Martin County native Angaleena Presley knows small town Appalachian life well enough to not romanticize it too much.
While a lot of country songs today get all nostalgic for Friday night lights, she writes about the town football star dying from a prescription pain medication overdose (“Pain Pills”).
Her visit to town on a Tuesday night involves giving an encouraging smile to a cold girl at the supermarket whose mama is buying cigarettes.
And American Middle Class is introduced by her daddy, Jimmy Presley, talking about work as a coal miner saying, “it ain’t no life, really,” while his daughter sings, “hammer a nail between your heart and your hometown, so you can carry this country on your back.”
There is also a lot of fun, redemption and confidence on this remarkable debut album, American Middle Class. It is an embrace of the aesthetic and traditions of American country music that also sounds immediate and relevant in the 21st century.
Folks who went to Red, White & Boom in July may not have gotten a good impression of Presley, as sticking her out on the thrust stage alone with her red guitar in front of a party-hearty crowd was not the best format to be introduced to her.
But this album reveals Presley as a strong new voice in country.
Presley, as her press biography tells us, has known life as a coal miner’s daughter, a one-time single mother and watched the toll of drug addiction growing up in the Martin town of Beauty. But she has also seen the glamour of Nashville celebrity as a successful songwriter and one-third of the Miranda Lambert trio Pistol Annies — Ashley Monroe rounded out the group.
If there is any justice in country music, Presley should be able look forward to her own Nashville spotlight with this assured album she co-produced with her husband, Jordan Powell. The searingly honest lyrics are buffeted with a gritty production by this artist who believes it’s a sin to produce a country album without a steel guitar.
Key elements include Josh Grange’s evocative pedal steel, John Henry Trinko’s canny piano and organ and crew of accomplished musicians that give every song the right ratios of groove and compassion.
And then there are the lyrics. Yes, there’s some bitterness. Yes, there’s some romance. But there are also clever meditations like Dry County Blues, which addresses some sad facts about addiction — expanded on in other songs — but but it also filled with humor. Like she sings on All I Ever Wanted, “I lived myself one hell of a life.”
Like Kacey Musgraves last year, and Loretta Lynn decades before, Presley sings with brutal honesty about her rural roots. But you never doubt home is a place she loves and wants to see get better. With such an autobiographical first statement, you do have to wonder where her next album will take her. This is clearly a record that’s been inside Presley, 38, for years.
But this year, you have to say that between Presley and Sturgill Simpson — and let’s not forget Sundy Best and Kelsey Waldon — some of the best country music being made today is by Kentuckians.
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