Only blood (and sweat and tears) can set Angaleena Presley free. And she more than beats herself black and blue on her sophomore effort, the wonderfully-gritty, raucous and brazen Wrangled LP (out now). Featuring the Yelawolf-assisted “Country,” in which she pokes and prods the bull, so to speak, and the instinctive lamentation “Dreams Don’t Come True,” the studio album demonstrates the gutting sanctitude of country storytelling–done right. When she took to the intimate stage at New York City’s Iridium on May 21, she had her guitar in hand and a drink by her side. “Jazz fans, sorry to disappoint you…but I’m a country singer,” she quipped, as she plopped down on one lone stool centerstage, her twang laying on thick.
The room sparkled, sparsely populated by early arrivals; Presley was the opening act, a rather perplexing placement given her veteran status. She has toiled away in Nashville for more than 15 years now, and despite no airplay, she has become a pivotal figure in the growing revolution seeding throughout not only Music Row but Texas red dirt. Up and comers like Jon Pardi, William Michael Morgan and Margo Price are shaking up the status quo, fracturing the glossy pop-country purveyors who have pulled the thread so tight it has nearly snapped.
But Presley knows her place. Hers is standing in the middle of the room, screaming her lungs out. She wielded her craftsmanship on such songs as “American Middle Class” (the titular track to her debut album, which is hell-raising and statement-making) and “Outlaw,” on which she muses about never being the superstar but always the underdog. “I don’t know that anyone wakes up and sets out to be an underdog – you just kind of are,” she told Rolling Stone recently. And she’s right on the money. She might not be gigging at Madison Square Garden, as tragic as that sounds, but she is in a masterclass, along with Ashley Monroe, Sturgill Simpson, Miranda Lambert and Jason Isbell.
Between affecting whispers and notes cutting enough to raise the hairs on the back of your neck, Presley was relaxed and charming. “Bless My Heart” was a particularly satisfying performance, introducing the song as an anecdote about trash rolling up on her front lawn. “If you say ‘bless my heart,’ I’ll slap your face,” she admonished on the hook. And then later, she snarled: “Judge not lest you be judged, kindness and love are what all the pretty girls are made of. You knock a girl down so you can feel tall.”
Speaking of getting knocked down, she shared an endearing story of writing “Good Girl Down,” a co-write with rockabilly queen Wanda Jackson. Jackson–who first rose to prominence in the ’50s and ’60s and hit the charts with such mainstream licks as “Tears Will Be the Chaser for Your Wine” and “Fancy Satin Pillows”–had had a rough morning. Visibly marked with cuts and bruises, she recounted to Presley about tumbling from a bridge–but she mustered up her gutsy roar to make it to the writing session. “You can’t keep a good girl down,” she bellowed, and that became the impetus of the song, a swampy mix of southern blues and light-hearted but resilient feminism.
Presley also wrapped in songs like “Dry County Blues” and “Better Off Red,” which both appear on 2014’s American Middle Class, and the sterling title cut of the follow-up. With each blustering moment, it was evident exactly how well-worn and lived-in her songwriting was–which makes it all the more frustrating not to see more airplay success for her. “I might as well be hog-tied and strangled. I’m tired of wakin’ up feelin’ like I’ve been wrangled,” she bemoaned the monotony of everyday living: from cleaning up her husband’s muddy tracks to baking prizewinning cherry pies. It’s also a clear testament to the exhaustion elicited by a fickle, lonesome industry, in much the same way as “Dreams Don’t Come True” projects anguish and doubt. “Wrangled,” then, uncovers a greater sense of insecurity in the world and inside her heart. You can knock her down, but Presley dusts off and towers even higher. That’s how badass she is.