Wrangled is an explicitly forthright journey through my experience in the business of Country Music. I tried to tackle uncomfortable realities like the discrimination against female artists at the height of Bro-Country, the high school mentality of Music Row and the pain that’s just beneath the surface of the road to stardom
These words came from Angaleena Presley ahead of her second album, and they serve better than any introduction I could hope to write. Wrangled lives up to that description from the opening track, “Dreams Don’t Come True.” Written with fellow former Pistol Annies Miranda Lambert and Ashley Monroe, it delivers this message in a matter-of-fact way and even advises us, “don’t let anyone tell you they do.” It’s that straightforward honesty coming through to shatter your dreams on the opening track that makes you listen to, an believe, Angaleena Presley throughout the record. After all, who is going to tell you your dreams won’t come true, that you’ll end up pregnant instead of selling hit records? That’s a truth our friends and family would be even, and perhaps especially, hard-pressed to give us. But there’s something about the unapologetic way Angaleena broadcasts that truth, and right there at the start of her record, that makes you take notice and respect what she has to say–it might be brutal, but she damn sure won’t lie, and there’s a refreshing quality in that which can only come from such authenticity as this.
I said Presley’s honesty makes you respect what she has to say, and it turns out she has to say quite a lot. “High school” tells of the harsh realities of getting through each day in high school, and based on the quote above, I have to wonder if this is also directed at Music Row. Either way, I have to say this would have been a hell of a lot more helpful to have heard in high school than most of the mainstream music marketed to today’s youth. Other tracks are more obviously commenting on Music Row and the struggles in the business. “Groundswell” details Angaleena’s travels from Georgia to Kentucky to Alabama as she tries to make enough to support herself. “Outlaw” feels like this song’s antithesis; here, Presley sings, “It’s too hard to live this way” and says the money would be easier if she weren’t an “outlaw” and a “renegade.” You get the feeling listening that if she could change herself, she might conform, but she knows that it would be impossible, and she can’t be something she’s not.
The most blatant protest of Music Row is “Country,” and I can’t believe I even have to explain this in detail, but after reading the barrage of SCM comments misunderstanding and flat-out hating this, it seems apparent that I must. It’s hard to explain without listening, and I’ll post the video, but obviously it can’t stand alone, so I’ll say that the distortion is purposeful. The name-checking of every bro country reference in the verses and the hook devoid of any actual words is purposeful. And the killer rap verse added by Yelawolf name-dropping Sturgill and telling Music Row to “fuckin’ save it” is not only purposeful, it’s genius and adds to the parody. By all means, hate this song, but at least take the time to understand what it is before you decide it sounds like crap, as that was part of the point, and the song is all the better for it.
Angaleena Presley also said she wanted to discuss the discrimination against female artists. This is done in a more subtle way–there’s not really a track dealing with that specifically, but there are certainly many that speak to the female perspective and address the unique realities faced by women. The crown jewel of the album is the title track, where the narrator feels “wrangled” by her life and by her husband. It’s very nice melodically, an the lyrics are some of the best on the whole thing–“girls down at church can go to hell. Ironing shirts and keeping babies quiet ain’t no life, it’s a livin’ jail.” As much as I hate to pick a track off this fantastic album, if you must choose one, make it “Wrangled.” As the album progresses, Presley’s irritation only seems to grow; on “Wrangled,” the woman portrayed is tired of her life and resentful of the women around her who seem to enjoy it. That frustration comes out in “Bless my Heart,” where she casually informs any woman who is content to backstab others for their own gain, “If you bless my heart, I’ll slap your face.” There’s more of that frustration on “Mama I Tried,” another highlight of the record, as the main character laments that despite everything she did, she couldn’t be the lady her mother wanted–“always a bridesmaid, never the bride.” And finally, that pent-up frustration comes spilling out in anger on “Good Girl Down,” co-written with Wanda Jackson–“It’s a man’s world, and I’m a lady, and they’ll never appreciate me. They don’t take the time to get to know who I am, frankly, boys, I don’t give a damn.”
Yes, we do have a Miranda Lambert-esque song, “only Blood,” where the narrator marries a preacher who abuses her, and yes, she kills him. There have been a lot of songs like this certainly, but I do feel this one stands out some because it is built around the line “only blood can set you free” and serves a double purpose of exposing the hypocrisy in the church. “Motel Bible” does this in a much more understated and fun way to close the record–“God don’t give a damn how I’m dressed.”
But Angaleena Presley is not always angry or discouraged on this album; in fact, “Cheer up Little Darling,” written with Guy Clark, expresses a hope seen rarely on Wrangled, and in doing so, it completes the record; “It feels like a tight spot, but it’s just a loose end.”
This album lived up to everything Angaleena Presley advertised it to be, and for the honesty and songwriting alone, it deserves the highest praise. It’s the second ten of 2017, and it has earned this rating for exactly the opposite reasons as Marty Stuart’s–that album was special musically, and this one is special because of the lyrics, the stories, and the emotions running throughout it. An honest, compelling album that gets better with each listen. Three chords and the truth.