Angaleena Presley

Angaleena Presley and Nadine Hubbs’s Case Against Country-Music Classism

Jewly Hight

By Jewly Hight

on 10.28.14 in Features

The first band mentioned in Rednecks, Queers & Country Music, one of the most important scholarly discourses on country music of this decade, isn’t Little Big Town or Florida Georgia Line or even the Dixie Chicks — it’s the Foo Fighters. Early in the book, author and University of Michigan prof Nadine Hubbs points to the plaudits Dave Grohl and company received from outlets like Huffington Post for performing “Keep It Clean (Hot Buns)” — a twanged-up novelty song about gay rednecks — at a demonstration by the gay-condemning fringe group Westboro Baptist Church. To Hubbs, both the song and the applause it received is evidence of how ingrained the stereotype of the homophobic, white working-class “redneck” has become.

Hubbs immediately follows that illustration with a counter-example: a 1920s U.S. Navy investigation of men soliciting men for sex in Rhode Island. As it turns out, it wasn’t hard to find working-class sailors willing to go under cover without fear of their participation diminishing their masculinity. But when the case went to court, those volunteers were stunned to see themselves portrayed as deviants, right along with the “perps” they helped catch.

Hubbs uses those examples to show that the contemporary dichotomy of working-class bigotry versus middle-class tolerance is deeply flawed. The constant, she argues, is that those whose educations and professions put them in a position to interpret the social landscape — critics, commentators, academics and the like — consistently attribute any attitudes that seem socially backward to blue-collar folks, and their music.

The genre that most often falls victim to this stereotyping is country, with much of its meaningful content either missed or dismissed compared to the aesthetic values that hold sway in decidedly middle-class forms — Americana or indie rock, for example. She lists a slew of songs, from Johnny Cash‘s “Oney” to Gretchen Wilson’s “Redneck Woman,” whose expressions of class resentment are read less as political speech than impotent whining next to Serious Statement songs found in other genres. It’s the middle-class, Hubbs explains, who are more prone to believe they can make a unique mark on the world with their art, while the working-class subject is depicted as resistant to any outward change that’s beyond her control, preferring to hang onto personal integrity.

‘You’re in the middle; you’re not comfortable, and you’re not poor. You really don’t get the benefits of either world. It’s sort of this isolated experience, where you’re just kind of in it to survive.
— Angaleena Presley’

Angaleena Presley is one roots-country singer and songwriter who’s well equipped to challenge those notions. In the trio the Pistol Annies — a group whose most famous member is Miranda Lambert — it’s Presley, the college-educated coal miner’s daughter, who has supplied the most imaginative images: a tailpipe rigged up with a guitar string to keep it from dragging on the asphalt; the arsonist daydreams of a housewife facing foreclosure.

Presley’s solo debut, American Middle Class, out this month, further explores the tension in being caught between an affection for the hardworking people living an unforgiving eastern Kentucky landscape and the impulse to escape to find success and make a home in more cosmopolitan environs. In these dozen tracks, resentment and rumination coexist.

Throwing an academic and a country songwriter into a conference-call interview together would ordinarily be a risky proposition, but Presley and Hubbs were special cases, eager to dig in and up for the challenge of translating between their disciplines. It made for a revelatory conversation.

Before we start, I thought it might helpful to define our terms. Nadine, your book unpacks the differences between working-class and middle-class values. Angaleena, your album, to me, is really grounded in blue-collar sensibilities, but you chose the title American Middle Class. Why that instead of something like American Blue Collar or American Working Class?

Angaleena Presley: I guess I chose that because it’s the name of the song, the title track. But the reason the song is called that, is just — that’s what it is. You’re in the middle; you’re not comfortable, and you’re not poor. You really don’t get the benefits of either world. It’s sort of this isolated experience, where you’re just kind of in it to survive.

Nadine, how closely does that align with the ways you use those terms?

Nadine Hubbs: Just to let Angaleena know, your publicist just yesterday sent me a link [to your album], so I didn’t get to spend a lot of time it. But I listened to the [title] track and noticed what you were doing with the label “American Middle Class” in that song. There was a generational connection that I think illustrates nicely what has happened with our use of the term in the U.S.

You mean the term “middle class”?

‘In America, we deny that we have class differences at all. It goes against all of our notions of the American dream and infinite social mobility.
— Nadine Hubbs’

Hubbs: Yeah, it’s shifted. Nobody in America wants to be called “working class,” first of all. In America, we deny that we have class differences at all. It goes against all of our notions of the American dream and infinite social mobility — that any boy can be president. There have been a lot of studies over a lot of years that show that, in America, everybody wants to call themselves middle class — including rich people. So the term has really shifted. When politicians in particular want to give a shout-out to the working class, they don’t want to offend them by calling them the “working class.” We now call that the middle class.

We had a period of post-war prosperity, which is when I grew up, where my dad had a blue-collar job and we had a middle-class standard of living, but we absolutely didn’t talk like them, we didn’t eat like them, we didn’t listen to the same music as they did. We had a different set of values. That’s a lot of what I focus on in this book, the cultural differences.

What Angaleena shows in that song, I think, is a father and a daughter who are both called out in the chorus as being members of the American middle class. (“I got my education at a school they could afford/ The scholarships went to the rich and the grants went to the poor/ So I stood behind a little downtown bar/ spending money, books and gas/ to be a certified member of the work-too-much/ American middle class.”) He worked in the coal mines, she went to college — albeit in a hardscrabble way — working really hard to put herself through college and, implicitly, going to whatever college she could afford. He would’ve been born into the working class; she came of age in a time when she was called middle class. And we see how they’re both struggling, even though she now has a college degree and got out of the coal mines. The shift of the term is almost illustrated in the narrative of that song.

Presley: I agree with that. And in the chorus of the song, it’s like, “Tear this poor house down/ when you know how to build it back.” The message my parents always gave to me was, “Go out and get better than what we have.” But in reality, what happens is you go out and you get exactly what they have. You’re just the next generation.

My sister is the perfect example. She went to college, and she’s now a social worker back in my hometown. She is basically reliving my parents’ lives. She’s a social worker. She has a degree. Her husband works for the gas company. They barely get by. They are paycheck to paycheck. To me, I guess it’s just hard to escape that.

Your mom was a schoolteacher, right?

Presley: Mmhmm.

So she would’ve had to get a degree too in order to teach.

Presley: She did, and she actually did that while she already had kids. My mom and dad got married when she was 16 and he was 18. So the fact that she got her degree was just crazy. If you really look at it, it probably was a miracle that she even graduated from high school.

There are some really telling images in the title track about the clothes that you wanted to have growing up — like name-brand stonewashed jeans and Keds sneakers. What made you feel like those details were important enough to include?

‘I’ll go to a red carpet in a $27 dress I found at Goodwill and brag about it — not fake it and throw a label on it. — Angaleena Presley’

Presley: I guess, to me, part of painting the picture of how it was for my generation [is to acknowledge that] there was always this “fake it ’til you make it” sort of mentality. Like, “Someday we’re gonna have it. Until we get it, we’re gonna pretend like we have it.” Whether that’s my mom sewing a Guess label on the back of my Jordache jeans, or pretending my uncle wasn’t in jail over the weekend because he beat his wife. You just didn’t humor those things — in an effort to rise above them, I guess. But as a child, I knew we were pretending. I am the observer-writer brain, and I noticed it more. It just always stuck out to me. And now as an adult, I shop at thrift stores still. I go to red carpets in thrift-store dresses, and I’m proud of it. I’ll go to a red carpet in a $27 dress I found at Goodwill and brag about it — not fake it and throw a label on it.

That strikes me as pretty resourceful on your mom’s part to stick a designer label on generic clothes. Who were you trying to impress? What difference did it make?

Presley: You know, I guess we were trying to impress each other. Other moms did it too. My mom wasn’t the only one doing it. I don’t really understand it. I guess that mountain people are survivors, and if surviving means wearing Keds, then by god that’s what we’re gonna do — make something out of nothing, you know? If that was part of beating poverty, then we’re gonna figure out how to do it.

Nadine, those details made me think of how you talk about Gretchen Wilson’s song “Redneck Woman,” especially when you point out that she brags about looking just as good in lingerie from Wal-Mart as other women do in Victoria’s Secret. You note that those kinds of details are often trivialized and feminized. What do you really see going on in that imagery and in this song of Angaleena’s?

Hubbs: The details Angaleena is talking about and the details she draws on in order to weigh class differences, I think these are exactly the kind of details that I focus on in my book. In America, the class difference registers in those details. Classical Marxist thinking focuses on the difference between the factory owner and the factory laborer, and whether you occupy one role or the other. But in the contemporary American class system, we’re not focused on production. We’re focused on consumption. So what label you’re rocking, even that you are rocking a label — if you have that one pair, you need to keep them clean because, yeah, you’re fakin’ it ’til you can make it. It’s aspiration in order to maintain dignity. Because the stakes here are, “Who gets to be human? Who gets full humanity?” You asked Angaleena, “Who were you doing it for?” I think, Angaleena, you kind of paused.

Presley: Just for me.

Hubbs: Yeah. Maybe you’re not trying to impress a particular person. It’s about maintaining your own dignity. It’s about not falling into despair. It’s about maintaining your humanity. It’s about keeping your own chin up.

Nadine, you were talking about factory owners and laborers. And that’s something Angaleena’s dad addresses in his spoken-word intro to “American Middle Class.” He indicts the boss and says it was the coal miners who did all the work and were rewarded with low wages — that and maybe a commemorative belt buckle. What were you looking for from your dad, Angaleena, when you sat down to record him talking? How did you explain to him what you were trying to capture?

Presley: You know, when I sat down with my dad, I didn’t really have a particular [plan]. Oral history is a big part of my culture, and I just knew that my dad was a person who needed to be documented, because he’s just a fascinating human being. So I brought my recorder home and sat down. I wrote down a few questions for him, just to prompt him. Really, I just asked him to talk. And boy, did he talk. I have three hours, I think. I actually wrote the song after I recorded him telling all these stories. His stories were sort of what inspired the song.

Your dad’s speaking in a matter-of-fact tone. But in some of the lines you wrote, especially the one about him not being able to get his pension and social security, you sound a lot more riled than he does.

Presley: Well, as hard as a lot of it was for him, he’s so proud of [the work he did]. There’s this camaraderie between those men, where it’s a life or death situation. As hard as it was, it was also rewarding. And he was injured, actually. He was in a rock fall. He tells the story of when they were wheeling him out on the stretcher and he was looking up at the roof of the coal mine; he was like, “I’ll never come back here.” Because that was probably his fifth or sixth close call with getting [seriously] injured. Rather than retire, he went on disability, and it took him two years to get his pension fund and his disability, because they just didn’t want to give it to him.

‘My dad at the end of his life knew damn well that he had just been treated as a disposable body. How can you stand the awareness of that? You have to find a way to survive that knowledge.
— Nadine Hubbs’

He was a really good worker. He never called in sick. It was sad. He had about a two-year depression, and that was just one of the saddest things that I’d ever seen. It pissed me off, because he’d worked all these years, helping other families who didn’t work. Nothing against the welfare system, but you know, it’s people like my dad who keep it afloat — well, not keep it afloat.

Anyway, watching him go through that was horrible. He couldn’t ride his four-wheeler. He couldn’t mow the grass for fear that they would videotape him doing something strenuous. I mean, he broke his back. And then he did all his black-lung testing, and he was excited because he had it. He celebrated the fact that he had black lung, because that meant he was gonna get more money to provide for his retirement. And he still had two kids to put through college when all of this went on.

Hubbs: Can I say something about anger?


Hubbs: You said that some of Angaleena’s lyrics sounded more riled than the spoken narration of her dad. My dad died from asbestos in his lungs. He worked for the railroad for 45 years. Nobody can sustain the anger that calls for over a long period of time. But the middle class, the narrating class, the ones they’re interested in representing are the working-class heroes who have righteous anger.

What you just noted, Jewly, that Angaleena’s dad sounds calmer, less riled than the lyrics. First of all, that is a survival tactic. You can’t survive that damn angry every day of your life. But that’s the only way you seem like the upstanding, heroic working man who helps form the fantasy ideal in the cultural imagination. But that’s not who the real working class are, because that’s not what working-class life calls for for survival.

Presley: There’s a lot of pride involved, I think. And you can’t be proud of something that pisses you off. So that makes total sense to me, Nadine.

Hubbs: But at the same time, Angaleena, your dad had kind of a quasi-Marxist analysis himself. And most workers do. A worker who worked for the man for 40 or 50 years, they have an analysis. They know what’s what. My dad at the end of his life — he died four years ago — he knew damn well that he had just been treated as a disposable body. He knew that. How can you stand the awareness of that? You have to find a way to survive that knowledge. It’s not ignorance of how the system works and how it’s using you that keeps the working class from being constantly riled up or singing protest songs all the time.

Presley: You know, I remember my dad was involved in a lot of strikes too. One of the big things was not crossing the picket line. That almost made me cry, Nadine, hearing about your dad.

Nadine, you talk a lot in your book about the political content in country songwriting going unrecognized. Do you hear political speech in this song? And Angaleena, do you feel like there’s political speech in here?

Hubbs: I hear it for sure in Angaleena’s title track. I hear it as you said — in the lyrics, I hear her riled up. I hear anger. I hear, yeah, political protest.

Presley: Yeah, there’s definitely some anger there. Someone I love is Hazel Dickens. I don’t know if you know who Hazel Dickens is.

I do.

Presley: She would go to the picket lines and sing, and she was a huge activist for miner’s rights. I could totally see myself rockin’ some picket lines. But I don’t know if that even goes on today. Like, we’ve just kind of — well, coal mining is on the way out anyway.

Hubbs: This has been one of those things that has defined the differences between different musical categories. When Kacey Musgraves last year, for example, released that album [Same Trailer, Different Park] and it got a lot of press attention, people were noticing that it had sort of cultural commentary, and maybe even some political messages. Well, then it got attention from places like The New York Times, places that normally don’t pay that much attention to Nashville country music. Whereas Hazel Dickens, of course, was heard as belonging to mountain music and folk music. We’re used to political protest coming up in that category.

‘People don’t tend to think of mainstream country as having political content. Our memories are very short, because, of course, Johnny Cash had his prison albums in the late ’60s, and those albums were so clearly, undeniably political. But we quickly forget about those things. — Nadine Hubbs’

People don’t tend to think of mainstream country as having political content. Our memories are very short, because, of course, Johnny Cash had his prison albums in the late ’60s, and those albums were so clearly, undeniably political. But we quickly forget about those things. I think country radio has been so conservative over the past few decades and has kept a lot of political work out of the mainstream. But I wonder, with the kind of work that Angaleena is doing here — which certainly is gonna get attention in the Americana category, I’m predicting, as I think Pistol Annies do, too — I wonder if we might see some hybridization. Because Kacey Musgraves did make it into the Country Top 40.

Presley: Who knows? If I can raise a couple hundred thousand dollars, maybe that’ll happen. Unfortunately, a lot of it’s about how much cash can you fork over. But there’s definitely politics all over this record. I mean, “Pain Pills,” that’s an all-out anthem against what doctors and drug companies are doing to small-town America. Stop it. I can’t stand it anymore. Stop shooting this crap into the veins of my people. They don’t understand what they’re taking.

Hubbs: So it was a protest against big pharmaceutical.

Presley: Yeah. A doctor who will prescribe a 16-year-old child who’s had a football injury oxycodone. No! Don’t do that!

I’d love to hear that song on country radio. And it definitely struck me as coming from a nonjudgmental place, in terms of the way you talk about the people in the community who are living with this.

Presley: I’m judging the companies and the corporations and the government and the mines and the money and the corruption. It’s a massive epidemic that we started — that our government and our doctors and our medical system started.

I guess I just know too many good people whose lives have been really affected by it. So that’s definitely political. “Dry County Blues” is pretty much a jab at, “Hey, can’t we just get a restaurant where we can serve beer and make a couple dollars and have something to do on the weekends, other than go break into people’s houses and steal some pills?” So yeah, there’s a lot of politics on my record.

My favorite song where you compare and contrast your dad’s life experience with your own is “Better Off Red.” Early on, you sing “I’d be better off red/ if all the things I’d learned would just fall out of my head.” Later, you turn your attention to your dad’s perspective: “He’s not well read/ he doesn’t give a damn about the things in my head.” What’s the source of your internal conflict and regret here?

Presley: You know, I could preach all of this all day long. But then I look at my dad; he’s not preaching about anything — he’s fishing. He’s mowing his grass. He’s planting flowers.

I’ll never forget how my dad taught me how to mow the grass. He was like, “All right, this is a very important thing. When you’re done, you get you a chair and you get you a cold beer or a glass of tea, and you sit back and look at what a good job you’ve done.” And we did that together. That was one of the most amazing moments of clarity I’ve ever experienced. To him, the highlight of his day is mowing his grass and then sitting there in that chair and looking at it. It’s taking stock and investing in things that money can’t buy. That is what I am envious of — that’s what I long for. Because for some reason in my life, I wanted to go everywhere and travel and see everything and write and sing and, you know, wear sequins. But my dad’s the opposite. He’s invested all of his time and all of his money in things that money can’t buy. He is one of the happiest people I know.

‘Resentment will not get you much traction if you are a working-class person. And God help you if you have resentment and you look and sound like Honey Boo Boo’s mama. — Nadine Hubbs’

Hubbs: I love that. I have to say, I just mowed my lawn last night, and I do indulge in the same thing. It just looks so good when you’re done. I’m impressed by his clarity, though. That’s brilliant that he actually pointed it out to you when he was instructing you in how to mow the lawn. He knew that that was the crucial aspect of it: Pop a beer, or make sure you have some tea.

Presley: And the placing of the chair. He’s like, “You’ve gotta get a chair and put it where you can see it all.”

Hubbs: This raises issues of restlessness and contentment. We’ve already been talking about anger and class anger, and Jewly was connecting that to some of the themes in my book; I wanna connect it further. I also talk about resentment in country music, and I talk about how resentment’s such a bad word in the mouths of critics of country music. Like, “There’s resentment in these songs.” They’re holding their nose. Like, what could be more distasteful?

First of all, resentment will not get you much traction if you are a working-class person, and that’s a little nugget of wisdom that I betcha your dad knows full well. And God help you if you have resentment and you look and sound like Honey Boo Boo’s mama.

I’m really interested in the ways in which I think class anger absolutely does come up in country music. It does have resentment in it. It doesn’t come up in a form that would make it recognizable as heroic, butch, masculine working-class. It comes up in ways that the narrating class finds distasteful, disgusting, sniveling. It comes up even in the sound of the pedal steel, and in the sound where you’ve got pitch-bending and human-like weeping and whining in the fiddle. So that’s why, for example, on Shania Twain’s albums at the peak of her popularity in the ’90s, they made one version for country radio and one version for pop radio, where they strictly kept out any trace of pedal steel or fiddle.

But of course, it’s in the lyrics too. It’s there in a song like “Redneck Woman.” Resentment is at the center of the song. I love what [Gretchen Wilson's] doing. There’s incredible analysis there. It’s really smart. When she says, “Let me hear a big ‘hell yeah’ for all the redneck girls like me,” she is specifically calling for solidarity among working-class women, who are recognizable here under this tag “redneck,” which connects with Angaleena’s song “Better Off Red.”

Angaleena, I would say there’s a greater chance that this album is going to be heard by and intelligible to the world of professional music critics, academics and the like because of the reflective nature of your songwriting and the self-aware way that you talk about embodying contradictions. You’ve said you wanted things you weren’t supposed to want growing up. How did you recognize that class consciousness? And how’d you deal with it?

Presley: I don’t know, Jewly. Here’s the thing: When you grow up where I grew up, you don’t really have a lot of choices. And I didn’t have a choice, either. I just was always hovering above, watching, making mental notes. Other kids probably didn’t notice their moms putting Keds signs on their shoes. But I was like, “Hmm, I should take notes on this, because at some point, I’ll have to tell this story.” I’m just a historian, I guess. That’s the only real way that I can explain it.

There are historians from every culture, from every ethnicity, and that’s just what I got picked to do. I don’t see it as a choice that I made. I see it as the same reason my dad went in the coal mines: he didn’t have a choice. That’s what he had to do. And for me, I had to tell the story. “Better Off Red” speaks to me going, “Darn it, why couldn’t I be the one that is just content and gets to stay there and go have dinner with granny on Saturday?”

Hubbs: I agree with you, Jewly, that the songs on this album are gonna be intelligible to what I would think of as an “Americana” audience, and those tend to be middle-class, upper-middle-class people, very often college-educated listeners. I’m thinking about how there are such sharp lines drawn — either you belong to that world or this world.

Based on my experience writing a lot about both mainstream country and Americana, I would say that it’s more that Americana defines itself in contrast to country — as in not that — than it is the other way around.

‘My goal is not to ever play into the stereotypes or to “use” their lives. It’s the opposite. I am very proud of the life I live, and I think there are so many amazing values in that life that you don’t find anywhere else. — Angaleena Presley’

Hubbs: One thing that’s really exciting to me about the work Angaleena’s doing here, and the kind of thing I was talking about with reference to Kacey Musgraves, is that maybe there’s some hybridization. Maybe you can make the kind of statements you’re making in these song and get them heard as country, as well as whatever other categories they’ll be assigned to.

Presley: That’s the goal, Nadine. It’s just funny that [for] an album called American Middle Class, the goal is to sort of jump between the classes that are separating country music. I almost called this record Hillbilly Sophisticate. It is so country on one hand, but on the other hand, there’s a part of me who is a serious writer, and I do things on purpose in my songs. I use metaphors. There’s part of me who has a minor in English, and there’s part of me who grew up riding dirt bikes.

Hubbs: What I would love is for, say, those upper-middle-class listeners to hear in your title track about how you are your father’s daughter. You are college educated. You’ve got those women’s studies courses and sensibilities under your belt. You’ve got that political awareness. And, in so many ways, so does he. Just because of his accent, we should not relegate him to some completely other world.

Presley: Right. Exactly. I mean, if I was on a sinking ship, I would hope to god that he was on it too — because he would fix it, by god.

Angaleena, how do these songs play back home in Martin County Kentucky?

Presley: Well, I’m about to find that out when I go do some in-stores at Wal-Mart. I’ll tell ya, I’m kind of freaking out about it, because I don’t really know yet. I know how my family reacts. I mean, some of the songs on this record I wrote five or six, seven years ago. They’re sort of numb to it now. But as far as the collective population hearing songs they may or may not take offense to, I don’t know. I hope I have done them justice. My goal is not to ever play into the stereotypes or to “use” their lives. It’s the opposite. I am very proud of the life I live, and I think there are so many amazing values in that life that you don’t find anywhere else. So I hope it gives them a sense of pride, rather than, “OK, somebody’s making fun of us again.”

Hubbs: I don’t think you have to worry. I’m not just saying that. In the song about pills, your sympathetic sense totally comes through. When you’re doing an us-and-them, you are an “us,” not a “them.”

Presley: Right. So I hope that it’s uplifting for them, and I hope that it raises awareness for them. And I hope that they can put it on at a bonfire and rock out to it.