By Kristin M. Hall
As a member of the country trio Pistol Annies, singer-songwriter Angaleena Presley often got questions about the lack of women on country radio, which she responded to with a safe sound bite about musical trends being cyclical and being hopeful for change.
But privately, she didn’t believe it.
“Every time I would say those things, in my mind I would be going, ‘But it’s not cyclical. This is 10 years that we’ve had two or three females anywhere in the Top 10,”’ Presley said. “But I was scared just like everybody else. And maybe it all started with the whole Dixie Chicks thing.”
Presley is no longer holding back her opinions as shown on her bracing indictment of the music industry in her new solo album, “Wrangled,” released last month. Presley follows a wave of outlaw female artists in Nashville, Tennessee — including Nikki Lane, Margo Price, Sunny Sweeney and more — who have built their own brands from the ground up and attracted a more diverse crowd of fans without the help of major label marketing budgets and country radio.
The Kentucky-bred singer said the title song is both a metaphor about the obligations of being a working mother, but also being silenced as a woman in the music industry. “It was a way to shed my skin of all that business,” Presley said.
Other female country singers have also found success at rebelling against the music industry, but not always lasting careers. Gretchen Wilson won a Grammy for her catchy No. 1 single, “Redneck Woman,” and her 2004 debut album, “Here for the Party,” went multiplatinum. But fame and the industry moved on quickly after that and she left Sony Music after just three albums.
One of highest-selling female bands in America, the Dixie Chicks, were boycotted by country radio stations for speaking against the Iraq War and then President George W. Bush in 2003. Although they recently toured together, they haven’t put out an album since 2006.
In 2015, a radio consultant compared women to tomatoes in a salad in an argument that radio stations should play female artists sparingly. Two years later, not much has changed: Only four women had songs on Billboard’s year-end country airplay chart in 2016.
“Frankly, there are laws in this country that are supposed to protect us from discrimination for our race and sex and ethnicity,” Presley said.
Originally from South Carolina, singer Nikki Lane found her way to Nashville through both New York and Los Angeles and gave up a steady job to sing country music. A fashion entrepreneur, she runs her own vintage clothing boutique and appears in an ad campaign for the True Religion denim brand.
“It’s a trade-off,” said Lane, who co-produced her album “Highway Queen,” released in February. “Am I willing to let people call the shots in exchange for being on the radio, or am I willing to live a different life but do what I want?”
Lane’s biggest successes have come when she collaborated outside her genre, such as recording with the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach or opening for Social Distortion. She has even crossed over to alternative radio.
“It was like 3,000 40-year-old dudes and a lot of them have their arms crossed,” Lane said of the Social Distortion tour. “They are summing you up. But now coming out on the road, we got more fans from that trip than we may have gotten doing anything else.”
Historically it was men who profited from the outlaw moniker. In the 1970s, Waylon Jennings, already a huge star in country music, grew disillusioned with the Nashville music bureaucracy and wanted to take more control over his production. “Wanted! The Outlaws,” featuring Jennings, Willie Nelson, Jennings’ wife Jessi Colter and Tompall Glaser became country music’s first platinum record in 1976. Many other artists would be attached to the outlaw movement, including Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard, and fans included deadheads, hippies, bikers and avant-garde hipsters.
Colter was one of the few women at the center of the outlaw movement, which she chronicles in her new autobiography titled “An Outlaw and a Lady,” released last month. Still she said that her husband never really took the label seriously, but understood that it was a turning point for country music.
“It was a time and a place and it will never be again,” Colter said. “It’s been a good marketing thing. But it’s really just been overdone and overused.”
Even Presley denounces the tag on her song “Outlaw,” when she sings that she’s not brave because “every fight I’ve ever fought and rule I’ve ever broke is out of desperation.”
“I do want to be rich and famous and successful and have gold records all hanging on my walls,” Presley said. “It’s just that I don’t fit into that formula for some reason.”