"Whenever someone says 'That's not country enough' or 'That's too country,' I don't pay them any mind," Miranda Lambert insists. "Because all these songs are part of who I am."
Miranda Lambert made a big splash in this year's Country Music Critics Poll by embracing a very broad definition of country music. Her new solo album, Four the Record, has songs that sound a whole lot more like Lynyrd Skynyrd than Loretta Lynn and songs that sound a whole lot more like Loretta Lynn than Carrie Underwood. Meanwhile, her trio project with Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley, Pistol Annies, found the sweet spot between Appalachian string bands and roadhouse honky-tonk on their debut album, Hell on Heels.
Somehow Lambert tied these different arrangements together with her voice and personality — a feisty, big-lunged soprano from small-town East Texas born in the '80s and raised on Southern rock, Hot Country, feminism and guns. As a result, Lambert and Pistol Annies dominated the Critics Poll in every category they were eligible for.
"I'm a country girl," Lambert explains, "who grew up in East Texas with Loretta, Hank, Jerry Jeff Walker, David Allan Coe, but also with Skynyrd and Creedence. Merle Haggard is my No. 1 hero — in fact, I'm wearing a Merle cap right now — but Steve Earle was also a big influence on me. I loved the raw sound and the honesty of those early records like 'Gettin' Tough,' 'Copperhead Road' and 'Guitar Town.' I loved the angst in his voice.
"It all comes out in my music. My dad [Rick Lambert] was a police officer and private eye but also a songwriter who sang on weekends. There was always music around me — either a record was on, or my dad was playing John Prine and Merle. That's where I found my love for music."
Her father's love of singer-songwriters who played acoustic guitar and told stories is at the heart of everything Lambert does, no matter how many loud guitars are piled on top. One of the best songs on her new album is "Dear Diamond," one she wrote by herself. It's sung by a woman to an inanimate object, a venerable device ever since Willie Nelson sang to his walls and George Jones sang to his Elvis Presley decanter and Fred Flintstone jelly glass. This woman is singing to her wedding ring, asking the sparkling jewel if she should confess her infidelity to the husband she still loves. It's a daring gender reversal for such a traditional song form.
It's not the only unexpected twist on the album. When her mama lends some advice about coping with a broken heart, Lambert doesn't gratefully accept the words of wisdom on "Mama's Broken Heart," but tells her to butt out. When another mother "starts pushing that wedding gown" on "Look at Miss Ohio," the singer replies, "I wanna do right, but not right now." When she describes a male U.S. senator who dresses up as a woman on Friday nights on "All Kinds of Kinds," she doesn't condemn the hypocrisy of the congressman but of the finger-pointers who can't accept what the senator's own wife can accept. All these songs contradict the script formulas of modern country radio.
"I'd rather have something that's polarizing, that makes you go one way, than just be vanilla," says Lambert. "I figure that's how I got here — by not worrying about politics or offending someone. If I change now, I'm going to lose what got me here. And I don't want to change. I'm a real artist — that's who I am. I'm not trying to be edgy and weird, that's just the way I am. What I say on records and onstage is who I am all the time."
"Look at Miss Ohio" is the second song by Gillian Welch and David Rawlings that Lambert has recorded. She's never been shy about reaching beyond Music Row into the Americana fringes for a good song. The new album also boasts compositions by ex-Steeldriver Chris Stapleton and by Steve Earle's wife Allison Moorer; previous albums have included songs by John Prine, Julie Miller, Patty Griffin, Fred Eaglesmith and Susanna Clark.
But neither is Lambert shy about working with the Row's most commercial writers, such as Phillip Coleman and Don Henry, who wrote "All Kinds of Kinds"; Tom Douglas and Allan Shamblin, who wrote Lambert's biggest hit, "The House That Built Me"; Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley, who became her triomates in Pistol Annies; and Blake Shelton, her husband. Lambert launched her career by threatening to burn down a cheating boyfriend's house with a Keith Richards riff and "Kerosene" and by threatening to perforate an abusive boyfriend with "Gunpowder and Lead." But ever since then, she has broadened her range till she can now accommodate roadhouse rockers, hillbilly weepers and quirky tangents all on the same album.
"On my first two records," she recalls, "I don't think people really got me — a hardcore few did, but a lot didn't. It was as if everyone was wondering, 'Is she scary or what?' I was named 'The Most Terrifying Woman of the Year' in Esquire Magazine in 2008, because I was singing about guns and burning down houses. But that was just one of the many elements in me. Revolution was the turning point, because it had hits like 'The House That Built Me' that didn't have any of these scary things — it was just a good country song. People finally saw that there was another side to me.
"Don't get me wrong: I like selling a lot of records," Lambert admits. "But there are other kinds of rewards too. Having hits and critical success are what everyone wants, but a lot of people only have one or the other. As long as you feel good about yourself, that's what's most important.
"Maybe some people who have a more commercial sound and know the business, that's OK, but if you have something to say, you have to find a way to say it. I want to be as successful as possible, but I don't want to change what I want to say, and how to say it to be there. Dwight Yoakam and The Dixie Chicks made great records with great integrity, so that's a big role model for me."
More coverage at the links belowThe Results
Selected Factoids from the 2011 Country Music Critics' poll
In a year ruled by Miranda Lambert and her Pistol Annies, Eric Church and Hayes Carll, country music returns to taking itself a little less seriously