If you happened to have been within earshot of the Cheapside Bar and Grill about 10 years ago, there is a good chance you discovered Angaleena Presley already at work on her title as member of the Pistol Annies. Only it wasn't firearms that this Eastern Kentucky songsmith was packing.
"I used to live in an apartment along Short Street, right behind the Cheapside," said Presley, one-third of the hit country trio — alongside superstar Miranda Lambert and Ashley Monroe. The women released their sophomore album together, Annie Up, on May 7; last week, it debuted at No. 5 on Billboard's Hot 200 albums chart and was No. 8 on Amazon's music best-sellers. "It was a big, four-story loft kind of building. I used to go up on the roof and shoot off bottle rockets. I probably shouldn't tell you that, but ... oh, well."
Presley's Lexington residency was barely a year long. But it served as a personal and professional bridge, a link between a childhood in Martin County that led to a non-musical education at Eastern Kentucky University and a professional songwriting career in Nashville that triggered — pun completely intended — life in the Pistol Annies.
"I had some really good times in Lexington," Presley, 36, said. "I wrote a lot of good songs in that apartment, too. I think those songs are what convinced me that, 'Hey, maybe I'm onto something here. Maybe I can do this. Because I played in coffeehouses and these little clubs, like the Fishtank. I even used to sing karaoke at Mia's. And I was always well-received.
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"That was my little time when I stirred up the courage to move to Nashville."
A coal miner's daughter
Presley wasn't just born in the wide swath of country known as Eastern Kentucky. The woman dubbed "Holler Annie" in the Pistol Annies hails from what she calls "eastern Eastern Kentucky," the coal mining town of Beauty, near the West Virginia line. Her parents still live in Martin County.
"My family was really not that musically inclined. My dad played guitar a little," she says of her father, Jimmy, who worked as a coal miner for more than 30 years. "And I had an uncle who was a big Neil Young fan. He also liked Waylon (Jennings) and Willie (Nelson) and all the great classic country guys. He used to sit on my mamaw's porch and play for me and all my cousins. My cousins would always get tired of it and go play hide and seek. I was like, 'Please don't stop, Uncle Bobby.' I was just always drawn to music.
"There wasn't really a lot to do back home. But it seems like somebody would always get out a guitar and pick some songs. So I dug my dad's guitar out of the closet when I was probably about 16 and asked him to teach me some chords. So I learned three chords and started writing songs immediately. It was probably because I wasn't that good of a guitar player that I couldn't learn anyone else's songs. So I said, 'I'll just make my own.'"
Beauty was, by Presley's estimation, about 25 miles from Butcher Hollow, the famed homestead of Loretta Lynn. Fixated upon the music of the iconic county singer and possessed with family credentials that earned her at least honorary kinship as a fellow coal miner's daughter, she took many a private pilgrimage to Butcher Hollow, she says.
"Actually, I used to skip high school and go up to her old homeplace and sit there. I'd bring my guitar and write in my journal, 'We're ready.' I grew up on Loretta Lynn. I really, really connect to her stories and her honesty and how brave she was. She's pretty much my hero."
Presley's mother, Cathy, was a fan of Lynn, too. But she was also a teacher determined that her daughter would receive a college education. So instead of heading to Nashville to fulfill her artistic fantasies after graduating from Sheldon Clark High School, Presley moved to Richmond and earned a degree in psychology from EKU.
"If it were up to me, I probably would have got in my car when I was 18, moved to Nashville and just completely destroyed myself. So I'm glad I listened to my mom and went to college.
"My mom was a teacher and had three sisters who were also teachers. So she was pretty much, 'You will go to school, and you will graduate.' So I did that, and I'm so glad I did. After all, psychology can be a great help in navigating the music industry."
Having earned her bachelor's degree in Richmond and performed at clubs and coffeehouses in Lexington, Presley came to what always seemed like an inevitable crossroads: whether to make the professional leap to Nashville and forsake psychology for music.
"In psychology, you either go back to school or else," Presley said. "There weren't a whole lot of professional opportunities because you really need a master's or a Ph.D. to do any work. So I was teaching preschool in Lexington, having a good time and being glad that school was over. I had a lot of time to write songs and play music. One day, I just up and decided, 'OK, there's Nashville. You might as well go.'" That was in 2000.
"I had no clue whatsoever how to begin to get into the music business. But I was able to get a decent CD together of my own songs and the wheels started to spin. I started going to writer's nights, just getting to know the right people. And before you knew it, I was signed to a publishing deal.
"Now here I am, a 10-year overnight success story as a Pistol Annie.'
The crowded eRuppted
Though introduced to country music audiences via the 2011 debut album, Hell on Heels, and a highly electric sound that yielded several subsequent radio hits, the Pistol Annies were also bolstered by serious star power. Rounding out the trio with Presley and singer/songwriter Monroe is Lambert, a platinum-selling country celebrity.
In fact, it was at Lambert's concert at Rupp Arena in February 2012 that the Pistol Annies had their Lexington debut by way of an unannounced set during the show.
"That show was so special to me because I am very passionate about where I'm from. For me, when I was growing up, Rupp was where I always went to concerts. I remember seeing Randy Travis there when I was a little girl and thinking, 'I want to do that someday.'
"So when the lights went down and we came out, it was just incredible. I mean, the audience screamed so loud. As far as my career was concerned, that was a moment of glory."