Miranda Lambert Is In It For The Long Haul
Behind the microphone in a club a fraction of the size of her usual venues, Miranda Lambert was nervous. "We always get a little jittery when we play in Nashville," she admitted briskly, "'cause the energy is high and the expectations are high."
Her audience was an invite-only industry crowd of management reps, label staffers, media company executives, professional songwriters, journalists and others who'd have a hand or stake in the reception of her new music, and who she'd already loosened up with catered burritos and nachos, themed cocktails and a photo booth with a bucket full of cleaning-related props, in honor of her single "It All Comes Out in the Wash." With her full band crammed on the stage, Lambert performed that and several other songs from new album Wildcard.
Between tunes, she spoke like she was addressing comrades and confidants, thanking them for their continued goodwill and support. "I appreciate everybody in this room," she said, but she couldn't resist getting in a little crack as she introduced "Tequila Does," with its wryly tipsy, waltz-time feel: "If you don't like this and you don't think it's country, then you don't like country music."
Fifteen years into her recording career, Lambert, raised in Texas and still deeply attached to her Lone Star roots, is a Nashville insider and a rarefied embodiment of country ambition who hasn't entirely let go of her outsider's irreverence.
In 2003, when she was eliminated from the reality show music competition Nashville Star, winding up in third place, she didn't have to feign cheerfulness for the television cameras. The 19-year-old searched the front row of the audience for her parents' faces and mouthed a relieved, "Yes!"
As with the rest of the show's finalists, Lambert had been asked to record a song, though only the victor's would be released as a single. The prospect filled her with dread. "I'd be promoting something that I'm truly not in love with," she explains now. "I felt like, 'Well, that's gonna be fleeting, because that's not really who I am.' So I didn't want to win."
Mere months after her loss, one of the show's judges, Tracy Gershon, who worked in the artists and repertoire department at Sony Nashville, got her signed. When it came time to hash out details with the label brass, the still-teenaged Lambert walked into a conference room and delivered an ultimatum that's become the stuff of legend among those in her orbit. "The story goes that she more or less told the company that was how it was going to be — either this way or I'll just go home," marvels her longtime guitarist Scotty Wray, who'd already logged a couple of years with Lambert and decades of performing before that, some of it with his brother, country singer Collin Raye. "I've gotta respect her for that, man."
In Lambert's mind, "Whatever they were going to have me doing that was uncomfortable wasn't worth it," she says. "I told everybody, 'I'd rather spend another decade in honky-tonks and do it my way than be the pretty girl for you.' Because back then it kind of was happening still, you know, changing the image and rewriting the songs and all that stuff."
It wasn't a bluff. She was making headway on the Texas club circuit and burning through the 3,500 copies she had of her independent CD, selling them out of the trunk of her mom's car. "I really thought that I could find a way to make the career," she recalls. "Looking back now, I can't believe that I had the guts to do that."
New arrivals to Nashville typically showed deference to those with musical and marketing know-how, resources and institutional knowledge, those who know how things have been done and what works and care about what reflects well on the industry community. Into that atmosphere came Lambert, empowered by a combination of ambition, idealism and naiveté, protecting her sense of artistic identity and insisting on professional autonomy from the start.
She'd bought herself time and leeway to make the debut album she wanted to make, what became 2005's Kerosene, with minimal interference. "I didn't know the scale of what I could do or what was going to happen," she says.
There was no real precedent for the path Lambert wanted to pursue. So many of her country heroines and heroes had faded away from the format, aged out, been deemed not radio-friendly enough or — in the case of the Dixie Chicks, whose spunk and self-determination she admired so deeply that she initially signed with their manager Simon Renshaw — weathered heinous and sudden rejection. Other singers and songwriters she dug, like Buddy and Julie Miller or Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, belonged to the radio-indifferent Americana scene. On top of that, she was drawn more to what had historically, and inaccurately, been pegged as masculine modes of music-making — troubadours and class-conscious honky-tonkers — than the tools of pop savvy, strategic crossover moves and fashionable visual presentation that had been more readily available to female country stars looking to expand their reach. Watching Lambert figure out how to be both a serious-minded singer-songwriter and an arena-rocking entertainer, how to close the distance between her version of country artistry and the commercial center, continually readjusting her approach, has made her the most riveting country star of her generation.
At her first meeting with Marion Kraft, who initially worked under Renshaw, before she eventually took over Lambert's management, Lambert declared that she wanted a "long-haul" career like Dolly Parton has enjoyed. "'I know as I get older, I will have more things to say, and I want to have the time to do it all,'" Kraft recalls her client explaining. "So I knew early on we needed gas for a long journey."
Texas has, in musical mythologies, been positioned as the freewheeling antithesis of Nashville for half a century. Willie Nelson's arc is its most famous morality tale. About the only thing that panned out for him during his 1960s Nashville tenure was penning country-pop hits for other singers. He found it easier to hit his stride artistically when he returned to the Lone Star state, made shaggy, narrative-driven concept albums and grew his hair out. Storied generations of outlaws and troubadours set the stage for the Red Dirt scene to make heroes of witty, wordy songwriters who fronted twangy, rocking bands and incited raucous crowds to chant "Nashville sucks!" It was a scene with its own networks and measures of success, its own loudly championed codes: self-sufficiency over slickness.
Growing up in the flyspeck town of Lindale in the 1990s, Lambert began forming her own conclusions about what it meant to be serious about country music. She found plenty to like in the hits of the day, but also latched onto the singer-songwriter fare she heard in her household. Her dad, who dabbled in songwriting and played parties with his own band, sometimes sang her to sleep with John Prine or David Allan Coe tunes. As a pre-teen, her favorite song was Guy Clark's "Desperadoes Waiting for a Train." She didn't have to grasp its meaning for it to move her. Later, she grew obsessed with the debut album from Allison Moorer, "these songs that just rip your guts out," as she puts it now. "When I started writing, my first songs weren't very good, but I was already headed in a direction that wanted to be a writer and say something and not just have fluff, and it's from all the music I grew up on truly."
She saw a similar gap between the current and classic singers she was drawn to — from the Chicks, Lee Ann Womack and LeAnn Rimes to Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Merle Haggard and Tammy Wynette — and her own cursory execution of curlicues and note-bending. "I was just such a young, immature voice," she says. "I didn't really have a lot of power or finesse. I just kind of had tone." At 17, around the time she hurriedly finished high school, she assigned herself a two-month immersion in Wynette's vocal style while preparing to audition for a musical about the legend's life. Lambert holed up in her bedroom, poring over Wynette's catalog and reading about her life. "You can actually hear the pain in her voice when she's trying to get you to feel pain," says Lambert. "And so I think that also helped me like find my voice a little more."
Her parents, Rick and Bev, worked as private investigators, and weathered lean times when they were barely able to keep a roof over their kids' heads. When things were more stable, they sometimes sheltered battered women and children, whose accounts of survival Lambert would eventually turn to for songwriting inspiration beyond her youthful experience. But the family-funded project she made that same year leaned into Texas dance hall tropes; among the self-penned honky-tonk waltzes, shuffles and two-steps were a pair titled "Texas Pride" and "Texas as Hell."
With her mom functioning as her de facto booking agent, Lambert tried to get shows at rowdy honky-tonks that preferred virile showmen. "The Texas scene wasn't a place for girls at all back then," Lambert reports. "Bar owners would hang up on my mom and say, 'We don't book girls.' So I would go to these places with my guitar and say, 'Can I play during set change?' Jack Ingram was one of them that we'd always show up at his shows and he would be like, 'Yeah you can play a couple of songs while we're changing.' And people would be moving cords around my feet. It's because I couldn't get a gig — and then the bar owner would be like, 'Well, she's pretty good.'"
That striving shaped the understanding of professionalism that Lambert brought with her to early Nashville dealings. Rookie acts like her were encouraged to yield to the expertise of songwriters and producers with track records of commercial success. She took meetings, but was determined all along to work with Frank Liddell, a Texas expat who understood the label ecosystem but was, at heart, a connoisseur of singer-songwriters and had co-produced acclaimed but underperforming Chris Knight and Jack Ingram albums she admired. "I wanted that raw, rootsy Texas sound," she says, "because that's what I knew I was and wanted to be."
Initially, Lambert distrusted the Music Row practice of co-writing by appointment: "I don't want to walk in a room with someone I've never met and spill my guts." For Kerosene, she wrote only with her dad, Scotty Wray, Texas chum Heather Little and Travis Howard, with whom she'd clicked at Nashville Star. Steve Earle received credit for co-writing the album's peppery country-rocking title track in a roundabout way; someone pointed out the striking similarities between the melody and vocal pattern of her song and his 1996 tune "Feel Alright," down to the grunted accents. She copped to having unknowingly mimicked a work she'd listened to repeatedly, going on the record about it in a cover story for the alt-country magazine No Depression.
Lambert wasn't overly cautious about speaking her mind in interviews; she'd declined to go through the instructional sessions that groom new acts into blandly pleasant speakers. "Whatever she wanted to say, she just knew how to do it," Kraft, her manager, observes. "So we talked about media training but we felt like it would ruin it." Lambert felt similarly about stylists. The look she insisted on for her first album artwork, promotional photos and music videos was t-shirts and jeans; she worried at the time that cultivating feminine glamour might work against her being taken seriously as a songwriter. Kraft recalls her client bringing 15 vintage tees from her own closet to her first video shoot.
None of the first nine singles Lambert released received much airplay on country radio, which was still the most important promotional tool for new artists, but the scrappiness of her first two major label albums, Kerosene and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, turned heads and moved units nonetheless. The songs that listeners really latched onto were the ones in which she played working women pushed to the point of fiercely fighting back by deadbeats, cheaters and abusers. She made it clear that she wasn't singing her autobiography, but her performances were so riled and vivid that they stuck to her as a persona. "I got backed in a corner, and I kind of did it to myself on accident," she admits. "'Firebrand' and 'fiery,' all these all these words people used to describe me, my early couple of records. ... By the time 'Crazy Ex-Girlfriend' was out, I was like, 'That's all people thought of me. And that's gonna get old fast, and I'm going to get older. I can't always be banging my head, screaming at people.'"
Lambert took it upon herself to expand that narrow image, filling her third album, 2009's Revolution, with sentiments that seemed anything but volatile: the ruminative desperation of "Dead Flowers"; the bittersweet reminiscence of "The House That Built Me"; the witty mockery of primness in "Only Prettier." (One of her great themes is what a turn-off middle-class propriety is.) Even the cheater takedown "White Liar," her first chart smash, had a certain conniving slyness to it. Lest her conscious effort go unnoticed, she started spelling it out interviews. "It bought me some freedom," she says, "as far as people seeing me not as one-dimensional."
She also came to the realization that she'd limited herself by not exploring and exploiting the visual side star-level of self-presentation more, or participating in Nashville's highly collaborative commercial culture. On the cover of Revolution,she sported a fitted bodice and up-do with a guitar resting next to her to keep the image tethered to the essence of her identity. Its liner notes reflected that she'd welcomed in a few new co-writers with whom she felt "comfortable" and found other song sources. Without them, she chuckles, "I'd be writing the same Texas songs I was writing."
One of Lambert's co-writers on the 2011 chart-topper "Heart Like Mine," a breezy, spiritually inflected justification of misbehavior, was Ashley Monroe, who Lambert had been hesitant to meet when they were label mates several years before. "I was like, 'Wait, she might take my spot,'" Lambert recalls. "You had that chip on your shoulder when there's only so many slots."
One radio station's program director made sure she got that message on her first radio tour, the sort of promotional junket that new artists often go on to try win over those who might decide to play their single. "He had 15 head shots on his desk and they were all girls and they were all lined up," she says. "And he was like, 'Yep, you're number 16 that's come here over the last two weeks.'"
After hearing what was to be Monroe's debut album Satisfied, Lambert concluded, "I have to be friends with her. She's so good," she says. "I feel like that sort of started that whole train of me going, 'Instead of competing, let's just all lift each other up, man.'"
When Monroe was between record deals, Lambert invited her to tag along on tour. "She'd get me out there and sing "Heart Like Mine," Monroe remembers. "I mean that happened a ton of nights out on stage. Or, 'Hey, you want to sing "The Truth" acapella in front of my huge huge crowd?'"
Another artist with a few, hard-earned hits under her belt might've been consumed by trying to immediately repeat that radio success. Lambert elected to interrupt the timetable and start a side band, Pistol Annies, with Monroe and Angaleena Presley, a then-struggling songwriter with a lacerating, Appalachian-steeped sense of humor. When her client called to excitedly share the news, Kraft reminded her of the stakes: "I said, 'Listen, we work really hard on your career. I'm interested, but I think you guys need to audition. ... I can't say 'yes' until I know what I'm dealing with."
The Annies began appearing as unannounced guests in the middle of Lambert's shows. Monroe recognized that her friend, as the true draw for concert attendees, was putting her headlining reputation on the line. Says Monroe, "I always felt at the beginning ... and I still do sometimes, 'What if we go out there and everybody's like, 'Get these girls off the stage! We want to hear [Miranda].'"
For Lambert, going all-in on the egalitarian trio was a risk more than justified by its rewards. "It's about three girls writing songs about real life, and not caring," she explains. "We want to be as successful as we could, but we don't make the art for that reason. It is a place where I can just take a breath and not have to worry."
The Annies were frolicsome and took up more rustic strains of country songwriting and showbiz tradition — from the comic to the tragic or sentimental — than everything Lambert had done solo. They made 2011's Hell on Heels and 2013's Annie Up with Liddell, both albums homey, harmony-sweetened affairs, but the heart of the matter was their collective composing; Presley, Monroe and Lambert were kindred creatives who lived to goad, inspire and amuse each other.
Lambert quietly did the work of solidarity in other ways. She built her co-writing circle around key women collaborators, not only Presley and Monroe, but Natalie Hemby, Nicolle Galyon and others. She stocked a leg of her 2015 tour solely with newer female artists she wanted to see break through. She funded a Belmont University scholarship for women studying music business or songwriting, though she'd never attended college herself. As the conversation around the industry's gender disparities grew more urgent, she and Kraft, whose boutique management firm is staffed by and represents significant female talent, made their efforts more explicit. "I think we realized we had to spell it out more," says Kraft. "We wanted young girls to feel like there is a chance that this can happen to them."
Lambert felt a twinge of familiarity this year when Hemby joined Amanda Shires, Brandi Carlile and Maren Morris in the Highwomen, and brought to the group's repertoire a song to which Lambert had contributed. "I don't really get that many [songs on outside projects]," says Lambert. "So having one on that record with those artists, that whole thing comes full circle to me. It's more sisters doing the same s*** that I've been doing. I love it."
The spotlight on Lambert intensified as her albums drew broad notice and awards piled up. She was on her way to becoming the most decorated artist in the history of the Academy of Country Music Awards. But then there was the matter of being hitched to a fellow country star who'd become a prime time television personality. "I was a country singer in Nashville, and it was very comfy," says Lambert. "You had the right attention for the right reasons. And then the Hollywood thing came into the picture and it just threw me for a loop."
Country music has had its share of star couples whose public relationships and popular duet performances fed curiosity about their domestic dynamics. Fans ate it up when Faith and Tim and Garth and Trisha gushed about the sturdiness of their bonds and normalcy of their households, aspects of their lives to which the non-famous could relate. But when Lambert's marriage to Blake Shelton started drawing the scrutiny of gossip rags, she broke with country custom and talked about what it was like being a paparazzi-hounded celebrity.
Her eye-rolling exasperation found its way into her songs, beginning with "Priscilla," a salty-sweet bop about sharing an extremely famous partner with the public, and resurfacing after her divorce from Shelton in the brooding "Vice" ("If you need me, I'll be where my reputation don't precede me") and the tongue-in-cheek self-portrait "Pretty Bitchin'" ("I got a pretty good time in the checkout line with all the free press I've been getting"). Lambert found that her sarcastic views on being a tabloid target didn't distance her from her fans so much as reassure them that she wasn't caught up in her hype.
The splitting up of one of country's royal couples was a tricky thing, because so many in the music community had ties to both. Lambert began spending more time in Nashville, but kept a low profile, hosting cozy writers' rounds and hanging with co-writers she trusted to help her hone the subtleties of her craft and do some emotional purging. That process led to her most insular collection to date, the 2016 double album The Weight of These Wings. There was no fault finding, name calling or mud slinging to be found in its 24 songs. "I had to keep something for myself," she says. Lambert's lyrics told of nursing wounds, giving in to restlessness, tentatively exploring pleasure, and the live band cocooned her with fitful, expansive performances.
Whether they heard it as knotty personal expression, patient, artistic achievement or both, people were moved — enough to vote the spare, wrenching "Tin Man" 2018 ACM Song of the Year, though radio programmers weren't particularly motivated to play the ballad. It was hardly a coincidence that the same year she became the first current country star selected for an artist residency at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, a theater performance series whose that's often highlighted esteemed elders. The fact that Lambert stopped giving interviews for a while, a denial of access that's rare in Nashville, made it seem either like she was rising above it all or disengaging with it all, depending on your vantage point. Then she went straight into making the third Pistol Annies album, Interstate Gospel.
She emerged from that period at a career crossroads of sorts. Over the course of a decade and a half, she'd fashioned herself into the most capricious of contemporary country institutions: a powerful, popular individualist. If she was a pro athlete, we'd say her contract with the mainstream was up for renegotiation.
Lambert is certainly aware of the impact it had when she went four years without making big, shiny, outgoing gestures in her music. She says she heard from fans and radio brass alike that they've missed the Miranda they knew and loved. "I know what I need to do to get on the road, to be on the radio to have people buy or stream my music," she emphasizes. "I knew what I needed to do, and I did it on Wildcard."
There are no signs of strain to the balancing act she executes during the album's 14 tracks. They're the work of a longtime star returning to all the sweet spots she's discovered along the way, from down home camp ("White Trash," "It All Comes Out In the Wash," "Pretty Bitchin'") to contemplative depth ("Settling Down," "Bluebird," "Track Record") and revitalized country chestnuts ("Tequila Does," "Way Too Pretty For Prison"). She lampoons uppity condescension, uses recent life experience, in this case newlywed bliss, as artful shading and gets back to pugnacious rocking. Lambert's recommitted, on her terms, this time understanding that her status is an exception to the rules and letting her unfettered inclinations speak for themselves. "I'm still stubborn and hardheaded and believe what I believe," she says. "But I also am like, 'I can calm down because it worked.' I have a career. People heard me. I don't have to scream it out anymore."
For the first time in her major label tenure, she switched producers, with Liddell's blessing, deciding to work with Jay Joyce, a multi-instrumentalist known for conjuring cunning, sinewy grooves and doctoring them with sharp digital textures. With collaborator Luke Dick, she also made her first foray into writing to beat-driven tracks he'd built, a practice that's became de rigueur for her crossover-minded Nashville peers. Late in the songwriting process, Lambert started making almost weekly trips to New York City, to visit non-musician Staten Island native Brendan McLoughlin, who she would eventually marry.
"The [New York] bustle, it gives you this different energy," she reflects. "I don't know exactly how that translated to tape, but it definitely was a huge part of it. And I think it's just because I was kind of open to a new thing, in all the ways: a new relationship, a new city, a new producer."
She was ready to try framing her hard country accent with cosmopolitan sleekness, and in the case of the almost cowpunk-ish "Locomotive," originally written as a lilting, lighthearted shuffle, she was receptive to Joyce's suggestion that she should radically amp up the speed and fierceness of her vocal attack.
Lambert was confident that her artistic identity was potent enough to cut through despite all the changes, but she confesses that she wasn't so sure she knew how to go about getting her new music heard in 2019. "Now you're also fighting for being on playlists and on streaming services," she explains. "When I ... turned in Wildcard, I just sat down and asked the entire label, 'Ya'll tell me what to do, because this is a whole different ballgame and a different time.'"
The day she kicked off her arena tour at the Mohegan Sun Casino in Connecticut, a couple of months ahead of the album's release, Lambert was feeling the pressure acutely. At the appointed time for our interview, her tour manager directed me to her dressing room, made sure we were properly acquainted and shut the door behind him. Lambert plopped down on the couch in a gray baseball cap that said "dive bar expert," a t-shirt and spandex leggings and fretted that the dry air inside the facility and a jam-packed schedule of rehearsals, meetings and interviews would make her lose her voice before the first show. "So we could do half today?" she asked. "I'm sorry. It's just talking is what kills it, and I've been talking nonstop."
I resolved to keep her engaged with questions for as long as I could, and Lambert seemed to negotiate with herself internally before willing herself to relax. "Sorry I was so frazzled when I walked in," she said. "When you're pulled in so many directions, sometimes you just panic for a second."
Lambert has impressive lucidity for someone living and laboring in such a whirlwind. In her incandescent new soft rock tune "Settling Down," she spends the verses pondering seemingly contradictory options. "I could stay a little lonely, or let you get to know me," she muses, draping her lines over the rhythm section's supple churn. "Yeah, I could love a picket fence if it wrapped around the world." In the chorus, she sees no need to pin things down: "I'm one heart, goin' both directions."
Singing a song about having it both ways suits her incredibly well. Letting herself get stuck just wouldn't be an appealing option.
"Frank Liddell always says that I would find a parking spot in New York City and then move my car," she laughs. "Now I know what he's talking about. It's so hard to find your spot, and then you get one and you're like, 'I think I changed my mind.' But I think that's also part of the reinvention of it all. Keep it moving."
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