Ashley Monroe and her Pistol Annies bandmates are absolutely looking at you

Andy Downing

Ashley Monroe has a staring problem.

She’s not alone, though, sharing the trait with Pistol Annies bandmates Miranda Lambert and Angaleena Presley. In fact, one of the first times Monroe and Lambert hung out, when they were both in their 20s, the two were somewhere in Texas conversing when Monroe became distracted after noticing Lambert’s gaze locked intently on her lip.

Finally, Monroe spoke up.

“I said, ‘Why are you staring?’” said Monroe, who will join the Pistol Annies in opening up for Lambert, who will pull double-duty in headlining Nationwide Arena on Saturday, Sept. 28. “And Miranda said, ‘Why do you have ChapStick so close to your nose?’ I guess she’d been thinking about it the whole time. But that’s how we are. We’ll hyper-focus on something, and then we pull from that pile of things we’ve observed when we get together and write songs.”

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These accumulated observations fill the trio’s excellent third album, Interstate Gospel, from 2018, which includes detail-rich songs about a woman moving on following a divorce (“Masterpiece”), another learning to make it on her own after her opioid-addicted husband is arrested on drug charges (“Commissary”) and, on “Cheyenne,” a stream of ladies overcoming questionable decisions (“She finds plenty of pool-table cowboys to hold her”) and still pushing forward unencumbered. “I bet she won’t even cry when it’s over,” sings Lambert, who wrote a number of her album contributions following a high-profile divorce from then-husband Blake Shelton. “She’s like a fast train, nobody can slow her.”

Then there’s the Monroe-penned “Best Years of My Life,” which sets the tone with its ear-catching opening line — “I picked a good day for a recreational Percocet,” the narrator offers — before Monroe moves on to detail the woman’s trapped existence in a town and a life that she never envisioned for herself.

Inspiration for the weighty tune arrived amid a joyous time in Monroe’s life, when she was momentarily overcome with ennui while wrapping Christmas presents, surrounded by a husband and a new baby boy. “In that second, I was just feeling defeated,” said Monroe, 33, though she resisted the urge to pop any pills herself. (“I used to in my 20s,” she added, “but I’m over that now.”)

Whether pulling from their own experiences or the lives of those they’ve observed, the three musicians in Pistol Annies always write with a strong sense of empathy, never passing judgment on the various blue-collar women who populate their songs, no matter their lifestyle choices or their means of coping with them.

“I’m learning how to look at something with no judgment,” Monroe said. “Anytime I start to make a judgment about someone else, I hold a mirror up and go, ‘Oh, yeah. That’s my own issue.’”

“Like ‘Commissary,’ for example, we’ve all been hurt, and there are different stories from each of our lives we could put into that. But it’s also an acknowledgment of when it’s time to let go and take care of yourself, even if you still love the other person,” Monroe continued, the Presley-penned tune leading the singer to recall her years growing up in East Tennessee, a region that’s been ravaged by the opioid crisis. “Lots of people I went to high school with OD’d. I almost did in my 20s. … It’s so dangerous and tricky and it doesn’t cure the pain. It’s a temporary fix. And take it from me, it isn’t worth it.”

Dropping their guard and embracing vulnerability in songs that still project strength has always been a draw for the three Annies, allowing them to maintain a connection to their audience that transcends the growing star status each has developed as a solo performer since the group started as a lark in 2011.

“Ang said once, ‘We’re not on the soapbox; we’re doing the dishes,’” Monroe said.

Nationwide Arena

7 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 28

200 W. Nationwide Blvd., Arena District

ALSO PLAYING: Miranda Lambert, Elle King, Tenille Townes

Pistol Annies