shawn Camp.
Another instance of Presley becoming emotionally stark is on “Groundswell,” which she says is one of her favorites. “I get emotional when I hear it, and when I sing it sometimes. Doing this job, there are so many blessings. I do get to wake up and be a songwriter every day. I do get to play these songs all over the world, and I get to meet so many people,” she says. “But the flip side to it is getting dressed in broom closets and not eat because there’s not anything open at whatever time you’re traveling. I play shows where sometimes nobody shows up, and you don’t break even. There is that kind of elbow grease side of it that is not glamorous at all.”
It might sound like the female equivalent to Merle Haggard’s “Footlights,” but she promises she’s very grateful to be where she’s at. “But, it’s worth it. Once I get there and I plug in my guitar, and I see people singing along, shouting out requests, and afterwards, I get to meet them and they tell me stories about going through divorces and one of my songs making them feel like they weren’t the only one that it was happening to. It’s worth it. But, there is some crap you have to go through to get to that stage,” she laments.
Presley did collaborate with fellow Pistol Annies Miranda Lambert and Ashley Monroe on the set’s lead-off track, “Dreams Don’t Come True,” but she also got to work with another female powerhouse that she has long admired during the creative process of Wrangled — Wanda Jackson, whose name appears as a co-author on “Good Girl Down.” To say she was in awe of the rockabilly queen is putting it mildly.
“She is just a vision of strength,” she says, beaming. “She came in apologizing that she was a little bit late. She said she took a tumble off of the jet bridge. Upon further inspection, she had a black eye, and she had bruises on her arm. I said ‘Miss Wanda, we could have done this a different day. Why did you come here?’ She looks at me with this little grin, and said ‘You can’t get a good girl down.’ I thought ‘Well, that’s the song we’ll be writing today.’ Hearing her talk about her experience in the music business, which was long ago, and the alarming thing was that it really hasn’t changed that much for girls. I don’t think the scales have balanced,” she notes.
Still, Jackson still carries the same swagger she always has. “It was very enlightening to meet her and get to know her and the stories that she tells. She dated Elvis, for goodness sake. Of course, she will preface that by saying that her husband is the one for her, and the man of her dreams. But, she did date Elvis. She’s an awesome woman, and the Queen of Rock and Roll, or Rockabilly, and of not fitting in, but somehow just forcing your way in and doing your own thing. I have so much respect for her. She really paved the way for people like me, and I owe her so much.”
A look at the lyric sheet for Wrangled might raise some eyebrows when one notes the words for “Country.” If there sounds like there was frustration going on that day, that’s not a coincidence.
“If you look at the dates of creation of the songs, that was the first one. That was probably written three or four years ago. It was at the very height of the bro-country movement. I had done a demo session, and it was four or five songs. One song was called “Business End,” which was about a guy who was protecting his land from this corporate entity that was trying to come in, and he was telling them ‘You’ll wind up on the business end of my granddaddy’s shotgun.’ It was very male. I had a meeting with my publisher, and asked if he was pitching the songs. He looked at me and said ‘We love what you do. It’s so great. You’re your own person, and we wouldn’t want you to change anything…..but……the timing right now is just so wrong. There’s a lot of guy songs.’ Basically, he told me that not only did he not know anybody’s reaction because he hadn’t pitched them to anyone. It was so bad that you couldn’t take a song that by a female into a room and pitch it. People were only wanting to hear those songs about trucks, girls in Daisy Dukes songs. It really broke my heart. And, I’m friends with Luke [Bryan] and Blake [Shelton]. They are great human beings, but I love Miranda [Lambert] too. I love Sunny Sweeney, and Kacey Musgraves. So, I went home….and I wrote that song that very day. I’m not against anything. I think that everyone deserves a shot. But, people have different tastes. I think there are people out there who love Classic Country. I think there are people who love pop country. But, it just seemed that pop country was the only thing for a long time. I thought with that one, I would cleverly write this list song, but my list would be a little different from the other ones,” she says, adding there was somewhat of an urban flavor on the track — although from a southern point of view.
Part of the urban flavor came from Alabama native rapper Yelawolf, who Presley says has run into the same kind of problems within the genre. “He’s never had a deal on a Nashville label, even though he pretty much invented country rap. He was on Eminem’s label, which was a perfect fit for him. We left a space on the track, and I asked him to come in with the hopes that he would want to do it. He came in, listened, and said ‘Ok, I’ll write you a rhyme.’ As it turned out, I didn’t have to speak out. He did it for me.”
Wrangled is out April 21.