NPR Music | Staff
Angaleena Presley really is a coal miner's daughter. The Kentucky-born singer-songwriter, one-third of the trio Pistol Annies, drew from her own experience to write her new solo debut,American Middle Class. And that, she says, meant talking about hard times: drug addiction, alcohol, money problems, a dead high school football star.
"I think oral history is a big part of my culture, being from the mountains," Presley says, "and I got picked to be the storyteller."
Presley spoke with NPR's Scott Simon about bringing her characters, real and fictional, to life in her songs. Hear the radio version at the audio link and read their conversation below.
Scott Simon: Let me ask you about one of these tough and beautiful songs: "Pain Pills," which is about a football hero.
Angaleena Presley: It took me, probably, about two or three years to finish this song. And the seed was planted when I went home to Kentucky to the funeral of a friend of mine from high school. When I was at the funeral, people were saying, "You know, he had heart condition." This and that. And just, you know, nobody was talking about what really happened: He OD'd on prescription pain medication.
So I started the song then, and then over the years, I went to another funeral and another funeral and another funeral. You know, all of these characters in the song are inspired by things that really happened to people that I love.
Your father makes an appearance on the title cut, "American Middle Class."
That's my daddy. He is the hardest working teddy bear of a man I've ever met in my life. Hearing him talk about his life sort of inspired me to talk about what my experience was, being his daughter. So that's where "American Middle Class" came from.
I have to ask you about "All I Ever Wanted." There's a spoken word section, and the voice is a woman who was one of your neighbors.
She was one of my neighbors, and she was actually a drug addict. She would come over and ask for money, and then, eventually, we kind of got to be friends. And as I got to know her, her story was just really interesting. She had grown up in this very wealthy family; she was like the white-gloves, debutante, pony-riding princess. And now, here she was: no teeth, close to death, asking me for 67 cents to get to the food stamp office.
She needed to be documented. So she came over one day and I was like, "Can you come in here and say this Bible verse for me?" And she passed away probably a month or so after that.
You have to dig deep for your music, don't you?
Well, I would say yes, but to me it's like breathing. I can't take credit for a lot of my music. You know, I've called myself a song catcher rather than a song writer, because I feel like this is just something that I know how to do. And I feel really blessed that I do it, but it's just second nature to me.
There's a particular line in "Ain't No Man" that I really admire: "She's hot as a fire on the end of a cigarette / Rich as a church's Wednesday-night basket."
You know, when I made this record, my intention was: When you listen to it, it's like a book. All of the songs go together and once you're finished listening to the record, hopefully it was an experience — rather than a bunch of songs that you listened to in a row.
"Ain't No Man," I mean, she is — she is the character. She is the American middle class woman. If you listen to the words of "Ain't No Man," she's crazy. She's smart. She's sexy. She's ugly, sometimes. She's indecisive. She's fickle. But the common thread is: ain't nothing gonna keep her down. She is the main character in the novel that is my record.