“It takes a judge to get married / It takes a judge to get divorced / Well, for the last couple years, I’ve spent a lot of time in court.” That’s how Miranda Lambert opens up “Got My Name Changed Back,” the best of the three singles that she used to introduced Interstate Gospel, the new album from her band Pistol Annies. That’s a great punchline, and she delivers it with a kind of snappy conversational weariness. But it’s all true. For the four years that Lambert was married to Blake Shelton, her fellow country music superstar, she legally changed her name to Miranda Shelton. When they broke up, with Shelton immediately taking up with his fellow The Voice coach Gwen Stefani, it was a huge tabloid story. But with that one line, she dismisses that whole thing. She takes a tabloid narrative and turns it into an artful punchline. It’s a perfectly badass no-big-deal move.
Lambert was already a country superstar when she formed Pistol Annies with her friends Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley in 2011. Pistol Annies have three albums to their name now, but they don’t have any big hits unless you count their guest turn on Shelton’s 2013 smash “Boys ‘Round Here.” (Good song.) Pistol Annies is pretty clearly a superstar side project, a way for Lambert to blow off steam when she’s not busy with her own massively successful career. Monroe has also been thriving on her own lately, and Pistol Annies have been on hiatus for a while. Lambert suddenly announced the impending release of Interstate Gospel in late September, staging a surprise reunion at one of her shows at her CMA Theater residency in Nashville. Before that, there hadn’t been a Pistol Annies album in more than five years.
Within the big-money world of Nashville country, Pistol Annies is a decidedly low-stakes project. On Pistol Annies albums, Lambert, Monroe, and Presley all write together — a rarity in Nashville, where professional behind-the-scenes songwriters are a crucial part of the landscape. Together, they’ve crafted a seen-it-all hellraiser image, and they’ve embraced old-school country sounds, both of which set them apart in a pop-country world that seems more slick and scrubbed every year. They’re a side project, a tributary. The context, the sound, and the subject matter are all totally different, but it’s the same basic idea as boygenius — three songwriters whose voices complement each other teaming up and letting that chemistry show. Nobody put them together. They put themselves together because they knew that they made sense together.
Funny thing about Nashville, though: Even the low-stakes side project sound like a million bucks. All of the songs on Interstate Gospel are absolutely impeccable. The production is laser-sharp. The backing musicians do quietly heroic work. The hooks have hooks. The harmonies soar. And the songs tell plainspoken, everyday stories in ways that are both evocative and economical. All of which is to say: Interstate Gospel does everything a country music album is supposed to do. This isn’t something like Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour, where the goal is to transcend the genre while still honoring its historic goals. Instead, Interstate Gospel is simply trying to live within its genre and to tell the stories it wants to tell. And it does all of that exceptionally well.
Lambert is one of the great country voices to come along in recent decades: A no-bullshit high-lonesome twang that conveys both dejected heartbreak and ass-kicking self-reliance with equal panache. Monroe, meanwhile, is deeper and fuller, with an expansive warmth working for her. And Presley, with her thick Kentucky accent, is somewhere between them, her signs and snarls blending in with one another. None of them takes over or dominates on Interstate Gospel. Instead, they find ways to make those voices work together and to share the spotlight. (For the first time, all three members of the group share songwriting credits on nearly every song on the album. The one exception is the album-closing “This Too Shall Pass,” which Monroe and Presley wrote together, without Lambert.)
There’s a lot of heartache on Interstate Gospel. It’s not a divorce album, but it does have divorce songs and breakup songs. And most of them aren’t exultant, the way “Got My Name Changed Back” is. “Best Years Of My Life” is a heavy-hearted look at a marriage in decline: “I was looking forward to / Staying here forever cuz 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.” (That one’s got a hell of an opening line, too: “I’ve picked a good day for a recreational Percocet.”) And “When I Was His Wife” is a warning to an ex’s new partner: “Holy matrimony, best day of your life / I said that, too, when I was his wife.”
But Interstate Gospel also has songs about small-town religion, about disappointing the elders in your family, about overcoming the kinds of shitty fights that every relationship has. “Commissary” is all about cutting off contact with someone — a relative, maybe — who’s been sent off to prison. “Cheyenne” is about envying a woman who never gets herself emotionally entangled. They’re all perfectly crafted little short stories. They resonate on their own, and they resonate together. Interstate Gospel is a perfectly paced album, with rockers and ballads and old-timey rambles all working together as peaks and valleys. And they’re full of beautifully worded lines like that joke about Lambert spending all that time in court.
Right now, the state of country music radio reminds me of alternative rock radio in the late ’90s and early ’00s, when rap-rock and post-grunge came in. Around that time, nobody could really agree what alternative rock even was, and women disappeared from the air almost entirely. Country hasn’t been having an identity crisis the way alt-rock did — at least not in a way anywhere near that pronounced. But it has come close to expelling women’s voices. Right now, we’re watching Kacey Musgraves become an unstoppable critical favorite who’s mostly ignored by country radio, even though she was getting some level of radio love before many of the critics who revere Golden Hour had even heard of her. And the female singer who’s probably been on country radio the most this year isn’t even a country singer. It’s Bebe Rexha, the nondescript Staten Island-born dance-pop singer whose Florida Georgia Line collab “Meant To Be” ruthlessly dominated the country chart this year.
Miranda Lambert’s last album, the masterful 2016 double LP The Weight Of These Wings had one big hit in “Vice,” and she’ll probably always be a star. And yet, within the context of her genre, she’s still somehow undervalued. So are her bandmates. Interstate Gospel is one of the most deeply satisfying country albums I’ve heard in years, and I just hope people hear it.
Interstate Gospel is out 11/2 on RCA Nashville.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Gabby’s World’s sharp, ruminative DIY joint Beast On Beast.
• Moonface’s final LP This One’s For The Dancer & This One’s For The Dancer’s Bouquet.
• Molly Nilsson’s dreamy syntpopper Twenty Twenty.
• Migos member Takeoff’s solo debut The Last Rocket.
• Dead Can Dance’s globally minded meditation Dionysus.
• Marianne Faithfull’s grand-dame statement Negative Capability.
• Kelly Moran’s wide-ranging, experimental Ultraviolet.
• It Looks Sad.’s woozy indie popper Sky Lake.
• Hour’s dramatic instrumental Anemone Red.
• Sun Kil Moon’s loose rambler This Is My Dinner.
• Yung Lean’s slow, cinematic Poison Ivy.
• NVDES’ frenetic dance LP Vibe City Utah.
• Majetic’s insular dance debut Club Dread.
• Tenacious D’s comedy-rock return Post-Apocalypto.
• The Prodigy’s big-beat siren-squeal No Tourists.
• Touché Amoré’s live LP 10 Years/1000 Shows: Live at the Regent Theater.
• Bob Dylan’s More Blood, More Tracks box set.
• Drug Church’s Seaweed- and Sugar-influenced shredder Cheer.