Since the 2011 release of their debut single, the slow-burning “Hell on Heels,” the vocal trio Pistol Annies — made up of singer-songwriters Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe, and Angaleena Presley — have been one of country’s most intriguing forces, blending classic Nashville songwriting with slyly witty observations on modern womanhood and richly realized harmonies. Their last album, 2018′s “Interstate Gospel,” was a stunner, with rave-ups like the divorce song “Got My Name Changed Back” balancing out ballads like the tender yet gimlet-eyed “Cheyenne.”
The power dynamics in country have shifted since “Hell on Heels” came out, particularly in relation to gender politics. “Bro country,” an arena-rock-adjacent strand of no-girls-allowed Nashville brawn, has waxed and waned. Taylor Swift, whose path toward being one of the world’s biggest pop stars began on country radio, exposed the sexism in radio’s ranks with a $1 lawsuit against an ex-DJ who groped her. Artists like Kacey Musgraves and Cam have toured with pop artists (Harry Styles and Sam Smith, respectively) and expanded their audience without the help of country radio; there, Lambert cuts like “Bluebird” and “Vice” went Top 10. Pistol Annies’ female-forward singles stalled out on playlists, but no matter; their records topped critics’ lists and performed respectably on the sales and streaming charts.
The streaming era has altered the playing field for artists with existing name recognition, allowing them to cater to fans directly. This month, two of the Annies are releasing albums that defy airplay expectations while showcasing their songwriting bona fides: Monroe’s fifth full-length, the electrifying “Rosegold,” came out last week, while Lambert’s collaboration with songwriters Jack Ingram and Jon Randall “The Marfa Tapes,” which chronicles the West Texas musical adventures that trio has taken over the last half-decade, is out Friday.
Monroe’s last album, 2018′s “Sparrow,” recalled the country-pop that crossed over during the late ’70s and early ’80s on tracks like the string-laden “Hard on a Heart” and the shimmering “Wild Love.” On “Rosegold,” she breaks free of “country” expectations with rousing results, offering up songs that are as full of surprises as the heady early days of a romance. Take “Gold,” which contrasts Monroe’s whispered-close verses, where she thrills in the details of love, with a sweeping, synth-led chorus that’s punctuated by an excited whoop.
On first listen, “Rosegold” feels far afield from the Annies’ territory, but a closer listen shows how Monroe uses Nashville fundamentals to make her music land with even more force. “Siren” is a fever dream given extra headiness by the harmonies layered under Monroe’s voice, both on the fast-talking lyrics and the swooning, wordless post-chorus; “Til It Breaks” combines a country-strong message of resiliency (and more rich harmonies) with a dreampop arrangement that implies a soft landing for the “upside down” person being comforted. “Rosegold” closes with “The New Me,” a glowing anthem of rebirth. “I shattered my life and left all the pieces behind me/Come find me,” Monroe declares as strings tremble; it’s a compelling invitation to hit play on “Rosegold” once more.
Lambert has indulged her pop side as well recently, collaborating with blues belter Elle King on the stomping “Drunk (And I Don’t Wanna Go Home)”; it continues down the country-pop trail blazed by Lil Nas X’s still-mighty “Old Town Road” and Blanco Brown’s “The Git Up” with gusto, mashing up frantic fingerpicking with festival-made backing choruses and a booming beat. On “The Marfa Tapes,” everything is stripped down. The high desert city and album namesake has been a prime bohemian getaway for years, and its remote location allows it to retain a getting-away-from-it-all allure, surprising even those who have seen it all: “I’ll never forget pulling in at 4 a.m. and looking up and going ‘Oh my gosh. Where are we?’ ” Lambert told The Tennessean in a recent interview.
“The Marfa Tapes” reflects that vibe; it’s just Lambert, Ingram, Randall, and an acoustic guitar live to tape, with a round-the-campfire feel accentuated by ambient sounds of the desert late at night and snippets of banter left in between each song. Images of the American West’s endless highways — truck stops, tumbleweeds, roadside motels — float through the lyrics, while Lambert’s spitfire voice adds a splash of acid to tracks like the bless-her-cheatin’-heart broadside “Geraldine” and kicks lighter offerings like the winking “Two-Step Down to Texas” into high gear.
A couple of “Marfa” selections have existed in Lambert’s repertoire for a while. “Tequila Does,” which trades off sweetly sour lamentations over the state of men with a boisterous chorus that toasts the “bordertown buzz” offered by the spirit, originally appeared in slightly more fleshed-out form on Lambert’s 2019 album “Wildcard.” For years now, “Tin Man,” a track from her 2016 landmark double album “The Weight of These Wings,” has been a showstopper for Lambert, providing a wounded center for her raucous live sets. On “Wings,” the song is swathed in ghostly slide guitar and windswept atmospherics, making Lambert’s wishes for numbness seem just within reach; on “Marfa,” its portrayal of how romantic failure can cause a person to want to wall up their emotions is even more stark. Lambert’s voice is bell-clear as she sings to the Yellow Brick Road traveler famous for lacking a heart: “You ain’t missin’ nothing/‘cause love is so damn hard,” she croons.
“Thank God for Miranda Lambert, because she has blazed the trail for our kind of music. . . . I think she has changed country music,” Pressley said in a 2012 “Nashville Scene” interview. It’s been nine years since the Pistol Annies’ inaugural performance, but Lambert continues to blaze trails — and as she does so, she’s inspiring her collaborators and listeners to spread their wings and sing their truths as well.