By Holly Gleason
(LSM Sept/Oct 2011/vol. 4 – Issue 5)
Miranda Lambert has never been particularly interested in how other people did it. Sure, she first came to national awareness via the dreadful Nashville Star talent contest, but she didn’t win — and she didn’t look back. She wanted to write her music, and that didn’t just mean sitting in rooms with the “hitmeisters” for a token co-write credit — and her must-have producer upon scoring her record deal was a rumpled publishing executive named Frank Liddell, known for working with acts that were no threat to country radio. But somehow, the unlikely stick of Texas dynamite managed to blow up a genre of blow-up dolls and anatomically incorrect boy singers with her strident, girl-unhinged anthems, winning multiple armloads of industry awards and selling millions of Kerosenses, Crazy Ex-Girlfriends and Revolutions along the way.
Having just married fellow progressive traditionalist Blake Shelton this spring, the firebrand with the tear ’n’ turpentine voice returns with not one, but two projects and a fall tour that looks like one of the rallying points for young women coming into their own. In addition to her mid-November release Four The Record, which features the percolating save-the-drama-for-your-Mama first single “Baggage Claim,” Lambert is also stepping out with a brand new girl group, the Pistol Annies, with fellow signer-songwriters Ashley Monroe, who penned Jason Aldean’s “The Truth” and has an album coming on Warner Brothers in 2012, and Angaleena Presley, a Kentucky holler girl whose own kinda country is a little too raw and real for the folks down on Music Row.
With their tongues firmly in cheek through songs like the feisty “Takin’ Pills,” about the white-knuckle ways a girl gets by in the world today, and the plucky mountain-esque rebel anthem “Bad Example” — the Pistol Annies’ debut album, Hell on Heels (which debuted at No. 1 on the country chart in August), is a pride in the high-hair, higher stilettos, tight pants and big buckle club. It’s a wink, a nudge and hoot with an unabashed hillbilly grounding and three distinct Southern, not quite white-trash realities.
There’s a tortured wistfulness to the Annies album, evident in the title track and the innocence of “Boys from the South” — and those qualities are also on display in Lambert’s solo work. With Four the Record, there’s a vastness that runs the gamut from the vulnerable ache in her Shelton co-write, “Over You,” to a sexy recasting of Gillian Welch’s beauty queen’s inner conflict, “Miss Ohio,” as well lots more of the steely confidence that people have come to expect from the woman who thought “Gun Powder & Lead” was the perfect domestic crisis resolution.
Lambert’s now a long way from the feisty kid who came up in Lone Star bars; and yet, somehow she’s managed to protect that inner sprite who can get fired up about music and knows that your girlfriends will always matter. For someone who’s achieved so much, she feels like she’s just now scratching at what the dream may hold.
And in doing the unthinkable — releasing two albums in one quarter — she reminds people that it’s the music that should lead, not the business. For the young woman who’s already won two Album of the Year Awards, as well as Female Vocalist and Single of the Year, letting the music define the game plan may be the most revolutionary act of all.
You know doing a trio project right now is nuts, right?
That’s what everybody says: “Are you crazy?” But I’ve always been driven by music. I’d just finished Revolution, and started writing all these amazing songs with Ashley Monroe. Then I met Angaleena Presley. We started writing together. It was too good to not turn into something that really mattered. So we became the Pistol Annies.
Then you got married, and started your own record.
We had a week off. I went right back in and started my next record.
What do you make of it?
I think it’s brave. I can’t keep doing what I was doing, even though it worked. The hardest part of having a career is to keep reinventing yourself, to keep reinventing your music, making it fresh. It’s crazy to think I’m on my fourth record. After what Revolution did, I was nervous. You know, “What am I gonna do?” I started writing, collecting songs. I was listening to lots of artists, figuring I’m just gonna let the music lead and see, let the songs dictate and see where it goes production-wise. Maybe more than brave, I followed my heart.
You really grew.
There’s some different … and I know if people thought I was left of center, they’re definitely gonna think that now. There’s stuff that’s way different from anything I’ve ever heard on country radio, but that’s what I’ve done so far, carved out a niche for myself. It took a while, but radio came around to me. We have a good relationship. Hopefully, that will continue.
Isn’t that expected?
I think my fans are craving something different from me on every record, because I keep delivering something different. It breaks up the monotony a little bit, to record different kinds of things, write about different things. It’s why I’m doing Pistol Annies, too. It’s different from my thing. I need it just as much as anyone! I’m constantly looking for new music, or finding old music I didn’t even know, ’cause I want something fresh.
How did the Pistol Annies come about?
It started so innocently and organically … Just me and Ashley sitting on a couch at my house, talking about songs and writing. Then saying, “Let’s be in a girl band — let’s ask Angaleena Presley.” Now that couch dream’s become a reality. There wasn’t a plan with that music, either. It was three girls from different parts of the country, writing about real things, taking from all our influences and putting all that together in songs. I think that’s why it’s so unique and so different.
Tell me about the other girls.
Ashley’s got a deal with Warner Brothers. She’s made this beautiful, ethereal solo record. I don’t know what the plan is for it yet. And Angaleena has a solo record that no one’s grabbed onto yet. It’s definitely ballsy and even a little more raw than the Pistol Annies stuff, but that’s what makes her so great. I hope this’ll draw enough attention to them, and people’ll go, “Oh! Modern day Loretta’s right here, you need to see this!”
What’s the plan for the Pistol Annies going forward?
We’re taking it step-by-step. I hope the recognition of my name, of what I’ve achieved, can draw attention to the Pistol Annies. But I’m pretty sure because of what the music is, we’re gonna be able to stand on our own without my name being attached. You know, I’m just part of a group; when I’m working with them, I’m a Pistol Annie, not Miranda Lambert.
What does it mean to be a Pistol Annie?
It means to be honest, a little rough around the edges, to have some sort of bad-assedness to you. [Laughs] That’s a word I just made up. It’s the kind of thing, if I wasn’t part of the band, I’d want to be part of it. I’d want to be an honorary Annie. When you listen to our record, we absolutely want to empower women. But we also want to have some fun! When girls sit around, talking at slumber parties over glasses of wine … what we actually talk about, well, we’re singing about it.
I’m always nervous and excited about anything with Pistol Annies. I’m getting to relive all those new moments that you pass over so quickly cause you’re in a rush to get everything done when you’re brand new. These little moments, like hearing “Hell on Heels” on the radio, I was like “Turn it UP! I’m so excited…!”
It certainly changes your dynamic as a singer.
I’ve always said in my next life I’m gonna be a back-up singer. I love harmony — I love to blend and be part of a blend. Being part of a group lets my voice blend with other people, so that’s a really cool part of this.
As far as my vocals on my own, I think years of playing on the road and getting used to my voice … I mean, I started out as a little girl. I was 19, 20 years old when Kerosene came out. I’m 27, about to be 28. I’m married. I’ve worked that muscle and learned a lot about myself, my voice and what I’m capable of.
I give a lot of the credit to my husband. Blake’s always said, “Quit saying you’re not a singer,” cause I’ve always felt, “I’m not really a singer, I’m a songwriter … maybe a stylist.” He’s like, “You can sing. Whoever told you that [you couldn’t]? It’s in your brain, and it’s wrong.” He really encouraged me to open up, and just sing. Because I was always insecure about my voice. I didn’t have that Carrie/Martina range. I still don’t, but I definitely have a lot more soul in my voice than I used to.
And that comes from …
Living and growing up. Being a woman, and not just a kid
You’ve had an interesting evolution.
I didn’t miss any childhood. I didn’t miss any high school. I really enjoyed being a teenager. But I’d also seen a lot in my life. I’d been on the road for three years before Nashville Star. I’d learned a lot more about life than your average 19 year old. Throughout my career and my records, I really write about where I am at that point. I don’t know what it’s like to have gone through everything, so I’m not gonna try to write about something I’ve not been through or seen. But I feel like the people who’ve watched me grow up, the girls who were my age are still my age, so the girl who loved me at 19 is now 27, too. She probably has different things she goes through and thinks now, ’cause I know I do. If you just try to be honest, I know my fans really appreciate that.
You’re young, but you’re also a young woman. Kind of like Taylor Swift.
She’s what? 21? And she’s done something we really needed: crossing over. She’s a great writer and a good role model for young girls. She’s brought so many fans to country, because they might be watching for her on CMT or GAC, and maybe they see me — and become my fan as well. I’ve never been one of those people who considers music a competition. There’s room for all of us. You can’t compare my music and Taylor’s, because our music is nothing alike. But we’re both just strong girls, working our butts off, trying to get our music heard.
Has marriage changed the way you approach your music?
I’m not a love song person. I always have one or two, but whether my heart’s broken at the time or not, I lean towards the sad songs, the cheatin’ songs, the revenge songs. Those are the songs I love, so those’re the songs I wanna write. But being married makes me feel a new responsibility as a woman … I can’t have all songs about cheating and heartbreak, ’cause I’m not living that. I can write from my past, but I need to take from right now, too. I gotta take on a little bit more of that character when I choose songs. I’m a little more grown up, and want to embrace this part of my life. I have a family of my own now. I have a household of my own, not my parents’. So it’s really … it doesn’t change the songs I pick or write, but it colors things. I feel I’m more than a cute kid now. Maybe I’m more of a sexy woman at this point in my life.
Tell me about the song on the new album that you wrote with your husband, “Over You.”
The experience of writing “Over You” with Blake was a really cool bonding moment between us. We don’t get much chance to write together, but when he’s in the mood, it’s spontaneous. Sometimes, he’ll open up about his brother who passed away in the car accident. One day, we were on the bus, he finally told me the story. You never really know, and I get nervous asking stuff like that. I’ve never had a huge loss like that, that close in with a brother or a sister. He said, “You went away … how dare you … I miss you.” We both started crying as we were writing. I’ve never had an experience like that writing a song. It was very impactful to both of us.
He went in (to record it), ’cause his album was gonna come before mine. He asked, “Are you for sure gonna cut ‘Over You’?” And I was like, “Yeah, but if you want it, it’s your story.” He was like, “No, but I want the song to get heard. If you’re not going to, then give it to me.” I thought, “Well, if he’s gonna give something like this to me, I better make sure I do it justice.” ’Cause it’s an important song. I’ve never had a song about a death — and the story of someone I’m so close to.
Then there’s “Oklahoma Skies,” which you didn’t write but also feels very personal to your new life.
I’m a huge Allison Moorer fan. She’s a big influence on me. We’d actually met a couple times, and got into this texting relationship. She told me that she was overseas and she’d found this Oklahoma quarter, and she’d had this title for me. We were planning to write together and we didn’t get to. She lives in New York City, and it didn’t work out. But she told me, “I’ve got this title ‘Oklahoma Skies,’ and we need to write it.” She finally called and said, “Well, I finished it, and I wanna send it to you.” She sent me this email of just her and her guitar, like she’d done it in her kitchen, and it was the most beautiful thing.
I’m so glad I didn’t write on it. I couldn’t have made it better. She got inside my soul for a second! And it is us: I moved from my home state of Texas to Oklahoma to be with Blake, and it worked out. It’s definitely now my home there. The last song I felt like that about was “The House that Built Me.” This had that same feeling: “This is me!”
I started listening to Alison when I was 17 and started writing songs. She’s how I learned to hone my craft.
She wasn’t on the radio all the time, but I’m so glad I found her. I was a fan of mainstream country, but what I really wanted to do was more the singer-songwriter stuff. I was a fan of Jerry Jeff Walker, David Allan Coe, the Texas guys, Robert Earl Keen … But when I put in Allison’s CD, it felt like a mixture of all the things I like. Her songs could be mainstream or not … They should be played on the radio, like everything else. But she took (her songwriting) so seriously, you could tell in her voice. I’m glad, because my music’s infused by all those things — and she showed that was okay.
How pure a hybrid is your music?
You can’t pin any of it down. You can just twist it all together. Definitely, it’s country. But it’s got a rock edge, a soft side. There’s a vintage feel sometimes. It’s a mixture of everything I’ve ever loved that stuck out in my mind.
Rules don’t seem to matter much to you.
Growing up, I was definitely a good kid. I pushed the limit, but I never really got too far out there. I wasn’t one of those “rules are meant to be broken” people. I wasn’t a rebel. I didn’t party at all in high school. I was very much a good Christian girl. Not that I’m not now, it’s just when I started playing in bars, all that changed. I got thick-skinned, had a little a chip on my shoulder ’cause I’d have to walk into a place with my guitar and hear, “Awwwww, how cute … little 17 -year old blond girl with braids …” And I was like, “Thanks, but no. No! Listen! I have to say something that’s important.” That’s where I got my rough edge, playing in those bars every weekend for three years. Then going on Nashville Star, going, “I’m not here to make friends; I’m here to get a record deal.” And I did! [Laughs]
Ever wish you’d won?
Never! It was not time for something like that.
And winning things like that can come with a stigma.
Next year, there’s another winner … and another. But doing the show got me seen by people, got them asking, “What do you have to offer?” They’d ask, “Play us your music, and let’s see about giving you a chance.” They gave us a song to cut to be your first single. Mine was “Country Strong.” Here it is a big hit now, but I didn’t like it at all, especially for my first single! “This isn’t me! I wanna write my own.” But that’s not how that is …
You picked an odd producer for commercial success.
Frank Liddell produced Chris Knight, one of my favorite records on him, and Jack Ingram, and the stuff I loved on Lee Ann Womack. I’d always said I’d wanted him. When I was about 18, he came and saw me at the Bluebird and I just loved his vibe. He gets it; he’s not all about business, but more the feel. I thought he’d let me do what I wanted, and make the record about my lyrics, not just try to make a record for commercial appeal. He’s a great song guy; he’s about songs.
What’s the best thing someone can say about you?
That I touch people through music. My strongest suit is who I am musically. I’m a pretty good ol’ gal regularly, but music’s been my life and will always be my life. If people can say I made history with my music, that I’m one of those females who was a trailblazer, that would mean a lot to me.
Does that extend to Pistol Annies?
A lot of my fans embrace Pistol Annies, obviously. But I think they also relate to what we say: It’s about being a strong woman. Definitely I’m curious about how we learn to perform in the band, to take only a third of the pressure and a third of the responsibility. I wanna let those other girls shine, cause they deserve to be stars in their own right.
Sharing your light?
I felt like all the success I’ve had, that I’ve worked so hard for — I’ve reached this place where I’d like to use that to say, “Thanks for hearing me, and please keep listening. But here are these other two girls, who you should hear, too.”
I definitely have a kindred spirit with other artists, ’cause I know what they’re going through and they know what I’m going through. It’s why a lot of us get along unless there’s an ego involved. There’s room for all of it. You can’t compare apples and oranges. I’m way different than Lady Antebellum and Taylor, who is way different than Martina. I think people should have welcoming arms, and realize the bigger a star gets, and the more awards you win and of course want to win — I mean, I was getting beat out every year by Taylor or Carrie, and I was like, “When’s MY turn comin?” [Laughs] But when it’s somebody else’s turn, I wanna be as gracious as Carrie was to me when I won, ’cause it’s a family, not a competition.