Now she’s stepping out as a solo artist with American Middle Class and unquestionably has something to say. The autobiographical album offers the kind of vivid songwriting that first attracted the attention of her Pistol Annies bandmates Miranda Lambert and Ashley Monroe.
One of CMT’s Next Women of Country, Presley grew up near Beauty, Kentucky, not far from the Van Lear coal mines and the West Virginia state line. While her debut collection draws on her own life story on songs like “Knocked Up” and “Drunk,” she reveals a more universal perspective on “Blessing and a Curse” and “Surrender.” And although she filmed her new video for “Pain Pills” in the Nashville area, she’s quick to note how much it reminds her of home.
CMT: What do you remember most about shooting the music video for “Pain Pills”?
Presley: Oh, gosh. My dad, of course. He’s in the video and plays the part of the undertaker and the evil doctor. He was so cute and took direction so well and was so tickled to be a part of it. …
That song is special to me because my hometown has been ravaged by this epidemic, so to have something for people to see, maybe they will not be afraid to try to find an Al-Anon meeting or, heaven forbid, start a group — an Al-Anon group or a NA [Narcotics Anonymous] group. There’s not really a lot of resources, and rural America needs it worse than anyone. So my goal is just put it out there and get people talking about it.
It’s neat to hear your dad’s voice on the title track, talking about his life as a coal miner, but that last comment he makes stopped me in my tracks when he said, “It ain’t no life, really.” What was going through your mind when you heard him say that?
That was a combination of things. I sat down and recorded him and let him talk for two hours one day. So I wrote the song after I had documented all of these stories. For part of it, there’s a sadness to it because you spend your whole life underground, and you know you’ve sacrificed a lot. … There were times I didn’t even see my dad except for Sundays. And he didn’t see the light of day except for Sunday because when he would go in, it was dark. When he would come out, it was dark. And it was dark in the mines. So, he would literally only see the sunshine on Sundays.
To me, that’s the part where he’s saying, “It ain’t no life really.” But there’s also a pride that goes along with it. If you asked him, “Would you go back and change it?” he would say, “Heck, no, I wouldn’t change it! I’m proud. My buddies, we survived. We took care of each other. Look at my little daughter and what she’s doing down there in Tennessee now!” That fed me. He kept food on the table, and he would do the whole thing over again.
What was your mom and dad’s response when you played the new record for them?
They had heard the songs — a lot of these songs were written years ago. You know, they don’t get that excited about it. “Better Off Red” on the record — that’s what that song is about. They love it and they think it’s cool, but they’re not going to get on an airplane to come see a show. They’ve never flown, and I don’t think they ever will. And there’s something so beautiful about that because they’re so content with what they’ve accomplished in their lives.
My dreams have come true, but so did theirs. Their kids grew up, and they’re successful. My parents have a truck and a nice car and an in-ground swimming pool. To them, they’ve got it made.
But I would imagine that some people thought that you had it made, too, and also that you were wealthy when they saw you step out onstage with the Pistol Annies.
Oh, yeah! And, no, I was not wealthy. At all. My house got foreclosed on.
During that tour?
Yeah, totally. A song off that first [Pistol Annies] record, “Housewife’s Prayer,” says, “I’ve been thinking about setting my house on fire.” I really was! I came up with that line of the song while I was sitting there hatching out a plan to burn my house down so I could collect insurance money. Because I was horrified and so scared. I had a baby, and I didn’t know what we were going to do. Luckily, I started writing a song instead of committing a felony. And God took care of us.
And you ended up getting paid by writing the song.
I did, didn’t I? Yesss! And I got to sing it on the Opry for the first time with Loretta Lynn sitting there on the front row. So it’s just all about hope.
Loretta Lynn’s life story, from the outside, seems almost too good to be true, but I’d imagine if you’re living that close to where it all happened, it would spark your imagination somehow. You probably hear “Coal Miner’s Daughter” differently than anybody else I know.
For sure, and when that movie came out, oh, my gosh. … I mean, I have it memorized. I could sit here and act it out completely from start to finish. We listened to her records every night. Me and my mom would do dishes and listen to her records. My mom loves to sing, too, and she would sing at the top of her lungs.
It’s probably why my mom and dad are still together. Because that was her therapy. Just singing about all of that stuff that women go through! I just hope women will do the dishes and listen to “Knocked Up” and “Drunk” … and know that it’s OK because nobody’s perfect.
Are you prepared for people to come up and tell you their most personal stories? With this record, I feel like that will probably happen.
I hope to God that happens. I love it when that happens. And that really lets me know that all of the sacrifices that I have made to do this job are worth it. I can’t be on the PTA because I’d have to miss too many of the meetings, and that’s something I sacrificed to give these songs to people. When these songs give back to me and validate the fact that I did it for a reason, that’s what keeps me going.