TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. The Pistol Annies is a trio of three country music artists - Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley. Each has a solo career, and Lambert is one of the biggest stars in country. But rock critic Ken Tucker says that when they get together as a group, their collaborations yield songs that aren't typical of any of them individually. Their new album is called "Interstate Gospel." Here's Ken's review.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "INTERSTATE GOSPEL")
PISTOL ANNIES: (Singing) Jesus is the bread of life. Without him, you're toast. Hallelujah, y'all. I've found the Holy Ghost. To be almost saved only means that you're lost. Sins are expensive, and Jesus paid the cost. These church signs...
KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: The Pistol Annies could have been a vanity project, an indulgence for three pals with enough music industry clout to score a record deal. Instead, over the course of three albums since 2011, Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley have turned the Pistol Annies into something special - a way to make strong music with a sense of humor, a sense of righteousness and a sense of drama.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BEST YEARS OF MY LIFE")
PISTOL ANNIES: (Singing) I picked a good day for a recreational Percocet. I've got an itch to just get high. I'm in the middle of the worst of it. These are the best years of my life. I've got the hankering for intellectual emptiness. I've got the need to ease my mind. I'll watch some reruns on the TV set. These are the best years of my life. I was looking forward to staying here forever 'cause you asked me to - didn't think that I could do better, so I settled down in this 10-cent town. It's about to break me. I'm gonna mix a drink and try…
TUCKER: That's "Best Years Of My Life," a lovely ballad with some sting in its tail. It recounts a day in the life of a woman who seems overwhelmed by work and responsibilities. Reminding herself that these are the best years of her life is intended both as a reality check and an irony along the lines of - if these are the good times, why do I feel so bad? You don't hear country music about a woman drowning her depression in pills and booze very often. The Pistol Annies pursue their moods wherever they take them, as on this song about the lies women can tell themselves about marriage on "When I Was His Wife."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHEN I WAS HIS WIFE")
PISTOL ANNIES: (Singing) He'd never cheat, he'd never lie. He'll love me forever till the day that we die. He'll never take me for granted, I said that too when I was his wife. God, he looks handsome in the bright morning light. His smile can light up your world for a while. His love is enough to keep me satisfied. I said that too when I was his wife. When you're blinded by diamonds and driven by lust, hon, you can't build a mansion with a piece of sawdust. Holy matrimony, best day of your life, I said that too when I was his wife.
TUCKER: In recent interviews, Lambert has taken to ticking off what she calls the Pistol Annies' stats. She says, we have two husbands, two ex-husbands, two babies, one on the way and 25 animals. These women are also not above playing with whatever knowledge their fans might have of their personal lives. Lambert was in the tabloids when her marriage to country star Blake Shelton broke up a while back. That situation and other Annies events are alluded to in this song, "Got My Name Changed Back."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOT MY NAME CHANGED BACK")
PISTOL ANNIES: (Singing) It takes a judge to get married, takes a judge to get divorced. Well, the last couple years, spent a lot of time in court. Got my name changed back. I got my name changed back. Well, I wanted something new, then I wanted what I had. I got my name changed back. Well, I got me an ex...
TUCKER: There's an impressive range of musical styles here, starting with the gospel of the title song. That last tune I just played is a throwback to the kind of twangy novelty songs country music produced in profusion in the 1970s. At other times, the Pistol Annies put their feminist stamp on the traditionally masculine outlaw country genre. The Annies' harmonies have been compared to the Andrews Sisters from the 1940s, even as they also make the sort of country pop that's very much in vogue these days. Then there's a song like "Masterpiece," which is just a timeless torch song.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MASTERPIECE")
PISTOL ANNIES: (Singing) Baby, we were just a masterpiece, up there on the wall for all to see. We were body and soul, we were talked about. Once you've been framed you can't get out. Who's brave enough to take it down? Who's fool enough to lose the crown? We're just another thing they'll all forget about. They'll be standing around laughing like nothing ever happened.
TUCKER: The Pistol Annies recently described some of their new songs as sounding, quote, "a lot like dumping out a girl's purse." That's both a joke about their brand of brash confessionalism and a dead-serious assertion that this kind of emotional spilling is art as sure as any country music being made right now.
GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic-at-large for Yahoo TV. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about the war in Yemen. You may not think of it as an American war, but many Yemenis do, in part because some of the bombs being dropped on Yemen are American bombs that were sold to the Saudis. My guest will be Robert Worth, whose latest New York Times Magazine article is about how the war in Yemen became the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. His latest trip there was in September. I hope you'll join us.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STOP DROP AND ROLL ONE")
PISTOL ANNIES: (Singing) We're on fire, I think, so stop, drop and roll one. Takes one to grow one. We're one of a kind. We're right on the brink burned out like the prom queen. We're all mirrors and smoke rings... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.