Music

Two New Releases Reclaim the “Supergroup” for Women

On the Pistol Annies’ new album and Boygenius’ debut EP, two generations of singer-songwriters find camaraderie rather than competition.

Ashley Monroe, Anagleena Presley and Miranda Lambert (Pistol Annies) and Phoebe Bridgers, Julien Baker, Lucy Dacus (boygenius)
Ashley Monroe, Angaleena Presley and Miranda Lambert (Pistol Annies); Phoebe Bridgers, Julien Baker, Lucy Dacus (Boygenius)
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Rick Diamond/Getty Images for Sony Music and Lera Pentelute.

The “supergroup” has been a mostly masculine preserve for a half-century. Setting aside one-off charity events—and jazz, where it’s almost routine—supergroupism was spawned in the late 1960s with the likes of Cream and Crosby, Stills & Nash (and sometimes Young), and it continued on and on from there. It was often a way of taking public the unreliable magic of stoned jam sessions, proffering the voyeuristic thrill of seeing if alpha-musician egos could mix without combusting. While, of course, drafting on each other’s sales appeal.

But musical-superheroine squads have gotten more and more common, as illustrated by a recent Pitchfork survey that covered everyone from the 1960s girl-group-veteran combo Honey Cone to the freshly minted Brittany Howard project Bermuda Triangle. They have tended to emerge from two main spheres, though: country music or indie rock—or both, with 2016’s Case/Lang/Veirs. So it’s a landmark that the past several days have seen the arrival of two near-simultaneous, superwoman-group releases, one successor each to Trio and the Breeders. Interstate Gospel is the third album by Pistol Annies, featuring Nashville star Miranda Lambert and her acclaimed but less mainstream peers Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley. And Boygenius is the eponymously (and sardonically) named debut EP by a coalition of three indie singer-songwriters in their early 20s who’ve all become centers of critical and cult-audience excitement in the past couple of years: Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers, and Lucy Dacus.

No one involved would stomach the idea that being a great female musician is so different than being a male one, and they are right about that, except for the world’s reactions. Still, together, the two releases suggest a different function for the 21st-century supergroup than the sausage parties of the past, even relative to the mellow bonhomie of the Traveling Wilburys. Instead of a battle of the axes or a back-slapping hangout, these women’s music sounds like they are answering a deep need in one another. Both albums are testaments to empathy and alliance that deny old saws about catfights and replace them with female friendship as life support—both for the players and for listeners. That’s especially vital in a music industry with a habit of thinking there’s only room for one woman in any particular “slot” at a time. Would that rap’s Cardi B and Nicki Minaj roast their obligatory-seeming beef by uniting in a supergroup instead, maybe with CupcakKe or another young challenger. (Missy Elliott, please set up a parlay, you’re our only hope!)

As you might expect, the mid-career country trio and the indie twentysomethings express their solidarities very differently. Not least because the Nashville coven has been bonded for ages, while the younger women are still in the first flush of friendly and artistic mutual crushes. The Pistol Annies have reunited to make their first album in five years, though one gathers they’re never long out of personal contact. The four days Boygenius spent making their record was the first time they’d spent in one room together—after a chain of individual meetings, group texts, and a collaborative Google Drive. Similarly, while the Pistol Annies’ members all have sharply individual voices, they tend to aim as country songwriters for an aura of everywoman universality. Baker, Bridgers, and Dacus all make folk-rock music that’s rawly poetic, personal, and introspective. Part of the power of their solo albums is that of someone opening a door on their own loneliness. Happening upon communality on Boygenius comes across as a kind of nervously lucky surprise.

Since the Pistol Annies last recorded, the issue of space for women in country has reached critical mass. The epidemic of “bro-country” and the “Tomatogate” controversy highlighted the way men have been hogging radio airplay and promotional budgets, even as women have been making more than their share of the best records—including not only each of the individual Pistol Annies, but artists such as Cam, Brandy Clark, Kacey Musgraves, and Ashley McBryde. The country-music cable station CMT took affirmative action this fall by selecting an all-woman slate of nominees for Artist of the Year, an honor Lambert won. I don’t think she’s ever said explicitly that forming Pistol Annies back in 2011 was a means of using her rare position to lift up her less-recognized friends. The group’s reasons for being seem mainly to be how well they write, perform, and harmonize—and socialize—together. But sharing the shine is a hell of a fringe benefit.

In addition to these professional challenges, the Annies have undergone personal upheavals.
Most publicly, Lambert split up with husband Blake Shelton and became the object of rabid tabloid and fan gossip, which she answered with a combination of lament and defiance on 2016’s The Weight of These Wings. Meanwhile, both Monroe and Presley have had weddings and kids—Presley is pregnant right now, which is limiting how much they can tour behind this album. And of course the world has changed, too. The overall effect on Interstate Gospel is that, while 2011’s Hell on Heels and 2013’s Annie Up were both mostly raucous albums leavened with a few heartbreak songs to maintain the trio’s artistic bona fides, the ratio here is reversed. This is the Annies’ truth-teller album, where the backup of their artistic sisters enables them to say things that might reverberate too intimately in a solo project.

This is most obvious on “Masterpiece,” where Lambert directly addresses what it feels like to go through a breakup when you are idealized by untold numbers of people as a perfect couple. One of the things that’s admirable about this gorgeous track is that it still allows for some universality: If you’ve ever been part of a couple that feels like a linchpin of a friend group or community, while going through private pain, you’ll understand its portrayal of the impossible bravery it takes to be the one daring enough to take the “frame” down off the wall. But Lambert shows her hand in a late verse in which she sings, “Maybe we were just a country song/ I’m still doin’ time, the king is gone/ I tried to stand by my man/ We were makin’ plans, we were makin’ plans.”

In those few words, she cites two classics sung by George Jones—“Still Doin’ Time” and “The King Is Gone”—as well as the signature song of Tammy Wynette, thereby name-checking one of the few divorced country couples as iconic as her and Shelton. She caps that with a reference to a song of her own, “Makin’ Plans,” which she reportedly sang to Shelton at their wedding. Nothing on The Weight of These Wings is as vulnerable or as specific as that. Not to mention the sheer gumption it takes to call a song “Masterpiece” and have it live up to the name. Yet in interviews they’ve also noted that it was Presley who first came in with the melody: It takes a village, or at least a trio. (The country press, meanwhile, made a meal of the first single, “Got My Name Changed Back,” as a middle finger to Shelton, but the video makes clear how much it’s a romp for divorced women everywhere.)

That is just one of the many rending and closely observed tracks here. There’s (I think mostly) Presley’s “Commissary,” which is about refusing to send money to a relative in prison because you fear they’ll find a way to use it to maintain their opiate addiction. And Monroe’s torchy “Leavers Lullaby,” about being on the less-blameless end of a breakup. And the group composition “Best Years of My Life,” about a wife and mother who’s allowing herself “a recreational Percocet” and some Bravo TV–style “intellectual emptiness” to deal with the fact that her family life is not what she hoped it would be.

But none of that gets in the way of Interstate Gospel’s party anthems, like the irresistible “Stop Drop and Roll One” (full of too-much-information, girls-night details) or “Sugar Daddy.” Or the title track, which at once does Nashville-patented genuflection to Christian values while poking fun at the illuminated church signs a touring musician is apt to see on the road, such as, “If you can’t stand the heat, turn the prayer conditioner up,” or “Even Moses was a basket case.” (The last one reads to me like a nod to early touring-band Annies anthems like “Takin’ Pills.”)

Then, kind of on the borderline between the two modes, there’s “Cheyenne,” in which Lambert expresses envy for a local bad girl who can hang and be cool and take love a lot less seriously—which harmonically and thematically seems like an answer-song-to-an-answer-song sequel to both Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” and Cam’s 2017 reply “Diane.” As well as “Milkman,” in which the Annies express chagrin that their mothers didn’t have a little more bad girl in them, drinking and smoking and carrying on with local beverage-service representatives, so they’d judge their daughters a bit less. The album closes with “This Too Shall Pass,” a song about how dysfunction and love can co-exist that sounds like it could be about the Annies’ relationships with each other as much as any boy-girl situation. And all of it is powered by a clearly crack-as-crack-can-be Nashville studio band whose almost form-breaking, winking-to-hard-rock moments make up for their more dutiful bar-band blues breaks.

In rock, meanwhile, almost every exciting record of the past decade has been by women, even if the charts don’t reflect it. The Boygenius EP—whose cover riffs on Crosby, Stills & Nash’s own self-titled debut—suffers somewhat by never reaching CSN or Pistol Annies–like moments of collective pleasure. But then pleasure isn’t their subject. The three are mostly singing about estrangement and unbalance in their relationships, hobbled by how much has happened to them individually in the past few years. They try to share metaphors, and get close, and while it’s elusive, even the disjuncts are compelling. The closest they come is in the last two tracks, “Salt in the Wound” and “Ketchum, ID.” On the latter, Baker, Bridgers, and Dacus collectively fantasize about cutting out of the touring life and settling down in Idaho. They say they wrote and recorded the song in a couple of hours, as they recognized the mutual desperation expressed in the chorus, “I am never anywhere/ Anywhere I go/ I am never anywhere/ Long enough to know.” (It’s testimony to their collective taste that the word Idaho is sidelined to a verse instead of rhyming in that chorus.)

Compared to their individual albums, these songs are sketch-like, but the group vocal and instrumental support structures arrive in the middles of most tracks to make the music feel bigger than the half-finished narratives. Bridgers’ “Me and My Dog” begins in her typical way with a very microscopic view of a couple in extremis, but then breaks into the verse, “I wanna be emaciated/ I wanna hear one song without thinking of you/ I wish I was on a spaceship/ Just me and my dog and an impossible view.” It couldn’t be at once Bowie-esque, Bowie-parody–esque, and sad without the other voices there. They really are more than the sum of their parts.

There are intersections here that are as deeply arresting as anything Dacus, Bridgers, and Baker singly have done before. Fewer, though, than on any of their albums. What’s really striking is that three artists who might be thought rivals for the same space have so instinctively and quickly joined forces. On their tour together this month, they’ll have some time to bring themselves further into alignment. If this record proves to be merely an archive of a burst of first sympathy, after which they return to their own paths as allies, it’s still more than worth listening to. The boosted confidence and musical breadth they’re lending each other will nourish them for years. But if they stay with it, the way the Pistol Annies have, they just might find themselves doing things, a record or two down the line, that they couldn’t have imagined doing alone. Even having, dare I say it, fun.