Miranda Lambert - Nashville Lone Star
Just lately, in the weeks before our conversation, she'd been opening for Dierks Bentley, who headlines at big venues now, playing music that continues to bridge the gap between mainstream country and Americana -- the gap that once seemed such a chasm. And so, yes, this young Texas singer, the author of songs that are not production-line mainstream country issue by anybody's standards, and who only a few years ago just stood still and strummed, has been paying attention. "Dierks should be a headliner," says Miranda Lambert, 23. "He's such a good entertainer. I'm just a few years behind him. I'm watching every move he makes, thinking 'OK, let's see what he's doing on tour today.' I want to see where I'll be in two years, follow in his footsteps, see what works, what doesn't, where this crowd was good, this wasn't -- learn the ropes. "You know, I hadn't planned on being an entertainer that way at all until the last couple of years." But just standing still at the microphone is not a wise approach when you want to win over rowdy crowds at stadium-size venues, or in the midsize halls and bars where, more and more, Lambert can headline on her own. She is also coming to be known for fiery, electric shows, even as her first big-label album, Kerosene, has gone platinum. "I guess I've kind of put myself in this niche of 'rocker chick,'" Lambert says, with some evident wonder, "though I never thought of myself that way -- ever." Her new disc, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, has its necessary share of hooky, sometimes rocky, radio-friendly, mainstream country single material -- but also includes songs written by Gillian Welch & David Rawlings ("Dry Town"), Patty Griffin ("Getting Ready"), and Carlene Carter & Susanna Clark ("Easy From Now On"). So add that up: This Texan rocks, and she turns to songs like those to record along with her own compositions (Lambert has eight with her name attached on the new record; she wrote or co-wrote eleven of the twelve songs on Kerosene). And her material sounds like it belongs in that company. A decade ago, Lambert's chances of charting in mainstream country as an unproven artist-songwriter, or even of being signed as a singer, would have been close to nil. Today, she's having enough success that she's already opened doors for others with the old alternative tinge. The Wreckers' odds of being signed before her success, let alone charting in mainstream country, would have been about as high as Austin's great, ghettoized all-female group the Damnations. Things have changed. And Lambert is more than aware of the implications of her own success, its significance as another step in the real expansion of the possibilities for mainstream country music in this surprising decade. She alludes to Big & Rich playing with the introduction of hip-hop sounds; to Gretchen Wilson reintroducing the tough, knowing, working-class songwriter (a Loretta kind of woman) to a star level that had seemed reserved for Hollywood types; to Josh Turner starring as a contemporary traditionalist, singing in a deeper-than-Cash baritone. Those are all tendencies that would have been found only in alternative country in the 1990s. If Lambert tends to laugh off the size of her own contributions to this new expansiveness, that's by reason of personal experience. "I understand; I do, but I still have to open that door," she says. "Even now, it's so freakin' hard!" Lambert arrived in Nashville with all the interest in fashioning hit singles that an alternative country act has traditionally mustered. Which is to say, of course, very little at all. "I wrote without any kind of thought about any kind of single," she recalls, looking back five, six years. "I was kind of opposed to it, almost, like that 'Texas singer-songwriter' referring to a 'Nashville' single. You know? "I grew up in Texas music. That was where I started, and that's what I did. I'd be playing at one of the Texas music shows in a tent; I'd open up, like at one o'clock in the afternoon for an all-day festival, where people would be chanting, literally, 'Nashville sucks! Nashville sucks!' And I was thinking that any one of us would take a record deal in a heartbeat. "There were guys like Pat Green and Jack Ingram who finally got out there, when the opportunity came," she continues. "They were open-minded enough not to say, 'Well, we're just goin' to stay in Texas; screw everybody else.' Why wouldn't you want to get our kind of music out there? My goal never was to stay in Texas and sing about beer and burritos." There are some little ironies there. After spending the better part of four years in Nashville, Lambert happens to be speaking from the house she occupies today, right on her parents' property near Lindale, Texas. That's the town where she spent much of her time growing up (population 4,000 now, 2,500 then), about 90 miles east of Dallas via Interstate 20. And the first official, label-selected single from her sophomore disc Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (released May 1 on Sony) happens to be "Famous In A Small Town", a midtempo rocker co-written with her occasional collaborator and onetime "Nashville Star" TV competition Travis Howard. It details life for celebrities, Lindale style: The new high school cheerleader or the first one to take down a buck in deer season gets as much notice as a singer working toward country music stardom. And there she is. "Well, I was never one of those people that was like, 'I'm gettin' out of this town,'" she laughs. "I wanted to get out -- but I wanted to come back." And it's not like the single-making requirement of major-label stardom has ceased to be an issue: "What the heck is a single?" she can still ask, with some evident frustration. She's had several by now -- "Kerosene", which debuted at #1 on the country charts, "New Strings", and "Me And Charlie Talkin'" -- that by some measures, if not necessarily country radio's, had substantial impact. More recently there was a semi-official single, the memorable title song on the new disc ("Crazy Ex-Girlfriend") -- an incendiary, full-tilt revenge rocker stomp in which a pistol-packin' mama challenges the new girl on her ex's arm, breaking things up in a pool hall/bar in the process. Lambert introduced it nationally during last fall's Country Music Association Awards, where she was up for the best new artist "Horizon" award for a second time (Carrie Underwood won). As it turned out, "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend" didn't exactly become a radio single. "We decided we'd probably put this out as a single," she explains, "but it was just put up as a quote-unquote 'follow-up to the performance on the CMA.' That's confusing to me! I think the label's even confused about it, because people got scared of it. It's not just easy to listen to; it's controversial. It says I'm a crazy ex-girlfriend! To me, my fans want that, the people that buy my records, the ones I'm writing to, the people I'm playing to every night....Some of my other songs have been controversial, had cuss words in them and, all right -- either you're going to put them on the radio or you're not." It's necessary to be aware, at this point, that her previous hit "Kerosene" (no relation at all to the classic Bottle Rockets song), and especially the eye-stopping, attention-grabbing video connected to it -- which featured Lambert basically blowing up stuff -- was itself colorfully incendiary. And that the new disc opens with "Gunpowder & Lead", in which an abused woman loads up while waiting for her man's return. "I'm going to show him what little girls of made of," she sings with chilling exuberance. The semi-sidelined "Crazy" single might, to some, have indicated potentially dangerous-to-handle explosive proclivities -- in the lyrics, at least -- of a variety not seen on country charts since the early days of tough but sweet rockabilly queen Wanda Jackson. Wanda, you may recall, was threatening to "blow her top" like Mount Fujiyama. Martina McBride had a righteously, rightly revengeful woman burn down a house in her huge hit "Independence Day" -- yet the firebug was not the storyteller, Martina, but her fictional mother. In Miranda's songs, like Wanda's, the incendiary girl is always the one telling the story. And so there's a lingering question: Is that explosive image and persona Lambert -- at all? "Well...to an extent," she admits, just a little ruefully. "For one thing, I'm from Texas and girls from Texas have a little attitude anyway; people know that! Yes, there is that 'I won't take anybody's crap' part of me -- but there are also songs like 'More Like Her' on this new record, and 'Desperation' -- that's a vulnerable 23 year-old girl's side... "It's not all about gunpowder and lead, and if people are interested enough, they'll dive into those songs, and find an artist with all kinds of emotions. I don't want people to always put me in the category, 'She's mean; she's fiery! Don't mess with her!' Anyway, songs, to me, are stories. I don't, obviously, live everything I sing about, or write about." Now, Lambert did recently pass the test for a concealed handgun license, though that's not particularly remarkable where she comes from. It's also true that her live performance of "Kerosene" on the 2005 CMA Awards show, complete with sizzling pyrotechnic explosions, stuck in the industry's consciousness as a defining moment -- when they said, as she puts it, "this girl is a performer, not just a singer-songwriter." The moment was also a personal milestone for Lambert; the acts she'd grown up collecting autographs from were out there in the audience, watching. "That's a moment where it hits you," she recalls, "that, holy crap, you're part of it now. This is real. You're not just watching on TV." The song "Kerosene" also led to a remote encounter with one of Lambert's longtime heroes, Steve Earle, an encounter not without ironies of its own. Listeners started to point out, rightly enough, that the song had strong similarities to Earle's rocker "I Feel Alright", right down to the rhythmic "Huhs." Today, they share credit on the song (though initial pressings of the Kerosene CD credited Lambert as the song's sole author). "I've never talked about this, ever," Lambert confides. "I was a huge, huge fan of Steve Earle, and while I was writing for Kerosene I was listening to all the people I care about that way, trying to get inspired, and I really did just rip it off! That's really what happened. I didn't purposefully plagiarize his song -- but unconsciously I copied it almost exactly. I guess I'd listened to it so much that I just kind of had it in there. "So before it came out, they had a chance to hear it. We sent it to them, and said, 'Hey, this little Texas girl ripped off Steve Earle; we want him to know about it, and we just want to split it down, or whatever' -- and they did. "But actually, it's not too disappointing to me. It looks pretty good when it says 'Written by Miranda Lambert and Steve Earle'...and, hey, if you're gonna cop, you might as well cop from somebody great." Her immersion in Earle's music (as he was measurably immersed in the music of, say, the Beatles) was just one sign of Lambert's growing interest in what she calls "the off-the-beaten path singer and songwriter stuff." First she found Jack Ingram, who was frequently classified as alternative-country at the time; then she discovered Allison Moorer via the Horse Whisperer soundtrack. "I was just coming into crafting songs, not just writing funny ones," she recalls. "Hearing Allison's songs drove it home for me. I felt, 'That's what I want to do: I want to write songs like that.' "I listen to all kinds of things, but when I get into my songwriting mode, I put on Chris Knight, or Buddy & Julie Miller [Buddy appeared on Kerosene], or Emmylou Harris; that's what I love," she continues. "It has a different sound, and great lyrics about real-life situations -- and that's why I sort of went down that path. "There's been a way to be 'mainstream' but also a little left of center -- and I think Dwight [Yoakam] is a good example of that, and the Dixie Chicks," she reasons. "So I don't know where I 'fit in' yet, what to call my music. Sometimes I just get mad and wonder, 'Why do I have to call it anything?' But I do think there's a way to have the lyrics I love and the sound that I love, but also to play on the radio and headline stadiums one day. "It's a fine line....A lot of people are trying to find out how -- and I think it's changing. These songs are not formula -- but a million people bought that last record." "Not formula" is a fair but inadequate description. "More Like Her", a self-penned ballad on the new album, strikes a balance between the personal and the crafted and is all the stronger for it. And "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend", all controversial aspects aside, shows polish and sophistication in its construction throughout, even while delivering revenge rock. That's a wide realm in which to be confident and a good deal more than competent. Lambert's singing is flexible and polished enough to handle this self-made range, from the ballads to the rockers. It shows a bit of pop sheen, for sure, and her Texas accent is recognizable. But the first thing you notice is her clarity in presenting a story, keeping it easy to follow -- which has been a hallmark of good country singers from the beginning. And Miranda has clear diction, whenever she wants to call on it, to match. (Not for nothing does she cite Emmylou Harris as one of the singers she particularly admires.) She identifies Dolly Parton as "the one person I can think of" to pattern a career after. ("She's a musician, she writes songs, she's beautiful -- and when she put a new video out, like last year's, it's still so Dolly -- but still fits perfectly with what's coming out now.") Parton is also on the very short list of women who have won the CMA Entertainer of the Year award (Loretta Lynn, the Dixie Chicks and Reba McEntire are among the few others). Joining that list is one of Lambert's long-term ambitions. "I'm one of those people who's already worked so hard, so why would I not want to be Entertainer of the Year and sell millions of albums and tour all over the world?" she asks. "Why would you not want that if you've already put in all that work and thought anyway?" This directness about pursuing success may in part be a result of having grown up knowing real financial challenges. She is the daughter of Rick Lambert, a talented and ambitious country performer and songwriter who put aside his music for a very long time when economic realities waylaid him into work as a private investigator (with his wife) and policeman. He raised his daughter on Merle Haggard and Jerry Jeff Walker, and took her to shows that sparked musical dreams for her. "I've been a country fan forever," she affirms. "I went to Fan Fair four years in a row, just as a fan, from the nosebleed section first -- the Dixie Chicks and LeAnn Rimes, I remember. I was kind of the same age as LeAnn Rimes when she first came out -- I was 13 and she was 14 -- so I loved her, and also watched her career, since she was young and was doing all this. And I went and saw the Dixie Chicks three times in concert, and I kind of dreamed about it from a distance: 'Wow, I don't think that could ever happen for me, but I want it to, you know?' Her parents' support in developing those dreams was essential, but not overbearing. "I have a picture of me when I was only 3 years old, with a little plastic guitar, playing along with Dad," she recalls. "And it's funny, because Dad bought me a guitar for Christmas when I was 13, and I had no interest at all; I never picked it up. So when I went to him at 16 and said I wanted to enter a True Value Country Showdown I'd heard about on the radio, he was shocked. That was good about my parents; they never pushed me to do anything, and that kind of made me want to do it more. "When I entered the Showdown, I sang two of my dad's original songs. He had tons, written twenty years ago, and when I started singing, he picked it up again -- started writing, and we also started writing together. It was so cool that I brought that back into his life, sort of brought the passion for it back to him, too." Several of those songs would appear on her first, self-released CD in 2001 -- financed by Rick, even when the money was very tough to come by, saying he'd be spending that on tuition if she'd gone on to college. Several of their father-daughter co-writes also saw national exposure when Lambert appeared -- memorably young and talented, but not the winner (she finished third) -- on the first, quite competitive "Nashville Star" TV competition in 2003. That level of being "famous beyond a small town" had some immediate, unexpected effects back home. "It's so weird," Miranda relates. "I lost a lot of friends at first. And I was involved in a church, and then I started a country band -- and I sort of got chastised for it, at first, pretty bad. It hurt me, because I felt, 'I'm following my dream here; why is everybody so disgusted with me?' "I think it was because people don't know how to understand it. They didn't know how to understand, 'She's not just going to TJC [Tyler Junior College], and live here in Lindale and work at the bank. So what is she doing?' "I think people didn't know how to take it. But I think I've showed that I'm still -- exactly -- the same person that left. Actually, I think that I'm a little nicer than I was when I left!" After the "Nashville Star" recognition, Miranda moved to Nashville and began the process that led to publishing and recording deals with Sony. The path was not a walk, as some may have thought, though Sony executive Tracy Gershon, always Americana-friendly, was a judge that year and sent clear signals of the label's interest. "Nine weeks on TV is great, and you can capitalize on it, but reality sets in, and you've got to go work," Lambert says. "It's different for 'American Idol' [where winner Carrie Underwood could go straight to the country charts]; you're just huge immediately. People say, 'What's the difference?' Well, for one thing, it's way bigger than 'Nashville Star'! "And then I was not in a hurry at all," she adds. "I had most of my material for Kerosene, but spent a little more time writing, to make it the record I wanted to make since I was 17 -- a mainstream record on a major record label. I was 20 at this point. "I didn't want to mess it up by rushing it out just because 'Nashville Star' was over. I had to treat the record not as a follow-up to 'Nashville Star', but as a beginning for the whole rest of my career. I spent a lot of time in the studio, and on radio tours, and people would say, 'Gosh, it was two years before your record came out; seemed like forever.' But because I didn't win, I didn't have to do it so fast -- and that's what I loved about it." How much, it seems fair to ask, of the rebellious small-town Texas kid remains in the platinum-selling country artist Lambert has become today? "When I made the last CD, I still had a little of that attitude that I wasn't going to do what they wanted me to do -- which worked for me," she says. "But I've learned so much in the two years since that's been out, that I think I went into it differently with this record." Yet there's no hint of surrendering to the once-supposed Music Row "monster" in that modest compromise. Indeed, the young woman who can wonder "where my music fits in" at times also seems to have a workable, emulation-worthy handle on how the once-warring sides in the country/alt-country divide have come together in 2007, and how it's possible to make the most of both alleged worlds. "As it worked out in making this record, I did everything I wanted to do," she says, "but I also kept in mind that they can't do their job if I don't do mine. My job is to make great music, to make every song on there something that I can sing every night onstage. So that is what I focus on -- not what type of song it is, or if it's a single. "I want to feel like I can go to my label with the record and say, 'Here, I've done all that I can do, making music that I'm proud of and I can sell. And you ought to be able to sell it, too.'" There's a confidence and maturity in this that suggests a success she measures in personal terms. Today, her parents are working for her, as she reports happily, "getting to do a job they love instead of something they hate every day, because of what they gave back then." Miranda's newfound level of fame puts her squarely in the world Rick Lambert had dreamed of inhabiting. And she's handling that, already, with considerable perspective. "I've learned that I wanted to reach for the stars," Miranda says. "If I don't make it all the way, and wind up playing bars in Texas when I'm 40 years old, I want to know that I gave it all I had." Senior editor Barry Mazor is at work on a book about the musical legacy of Jimmie Rodgers -- who adopted Texas as his home -- in country, rock and more.