Red, White and Boom: Singer-songwriter Angaleena Presley uses her music to tell Kentucky stories

Contributing Music WriterJuly 3, 2014 

Singer-songwriter Angaleena Presley grew up in Martin County. The member of Pistol Annies is set to release her first solo album.

BLU SANDERS

Growing up a true coal miner's daughter in the Martin County community of Beauty, Angaleena Presley kept her eyes and ears open.

Sure, there was music to take in. But what was within that music — the stories and the lyrical means she discovered of communicating them — fascinated her most.

"When I was growing up, I always felt like I was watching rather than being part of things. I was observing everything — from the smallest thing, like watching my mom break beans, to the big things, like my dad getting laid off from the mines," said Presley, who is part of this weekend's Red, White and Boom lineup. "Some part of me knew I was a storyteller, and that's a big part of our culture: oral history.

"Really the only way a lot of our culture has survived has been through oral history. For some reason, I just got picked to be that person from my neck of the woods that was supposed to go out and spread the word, and hopefully empower people through our little stories of struggle and joy and sorrow and happiness.

"Whatever people could draw from those stories, it was just my job to tell them. I always knew that. And I'll be telling them probably on every record I make."

Having moved to Nashville 12 years ago, Presley connected with a publishing company and went in search of a country sound that proved elusive.

"When I first moved to Nashville, I was very green. I was right off the front porch in Kentucky," said Presley, 37, who attended Eastern Kentucky University and briefly lived in Lexington. "I had no idea how anything worked. The publishing company that I was fortunate enough to find really fostered that. But when it came time to do demos of my songs, we never really found the right sound. Partly out of frustration and partly out of my own artistic battle that was going on in my head, I said, 'Let's forget it. I want to figure out what it is on my own.'"

Luckily, one country superstar who caught a listen to Presley's work and liked what she heard was Miranda Lambert. Lambert invited Presley to join her and Ashley Monroe in a sideline vocal trio called Pistol Annies.

Presley always wanted a solo career. But with Pistol Annies' quick popularity, she developed something aspiring songwriters could only dream of before releasing a debut solo record: a fan base.

"One of the reasons I joined Pistol Annies was to get my own career off the ground," Presley said. "I was in a town where there was a formula, but the formula didn't fit what I was doing. I just couldn't get any traction. Miranda didn't care about the formula, either. She slipped through the cracks and became successful at doing honest, good music. I feel like now with bands like Pistol Annies and people like Kacey Musgraves and Miranda, I think the tables are finally starting to turn. Now I feel the formula is catching up with me."

Presley views her debut album — American Middle Class, due out in October — as strongly autobiographical ("It's the story of my life up to the point where I joined Pistol Annies," she says). She sidetracked standard practice in the recording industry by co-producing the record with her husband, Jordan Powell. Still, there is plenty of high-profile harmony help on the record: Eastern Kentucky country star Patty Loveless and Emily Saliers, one-half of Indigo Girls (Presley will be touring with the pop-folk duo in August and September).

"Hanging out with Patty was like going to stay with one of my aunts or cousins. She is so much like home to me," Presley said. "At one point she was making greens, soup beans and corn bread and singing this gospel song to herself in the kitchen as she was cooking.

"We just connected in this Kentucky place that I don't feel like a lot of people understand unless you have been there. And she is a coal miner's daughter. We're few and far between, so when we find each other, we just really connect. We know what that life was like and how many stories that go with it."

Read Walter Tunis' blog, The Musical Box, at LexGo.com.

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