It began on a wild hair: Two girlfriends on a giddy whim, calling a third gal late one night with an invitation to join the fun and maybe start a little trouble — and a band.
“I thought they were in slumber-party mode,” recalls Angaleena Presley of that midnight call she got nearly two years ago from her friend, fellow Nashville-based singer-songwriter Ashley Monroe. Monroe wanted Presley to email every song she had immediately because she “and Miranda” had hatched a plan to put a band together and they wanted her onboard.
“I was like, ‘Girls, you’re going to wake up tomorrow and realize you’re stupid,” Presley continues. “And then I went, ‘Miranda who?’ And Ashley says, ‘Lambert!‘ That’s when I was like, ‘Oh … better get out of bed right now!’”
Between the two of them, Presley and Monroe (from Kentucky and Tennessee, respectively) had landed a handful of cuts working Nashville’s Music Row for the better part of the last decade. Monroe had also worked on projects with famed indie-rocker/producer Jack White and released a major-label debut, while Presley has an exceptional album of her own waiting for a proper home. Lambert, meanwhile, has been one of country music’s biggest stars with three successive No. 1 albums: 2005’s Kerosene, 2007’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and 2009’s Revolution … and odds are that her forthcoming Four the Record will continue the hot streak later this fall. Monroe actually co-wrote two songs with Lambert for Revolution, including the chart-topping single “Heart Like Mine.” But the songs they’d begun writing that fateful night at Lambert’s cabin in Oklahoma two Novembers ago begged for an entirely new and different outlet.
“They really weren’t right for me or her individually, but they sounded so cool, we were like, ‘What can we do with these songs?’” says Lambert. “But we also didn’t want to give them to anybody else,” adds Monroe. “It’s like in our minds, we already knew what was going to happen.” That’s when Monroe asked Lambert if she had ever heard her friend Presley’s songs, and promptly made her listen to a few tracks online. “I knew if I played her one note, she’d flip.” She did, and a flurry of excited phone calls, covert meetings and one name change later (their original handle, Calamity Janes, was already owned by a stripper), the Pistol Annies were born.
Only then did they break the news to their respective managers, publishers and label reps. As Presley explains, “Our motto is, ‘We ask for forgiveness, not permission.’”
“I don’t think it was my manager’s favorite thing that I’ve ever said — ‘I’ve started a band and you have to deal with it!’” confesses Lambert with a mischievous grin. “But it’s worked out great. When she realized that it was serious, she was like, ‘Let’s go full on.’”
Full on, and fast. The newly formed trio began writing and recording songs together straight away, but barely had six tracks down when they were offered an opportunity to make their official debut on national TV via the Academy of Country Music’s Girls Night Out special on CBS in April, 2011. “I told our manager, ‘Well that’s great, but I don’t know if we’re actually ready yet!’,” says Lambert. “It was scary. I’ve never been more nervous in my life.”
“The first time we ever played with a live band behind us was actually at rehearsal the day of the show,” marvels Presley. “The show itself was the second time. We literally just jumped in the water, and it was sink or swim. For me, it was like jumping the Grand Canyon, because although Miranda had let me get up and sing with her at one of her shows the weekend before, prior to that I’d never played anywhere bigger than like, the Bluebird Cafe. So I was nervous all day — until I saw Miranda, and then I thought, ‘I ain’t that nervous!’ And then a calm came over me.”
“I was really nervous too,” adds Monroe, “but the moment we walked out onstage and sang the first note, I thought, ‘OK, we’ve got this.’”
Indeed: The Pistol Annies’ performance that night of their original song, “Hell on Heels,” hit the proverbial bull’s eye, with the three women trading chilling verses and marrying their three distinct voices together on the chorus, a hair-raising declaration of wicked girl power dished out with the dangerous beauty of deadly sirens. Never before or since has the old country maxim “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky-Tonk Angels” seemed more true. You can take their line about having “done made the devil a deal” with a grain of salt, but they sell it with a conviction that suggests you damn well better keep your guard up, just in case.
Fittingly, “Hell on Heels” is both the title track and the opening song on the Pistol Annies’ smoking debut, which delivers on the promise of that first high-profile performance in spades. Clocking in at a lean-and-mean, filler-free 30 minutes, the album is equal parts sass (“Hell on Heels,” “Bad Example,” “Takin’ Pills”), heartache (“Beige,” “The Hunter’s Wife,” “Family Feud”) and hard knocks (“Lemon Drop,” “Housewife’s Prayer” and “Trailer for Rent”), sweetened with just enough wistful Southern romance to reveal a teasing hint of vulnerability (“Boys from the South”). Every song was written by one or more of the Annies, with only one intrepid outsider — Lambert’s husband, Blake Shelton — sneaking in for a quick co-writing credit.
“We were all over at my house, writing a song called ‘Family Feud,’ and Blake was there and happened to play an awesome melody, so he’s the only outside writer,” explains Lambert. “We call him Pistol Andy — and he knows he’s lucky.”
The three girls have all adopted nicknames of their own: Lone Star Annie for Texan Lambert, Hippie Annie for Monroe, and Holler Annie for Presley (a nod to her Eastern Kentucky roots). They’re all women of the South, but as Monroe points out, they each bring different musical influences to the table: classic Tennessee country (a la Dolly Parton) from Monroe; bluegrass from Kentucky girl Presley (daughter of a third-generation coal miner); and hard-edged, outlaw honky-tonk (from Waylon to Merle) from Lambert, who cut her teeth playing the rowdy bar and festival circuit in Texas long before finding fame in the mainstream. But it all blends together in the Pistol Annies’ original music as seamlessly as their voices. “The music just came so easily, it’s like we didn’t even have to try,” says Presley. “It kind of just spilled out of us. I think we were writing a song with 30 minutes of getting together for the first time.”
“Sometimes when you write with people, you don’t have chemistry at all,” notes Lambert. “But we have chemistry as friends, we have chemistry onstage, and we have chemistry in our writing. We’re three singer-songwriters that come from different places, but we’re girls with all the same issues, just saying what every woman in America wants to say or wants to hear. In our songs, we say some things that people aren’t usually allowed to talk about — or things that people talk about in their homes, but they don’t usually say on record. That’s actually kind of been my thing the whole time, and Ashley and Ang’s, too, but just not as many people have had a chance to hear it.
“That’s why I think the Pistol Annies is such a great avenue for all of us,” Lambert continues. “Because I love great music, and I get mad when it’s not heard, and now I’m going to use what I’ve built for two of my best friends who are great and deserve to be huge stars on their own. This has given me a new excitement, a new passion. Usually, after I write a record, I don’t want to write anything for a couple of months, because I’m just burned out. But I started writing with these girls immediately after I released Revolution, because this band inspires all of us so much. It’s like we can’t get enough.”
Just don’t make the mistake of calling it a “side project.”
“This is the farthest thing from a side project that I could do,” Lambert makes clear. “Somebody asked me that in an interview, and it made me mad — I think they did that on purpose. I don’t do side projects. I do projects that are 100-percent, or I don’t do them. And these girls have plenty to say, too. I really want people to know that when they come to see a Pistol Annies show, they’re not going to see anything about Miranda Lambert. It’s all about the Pistol Annies.”
Presently, though, Lambert’s own shows are the only place to see the Pistol Annies live: To hone their chops in preparation for their own tour in the near future, the Annies have been accompanying Lambert on her solo dates, with room made in many of her full-production concerts to accommodate mini Pistol Annies sets that are already going over like gangbusters. Lambert notes that fans at her pre-show meet-and-greets have started routinely asking her, “Are the Pistol Annies with you? Are they going to sing tonight?”
“At the beginning, when the three microphones would be put out front in the middle of her show, people had their mouths agape and would be like, ‘Huh?’” Presley admits. “But now — like when we were just in Maryland — when those three mics came out, the crowd went wild before we even came onstage.”
“We’re just taking it a step at a time because we don’t have a rule book, and bringing them out with me has been cool because we’ve already got the busses and the production and the fans to play to,” says Lambert. “But I can’t wait until we go do Pistol Annies shows just as Pistol Annies, because that’s my goal. And because I don’t want the pressure all on me — they have to share it, too! That’s what’s fun about being in a band, you know?”
“She really believes in us, and we are a group, but we’ve learned so much just being on the road with her,” says Monroe, with an affirming nod from Presley. “I mean, there is nothing fake about her. She says, ‘I’m just one of y’all,’ and she means it, but she also says, ‘I can’t wait for y’all to get famous so you can’t go into Wal-Mart anymore either without getting recognized!’”