“I picked a good day for a recreational Percocet / I’ve got an itch to just get high,” Miranda Lambert sings as the first fire bars of “Best Years Of My Life,” the best song on the great Interstate Gospel, the third LP from her supergroup with equally witty and superlative country singers Ashley Monroe (whose own LPs are beloved by critics but commercially ignored, unfairly) and Angaleena Presley (ditto). The Annies formed in 2010 when Lambert was decently famous as a country singer; the intervening years — and especially the five since 2013’s Annie Up — have seen her become supermarket-checkout famous thanks to the fallout of her marriage to Blake Shelton, while Monroe and Presley have each made a pair of sensational LPs (The Knife and Sparrow for the former, American Middle Class and Wrangled for the latter). Thanks to the delightfully chippy lead single “Got My Name Changed Back,” the narrative around Interstate Gospel posits that this is a divorce album, but that sells it short: Interstate Gospel aspires for greater things, namely, chronicling as many sides of being a woman as the three songwriters can fit into 14 songs. In the way that the best Waylon and Loretta albums feed you back what it was like to be a regular person struggling with the minor bullshit of existence in the 1970s, Interstate Gospel does for the 2010s: there are family members with jail sentences, Spanx that fit too tight, wine benders that end in lost underwear and songs about the minor indignities of the bureaucratic process of untangling yourself from your ex-husband. It’s one of the best country albums of 2018.
Back to that opening line of “Best Years of My Life”: the song was written with a specific friend of Lambert’s in mind, and its lyrcis bear that out; it’s a devastating song of suburban domestic malaise. “I was looking forward to / staying here forever because you asked me to / didn’t think I could do better / so I settled down,” Lambert sings in harmony with Presley and Monroe, capturing years of ennui and disappointment in two sentences. This kind of writing is what people listen to country music for, and it’s but one line on one of many exemplary songs here. “When I Was His Wife” is another song of regret, while “Stop Drop And Roll One” imbibes substances without worrying too hard about the consequences. “Commissary” expresses anger at an unnamed relative or love who’s locked up, while “Cheyenne” idolizes a woman who seems to move through life without worrying about what anyone thinks of her.
Interstate Gospel is full of the kind of back-to-basics, small moments, working-family country that people who claim to want “real” country music say they want. It feels defeatist to mention it here, but it remains unlikely that any of the songs here will get much traction at country radio due to most radio programmers having a curious blindspot toward playing women artists (that blindspot is called sexism). Which is why it feels so important to listen to this album this week: It’s a sensational, best-possible-version-of-country-music album that you cannot ignore, and you shouldn’t let country music industry folks let you miss it.