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Fine Tune: Inside Miranda Lambert’s Brilliant Catalog of Timeless Country

There’s a tempting mythology in the life and career of Miranda Lambert, who has as strong of a claim to current country royalty as anyone — or maybe there’s a few different versions, depending on who you talk to. 

For country fans, she’s the tough-talking small-town Texan who grew up hearing stories about infidelity and violence from her parents, who were private investigators. It was predestined, it seemed, that someone with her voice and talent would turn those stories into songs. 

For those less familiar with the genre, she was, until recently, one half of a beloved and highly visible Nashville power couple alongside Blake Shelton. In that light, her understated 2016 album The Weight of These Wings — her first following their divorce — sounds like a heel turn, its rootsy imperfections a reaction to the glitz and eventual tabloid fervor that surrounded that relationship and its dissolution.

The reality is, predictably, a little more complicated. According to Lambert, 2019’s Wildcard (out this Friday, Nov. 1) is just about the opposite of its title: “straight down the middle Miranda Lambert.” “People want the humor, the sarcasm, something not too musically out there,” she added in an interview with the New York Times. “Straight down the middle Miranda Lambert” is still a little left of center when it comes to the notoriously conformist sounds of country radio, though. Her commitment to integrating the hallmarks of classic country music — not just what’s in vogue — on even her most radio-friendly songs has made her one of the genre’s most consistent artists, with a vast catalog of songs that never sound dated. 

Even on the singles that would seem to be designed for a more commercial audience (one recent example being the forcibly genial “It All Comes Out In The Wash”), Lambert maintains either a rocker’s edge or an obvious Western twang — or both. She specializes in the kind of country music that doesn’t fade in the background, thanks to her meaty songwriting, her ear for the genre’s most interesting sounds — and of course, her clear, penetrating, impossible-to-replicate voice.

Lambert was signed by Epic Nashville in an attempt to follow up Gretchen Wilson’s massive “Redneck Woman” success (to the tune of no. 22 on the Hot 100) with another woman artist who wore her sass on her sleeve. She had won third place on Nashville Star in 2003, where then-Sony (and thus Epic) A&R Tracy Gershon heard her for the first time. “It’s just what country needs right now,” fellow judge Charlie Robison said after an early performance of Lambert’s own composition  “Greyhound Bound For Nowhere,” which would appear two years later on her debut album Kerosene

“Greyhound,” a vivid, melancholy look inside the mind of the often-maligned “other woman,” wasn’t Lambert’s first single, though. That would be the more up-tempo “Me and Charlie Talking,” which fit in a little more easily on the radio while still projecting all the rootsy authenticity meant to set Lambert apart. (Her first Billboard appearance, pegged to the single’s “Hot Shot Debut,” featured a portrait with the caption “Lambert: Sings Great, Hunts Hogs”). Even with its lilting “La la la” conclusion, the single wasn’t glossy, and lacked a predictable, sing-a-long ready-chorus; in its place was an unexpected story about fleeting first love.

As a whole, Kerosene offered something just unexpected enough that reviews were positive, if not rapturous. Producer Frank Liddell — who’s stayed with Lambert though most of her recording career and are is married to a remarkable songwriters himself in Lee Ann Womack — framed her voice with pleasantly chaotic, live-sounding arrangements. The album juxtaposes arena-ready power ballads like “Bring Me Down” with twangy knee-slappers like “Mama, I’m Alright.” The fact that Lambert had written 11 of the album’s 12 songs also made her stand out among her peers, who often pick their cuts from Music Row’s finest, as did her flair for giving traditional country fatalism a whole new sound (see “I Wanna Die”).

That unexpected darkness spurred Lambert’s breakthrough the title track, which was her third single. “Kerosene” is a propulsive, concise, entirely nihilistic song about burning a guy’s house down while he’s still in it, alongside the woman he’s cheating with. It’s three minutes of raw country rage — harmonica, mandolin and all — and remains as undeniable today as it was in February 2006, when it became Lambert’s first Hot 100 hit. She wound up sharing songwriting credit with veteran singer-songwriter Steve Earle thanks to the song’s similarity to his “I Feel Alright,” but Earle didn’t write “I’m giving up on love ‘cause love’s given up on me” (or “Life ain’t hard but it’s too long, living like some country song,” for that matter). If anything, the unconscious quotation only earned Lambert more country cred.

The single’s success — and Lambert’s — was sparked by her (literally) fiery performance at the November 2005 CMAs. Stomping her feet, hair askew as she thrashes around behind the mic after heaving her guitar to a tech, Lambert presents as anything but a Nashville diva. Instead, she was a rock star. The cut to Lee Ann Womack’s face at the song’s conclusion says it all. 

Lambert more than avoided the sophomore slump with 2007’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which was released just a few months after her first Grammy appearance — “Kerosene” had been nominated for best female country vocal performance. Once again, she wrote the majority of the songs, this time leaning even more confidently into the stylistic range of her own voice. Where the title track (and lead single) was a raucous near-caricature of a scorned woman, every syllable drawn out with extra twang, “More Like Her” is a sincerely mournful, plain-spoken ballad. 

The sound of the album, too, was more or less a refinement of Kerosene’s concept, not a departure — each song has a distinct identity. There are the funny ones, many of which lean on exaggerating traditional country sounds for effect (“Famous In A Small Town,” “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” “Dry Town”), the sad ones, which showcase Lambert’s vocal range (“Her,” “Desperation,” “Love Letters”) and, for lack of a better word, the angry ones — the mode that remains one of Lambert’s most captivating, as evidenced by both her Patty Griffin cover “Getting Ready” and Ex-Girlfriend’s biggest single, “Gunpowder and Lead.” 

“Gunpowder,” another song about killing a thankless man, is the spiritual and musical successor to “Kerosene,” and had an even bigger impact. The track became her first top ten single on the Hot Country Songs chart in 2008, and ultimately reached no. 52 on the Hot 100. Less abstract than “Kerosene” and considerably more forceful, “Gunpowder” showed Miranda at her spitfire best. Singing about righteous revenge — a background chorus crooning gospel-style precedes the song’s conclusive gunshot — seems to come as naturally to Lambert as songs about beer and whiskey do for most of her peers (though she’s also written her own fair share of drinking songs — see “Tequila Does,” off Wildcard). 

Lambert and Shelton, who was a few hits further into his career but still not fully established, had already been attached for several years by this point, and even toured together in 2008. The combination of their individual successes and their seemingly picture-perfect relationship — which became increasingly public as Lambert’s star rose with nominations for female vocalist of the year at all the major country awards shows — was catnip to country fans.

With 2009’s Revolution, Lambert finally became a country music monolith — the fact that it took three albums being possible proof of country radio’s ongoing unwillingness to play women artists (Shelton, in contrast, hit no. 1 on Hot Country Songs with his very first single). The ingredients were the same — Lambert, similar crew of songwriters, same producers — but the songs seemed stronger and more concise, with some of the rougher edges sandpapered off (though “Maintain The Pain,” “Somewhere Trouble Don’t Go,” and “Sin For a Sin” still channel Lambert’s rock side). 

The album’s first single, “White Liar,” perfectly filled the void that the Dixie Chicks had been forced to create with the most appealing kind of radio-friendly bluegrass (fittingly, it became  Lambert’s first top 40 hit). A lush medley of plucked guitars, banjos and mandolins leads into soaring Appalachain harmonies — the song’s winking twist almost gilds the lily. 

“The House That Built Me,” which might be the saddest song to top the country charts in the past decade, also might be the one that defines Lambert’s output for a large swath of country fans. Perhaps the song’s biggest achievement — besides showcasing Lambert’s characteristically impeccable, evocative singing — is that it so vividly depicts the most mundane kind of tragedy: the pain of realizing things haven’t turned out the way you always hoped (“I got lost in this old world and forgot who I am”). Though she didn’t write it, it’s hard to imagine another singer able to do its unpretentious, relentless lyrics justice. The song won Lambert her first Grammy for best female country vocal performance, while the everyman’s anthem “Heart Like Mine,” still a Lambert live staple, became her second no. 1 in 2011. 

Lambert had proven that she had plenty more to offer than revenge romps, and was finally headlining her own tours (no small feat in the saturated world of country). At the 2010 CMAs, she earned nine nominations — the most ever by a woman artist — and took home female vocalist of the year and album of the year (Shelton won male vocalist of the year). Loretta Lynn presented Lambert’s award, which she talked about in her acceptance speech: “The woman that paved the way for all females, ever, in country music is standing here beside me and handed me this award… I’m going to keep going for the other women in this industry.”

By 2011, Lambert was enough of a commercial force to justify a return to her roots in the less radio friendly side of country and folk the Pistol Annies, an all-star trio project with Ashley Monroe and Angeleena Presley. The resulting album, Hell on Heels, was a series of sweetly sung provocations — channeling country music’s long history of women who have had enough, with a little less angst than Lambert had so successfully articulated on “Kerosene” and “Gunpowder.” Take the refrain on “Housewife’s Prayer”: “I’ve been thinking about setting my house on fire,” crooned in three-part harmony. The group paints a new picture of American women, ones who don’t love the way things are but don’t see a way to change them — so they pop some pills or take a man for all he’s worth, as in their biggest single, “Hell On Heels,” and try to make the best of it. 

Four the Record, Lambert’s second 2011 release, continued the radio hot streak she’d started with Revolution. Power ballad “Over You” was the album’s biggest country airplay success — a song about Shelton losing his older brother that translated well as a break-up anthem — while the kitschy “Mama’s Broken Heart,” co-written by none other than a pre-fame Kacey Musgraves, became her biggest Hot 100 hit to that point. 

But the release also showed Lambert’s growing capacity to take risks as an album artist. It includes collaborations with Patty Loveless (“Dear Diamond”) and Shelton (the underrated “Better in the Long Run”), as well as contributions from some of country’s most beloved songwriters, some of whom have become considerably better known since: Gillian Welch (“Look at Miss Ohio”), Allison Moorer (“Oklahoma Sky”), Brandi Carlile (“Same Old You”), Chris Stapleton (“Nobody’s Fool”) and Natalie Hemby, whose seductive, distorted “Fine Tune” has become something of a cult hit. The voices she chose reiterated her commitment both country tradition and to her singer-songwriter contemporaries, as well as her willingness to hang out on Music City’s fringes. In retrospect, the album’s mellowed, rootsy feel makes it a clear precursor to The Weight of These Wings

The Pistol Annies continued to be a place where Lambert explicitly broached topics seemingly too edgy for her solo work: addiction, divorce, sexism, sex. 2013’s Annie Up was as consistent as the group’s debut, with convincing bluegrass (“Damn Thing”) alongside a convincing indictment of the beauty-industrial complex (“Being Pretty Ain’t Pretty”). “Hush Hush,” probably the album’s most lighthearted song, scraped the bottom of the country charts — but mostly, the group’s impact was confined to Lambert and country music diehards who cherished the trio’s traditional approach to the music. 

Lambert’s next release, 2014’s Platinum, combined her sharpest songwriting instincts with some of her biggest swings towards country radio. There’s no question that the airtight “Platinum” should have been a single — glossy and bright, it has some of Lambert’s best and funniest writing — while the stripped-down, straightforward “Bathroom Sink” is a contender for one of her best songs, period. 

But instead it was the nostalgic “Automatic,” the stadium-sized Carrie Underwood duet (and future Sunday Night Football theme) “Somethin’ Bad,” and the confusingly lewd (but undeniably fun) “Little Red Wagon” that got the single treatment — hardly representative samples of an album that contains a faithful Tom T. Hall cover (“All That’s Left”) alongside a matter-of-fact song about teen pregnancy (“Babies Making Babies”). With Platinum came Lambert’s widest visibility to date — she won the Grammy for best country album and performed “Little Red Wagon” on the broadcast, a few months after “Somethin’” became her biggest Hot 100 hit (reaching no. 19). 

Then came the inescapably public break-up with Shelton, and the inevitable break-up album, 2016’s The Weight of These Wings. The project, with its airy, loose, folksy feel, seemed at first glance like a dramatic shift. It was sprawling — a double album — and ambitious, with a slew of confessional, melancholy songs. But the same road-ready rumble she’d first summoned on Kerosene and recalled over and over again (even recently, on “Locomotive”) outlined the album; this time, there were just none of the songs built for radio (in spite of which, “Vice” reached no. 2 on Hot Country Songs). 

Wings had some of the same live-sounding messiness as Kerosene, marking a return to the uninhibited sound of Lambert’s musical youth — but with a mellower, more mature approach. Though there was still humor (“Ugly Lights,” “Pink Sunglasses,” “Bad Boy”) and every other trademark Lambert sound, the lack of Music Row polish helped give the album some degree of crossover cred and recognition from outlets that hadn’t typically covered her music. (Pitchfork, for example, reviewed her for the first time, and later included Weight in its list of the 200 best albums of the decade.)

Another Annies album, 2018’s Interstate Gospel, continued Lambert’s drift away from country radio’s stranglehold with more rich, traditionally-oriented country songs on contemporary topics. After The Weight of These Wings and Interstate Gospel, Lambert was, at a minimum, operating on the fringes of commercial country and more likely broaching the alt-country and Americana scenes. Then came the Wildcard singles, which so far range from whimsical (“It All Comes Out In The Wash,” “Way Too Pretty For Prison”) to mellow and earnest (“Bluebird”) to rock-tinged (“Mess With My Head,” “Pretty Bitchin’”) — a wide array of stylistic diversity in place of Weight’s broader concept. So far, “Wash” has reached no. 15 on Country Airplay.

Just as she was 15 years ago when she first got signed, Lambert remains one of country’s most distinctive and consistent voices. One of popular music’s best singers, she’s immune to trends and inextricably tied to the tentpoles of traditional country without being overly reverent. Even she’s doing “straight down the middle Miranda Lambert,” it’s still some of the best of what the genre has to offer. 

“Would I love to just go off and make a stone cold country record?” Lambert asked in the same Times interview. “Hell, yes. Maybe I will.” It’s crazy to think that she hasn’t made what she considers a “stone cold country record” yet, but further proof that while Miranda Lambert is the kind of artist we tend to praise with retrospectives and nostalgia, she’s more than earned her roses — and her creative freedom — now. 

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