If “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”/”Butterfield 8”-era Elizabeth Taylor and David Lynch had a baby, and Wanda Jackson was her babysitter, the result would be Angaleena Presley. Strong as jalapeno juice, capable of standing down a twister and a drunk redneck on a tilt, she maintains a reverence for songs, unvarnished truth, be who you are dignity and a brazen sense of “oh, yeah.”
With Wrangled, the ebony haired songwriter from Beauty, Kentucky ups the bar on her critically acclaimed American Middle Class by sharpening her focus, widening her range and finding metaphors and doppelgangers for feminism, the music business and the unseen underclass who’s just trying to get by. But as thrilling as that is, Wrangled also opens a portal into a new kind of country: textural, trippy, frozen in time, urgent, tranquil, but then raw punk and rural. “You have three minutes to change someone’s mood or life,” begins the woman who co-produced this record with multi-instrumentalist Oran Thornton, pragmatically. “You really only have so many words, and you have to make them count. My heart is open all the time, and I have a sensory disorder: I see things, hear things, feel things most people miss – and it all goes in there. When I make my work tapes, I’m trying to capture those moods. I’ll come up with percussion parts banging on a skillet, just to give it a vibe, I shook a pill bottle on a track, built a loop that’s a cigarette lighter. You start there, and then hire geniuses and tell ‘em there are no rules? It’s like unicorns pooping rainbows everywhere – and guzzling beer!”
Certainly plugging in Keith Gattis (“those guitar parts are like the devil coming out of the bowels of Hell; he plays wrong notes on purpose”), Mark Knopfler vet Glenn Whorf on bass, steel player Russ Pahl (deemed “a sonic innovator” by Premiere Guitar), Eric Church drummer Craig Wright, with help from bluegrass stalwart Shawn Camp, featured vocalist Morgane Stapleton, John Prine bassist David Jacques and former Wallflower drummer Fred Eltringham is a good place to start.
For while Presley’s lyrics are carefully turned narratives of tiny movies, she knows her words are only as potent as the musicians supporting her songs. Laughing, she admits, “I’m 40. I’ve got nothing to lose. I’ve been in every nook and cranny of this business, and I want to be in this business the way that I am. There’s a vision and a sound that I have in my head, and that’s what I’m going to get… When we started mixing, I said, ‘I want this mixed like a Tom Petty record.’
When the mixes came in, there was a guitar way over here (on the left) and there was steel over there (the other side of the sonicscape).” It makes perfect sense. With a sultry, sulky sensuousness, Presley conjures an unsentimental vision of how one becomes warped by the expectations fed to youngsters in the record business with “Dreams Don’t Come True,” written and sung with her fellow Pistol Annies Miranda Lambert and Ashley Monroe; the loping yearn to fit in “Outlaw,” or the cocktail elegance satiny stroll of preacher seduction “Only Blood” that turns into a classic Scotts-Irish death ballad. For Presley, it’s not just about shining a light on inconvenient truths, it’s also about music that’s as sophisticated as the nuances in the stories she tells.
Whether it’s putting a fake mean girl on notice in the sugary acoustic shuffle “Bless My Heart,” with the greatest Dollyism – “I know you ain’t that blonde, so don’t you play dumb with me” – this side of Parton, confessing “I’d rather eat dirt than bake another prize-winning cherry pie” in “Wrangled” or reminding herself things are often less dire than they seem on the Guy Clark co-written and recitated “Cheer Up Little Darling:” with the admonition “It feels like a tight spot, but it’s just a loose end,” Presley exudes a grace that matches every situation. Even the blaring wawa inflected snarl of “Country,” with a solid free rap by Yelawolf, rings with clarity and truth. “What I do is open doors and make it okay to start conversations about hard things,” offers the woman who loves Etta James, Nina Simone and Loretta Lynn.
“My son is in jail, or on pills… My daughter’s a meth whore… Because it happens, and it’s a shame, but it’s not a shame. It’s life.” Raised in a town with one stop light, where coal put food on the table and clothes on the backs of the locals, the girl “groomed to be popular” by her teacher mother watched opportunity fade, work dry up and people recede. She understands how things can go wrong for good people – and she brings it.
With the young knocked up girl realizing nobody wants “the mother to be” in the sleek take on “High School,” or the feathery drift that captures weightlessness of chasing the dream at the margins of “Groundswell,” Wrangled looks at tight places with kindness and brutal clarity. Even the high pressure “marry up” mother in the lurching, serrated guitar stomp “Mama I Tried” is given brutality and hilarity as Presley confesses, “I painted up my face like some rodeo clown/I choked on cheap perfume as I spread myself around/ I strutted my stuff at every juke joint in town.” “I try not to pigeonhole myself: I want this (record) to be music someone at Berklee would listen to, or my father sitting on the front porch, eating squirrel gravy. And no, I didn’t set out to be this edgy, renegade person, but I don’t know how to do it the other way. And I’ve spent hours rotting away in writers’ appointments getting at nothing – that’s not for me.”
Taking her cues from firebrands Sturgill Simpson, Chris Stapleton who co-wrote “Only Blood,” Jason Isbell and even Brandy Clark, Presley would rather protect the music and write songs that genuinely matter. Maybe in part from her standing Wednesday writing appointment with Guy Clark – “He made me a better person, a person who didn’t tolerate bullshit” – or maybe it’s just that she’s lived life without a safety net and understands. “I’ve been divorced, broke and didn’t know what to do. I’ve stared that down, thought, ‘Well, I could just knock that iron over, burn it all down and catch the house on fire.’ But songs save my life all the time, both hearing and writing them – and so I wrote, ‘Housewife’s Prayer,’ and I just kept going.” Keeping going is a key for Presley, who co-wrote the resiliency kiss-off and anthem that swings like the Rat Pack in full rut “Good Girl Down” with Wanda Jackson. Somewhere between early Peggy Lee and sultry Keely Smith, it’s equal parts distilling Jackson’s experience, honoring her own struggles and admitting that the love of the music is bigger than boys or business or anything else. “It’s interesting to hear her perspective of when she came up, and what stands out is nothing’s really changed that much about being fair. But here’s a woman who changed everything, who dated Elvis Presley, and she’s still going! When we wrote, she was all done up; she apologized for being late, saying ‘I took a little tumble coming off the plane…’ And up close, you could see she’d really had a fall. When I suggested maybe we postpone, she said, ‘You can’t keep a good girl down…’ and I knew we had to write that.” Real life. In songs … with players who want to explore the possibilities. For the woman who identifies as a feminist, it’s a pretty simple equation. “I’m a feminist who fights with love, a kill ‘em with kindness person – but also a kill ‘em with honesty. The most powerful weapon we have is honesty and vulnerability: showing your weakness and your truth is the greatest weapon we have.” For Wrangled, a dark record buoyed by great levity, Presley has done just that. All of the women are smart and savvy, real about their emotions and willing to lay it out there. After being told by several Music Row business types they “love what you do,” but her songs were “unpitchable” for today’s country, the feisty Betty Page evoker doubled down. “This isn’t about girl power, but everyone having a fair chance,” she decries. “I want a world where some little girl can wake up and still be Loretta Lynn. There are dudes in my hometown and (what’s on country radio) those are their anthems. I wouldn’t take that away from them for anything. But there are those girls in those town who need anthems, truth, songs they can live in – and where are they going to get them?”
Presley pauses for a moment, leans in, then conspiratorially winks. “You know, women’re only getting better and stronger. And all of this? It’s only making us grow.” Like her songs, with a smile, Angaleena Presley has laid it all down. Nothing more needs to be said. All we have to do is listen.