“The most important relationships we have in this life are the ones we have with ourselves,” Maren Morris told New Orleans’ Smoothie King Center Friday (Oct. 4) while introducing “To Hell and Back,” her richly romantic ode to her husband, singer-songwriter Ryan Hurd.
It’s a song about feeling like damaged goods, about what it means to find love because of — and not in spite of — your pain and your flaws. Her candid monologue before the song, though, had a similarly ingratiating effect. She spoke about the “messy road to self-acceptance,” and how he “would never try to fix the way I was feeling, he just let me feel it,” drawing in the arena crowd with her confessional tone.
There was the feeling of a church service at the show, and it wasn’t just the two organ solos. This particular stop on Miranda Lambert’s Roadside Bars and Pink Guitars tour may as well have been a mini-festival: Lambert and Morris were joined by the Pistol Annies (a trio that includes Lambert) and up-and-comer Tenille Townes, creating a mecca for fans of country artists telling honest, rich stories massive vocal performances and with a healthy dose of spunk.
Texas natives Morris and Lambert exist at what would seem to be stylistic opposites of contemporary country music. Morris’s smoky, warm voice lends itself to R&B and blues-inflected songs; her forays into pop have earned her plenty of naysayers among the self-appointed guardians of country authenticity. In contrast, Lambert's inspirations, like raucous Texas roadhouses and nasally Appalachain balladry, hearken back to country music of a different era even as her arrangements mostly steer clear of overwrought nostalgia.
It’s the perfect blend of aspirational and relatable for their flock, made up of mostly women of all ages seeking a cocktail of raw emotion, arena-ready gloss and more than a few of the stadium’s daiquiris. Many sported shorts and boots, some completing their ensembles with custom shirts bearing favorite Lambert song lyrics.
Morris seems to have somehow still further refined her live sound, which was compelling from day one. Fresh arrangements kept some of her now-vintage crowd-pleasers interesting. “I Wish I Was” opened with a stunning a capella three-part harmony that had the audience scrambling for their phones. She humored fans with “The Middle,” her massive crossover hit with Zedd — thanks to her own strength as a vocalist, though, the song sounded completely natural played by a country band. “My Church” led with an organ solo; when Morris joined in, she sang her own lyrics with a completely different melody, effectively channeling the baroque improvisation of Sunday with a Southern Baptist choir.
Miranda led her set with some foreshadowing: gear graphics and sound effects suggested an oncoming freight train as she walked onstage, and it was true — the audience was about to be flattened by her marathon set. From her opener, rough and tumble new single “Locomotive,” to “Kerosene” (seeing Miranda sing “I’m giving up on love/’cause love’s given up on me” in front of a wall of flames never gets old), to crowd-favorite “Vice,” Lambert had the brashness of a rock star — stomping her silver cowboy boots, sipping out of a cup with her own name on it, swiveling her hips in time to a banjo solo, tousling her own hair at the end of “Mess With My Head” before flashing a grin.
As she got deeper into her set list, Lambert’s performances felt increasingly intimate. Her signature break-up ballad “Over You” was interrupted by a fan who threw a glow stick at her. “That’s not going to work for me,” she said after stopping the song. “Not during this song. I see people crying, and that’s what this song is for.” When she resumed, her own eyes looked a bit wet. Later, during “Mama’s Broken Heart” — hardly among Lambert’s weepiest tunes — she paused after the line, “Never let them see you cry,” and the Jumbotron camera zoomed into reveal a single perfect tear rolling down her cheek, turning an anthem about resilience into a tribute to the power of vulnerability.
The crowd’s enthusiasm peaked with the rare appearance by the Pistol Annies, featuring Lambert, Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley. What might seem like a niche group to those not familiar with country inspired a practically arena-shaking roar when they came out to “Takin’ Pills,” a song where they introduce each other by way of their respective purported vices (Lambert’s is drinking, Presley’s is smoking and Monroe’s is the titular pills).
The group had the easy rapport of old friends, because as Lambert noted, they are: “They sang me to the church when I got married, and then they sang me to the courthouse when I got divorced,” she said by way of introduction for their recent single “Got My Name Changed Back” (for which Lambert busted out her washboard).
“Let me give you our stats real quick,” she quipped. “Three husbands, two ex-husbands, three babies, one step-child and 23 animals.”
They cycled through a too-short set that still spanned their entire catalog. Too-real ballad “Best Years of My Life” was perfectly executed heartbreak, but the show-stopper was a flawless rendition of “Hell on Heels,” the group’s signature song. The harmonies stick so well that when they asked the crowd to sing a final chorus alone, the result was still harmonized — just 10,000 or so strong.
The Pistol Annies are all women, and the show’s line-up was all women — a fact that’s particularly significant given both Lambert’s heavyweight status in country music, and the genre’s current battle for gender parity on the airwaves.
She addressed it explicitly. “Thank you for spending your hard earned money on supporting country music, but more importantly, thank you for supporting women in country music tonight,” she told the crowd.
But the brief commentary almost seemed redundant, gilding the lily of the night’s stunning music and storytelling. There’s no doubt it’s important to note the significance of giving space to women’s voices, but the performances themselves had been an overwhelming argument for the primacy of these artists in any smart conception of country music today.
The concert concluded with another new Lambert single, “Fooled Around and Fell In Love,” which features all the different artists who have joined her on this tour — all of whom are women. Every woman on the bill joined Lambert on stage, riffing and harmonizing together, a beautiful if implicit statement of solidarity.
“It ain’t no trend to her,” Morris said of Lambert’s support for other women artists. “She’s been doing it since day one.”