Miranda Lambert: Country With an Open Mind

Music Features Miranda Lambert
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Miranda Lambert’s new solo album, Four the Record, begins with a backwoods dobro solo over a marching-band drum pattern, a collision of sounds that sets up the song’s title, “All Kinds of Kinds.” It’s a hillbilly anthem of open-minded tolerance, suggesting that if a skinny circus acrobat can marry a short, round Human Cannonball, we’re in no position to judge who should marry whom. The song doesn’t actually come out and endorse same-sex marriage, but it does say that there’s nothing wrong with a U.S. senator dressing up as a woman on Fridays as long as his wife is cool with it. “Ever since the beginning, to keep the world spinning,” Lambert sings on the chorus, “it takes all kinds of kinds.”

“I just love that song,” she says. “It’s a cool message that I had never put out there before. People are willing to listen to the message, because the song is so funny and so much fun. Traveling around the world like I do, I meet all kinds of people and I’ve learned to accept them all. I grew up with that attitude to a certain extent, but I’ve also opened up my mind a lot since I left home—and I still have a lot of growing to do. Every time I judge someone, it always comes back to bite me because I end up doing the same thing myself.

“For instance, I used to think that people with tattoos and mohawks were weird, but then I ended up with a tattoo myself, and my bass player, who was an awesome guy, had a mohawk. I’ve learned to love being out there and meeting different kinds of people, even if they’re outside my comfort zone; I might not have said that five years ago, but now I do now. Even within the band on the bus, there are both rednecks and hippies, so we all have to learn to get along.”

Lambert’s campaign for broadmindedness is not limited to the hot-button issues of sexual identity and cultural lifestyles; she also wants more tolerance in the music world. She’s tired of people complaining that she’s “too country” or “not country enough.” She follows up the bluegrass-meets-circus music of her new album’s opening track with two amped-up, stomping rockers, “Fine Tune” and “Fastest Girl in Town,” that owe a lot more to Joan Jett than to Loretta Lynn. A few tracks later, she sings back-to-back twangy, string-band confessions, “Dear Diamond” and “Same Old You,” that sound a whole lot more like Loretta than Joan. She finishes off the album with three songs from the alt-country/Americana world: “Look at Miss Ohio” by Gillian Welch & David Rawlings, “Nobody’s Fool” by ex-Steeldriver Chris Stapleton and “Oklahoma Sky” by Steve Earle’s wife Allison Moorer.

This comes across not as a calculated strategy to appeal to different niche markets but as an accurate reflection of the way Lambert and her generation of small-town Middle Americans grew up in the ’80s and ’90s. For Lambert—who’ll turn 28 on Nov. 10, nine days after Four the Record is released—it was only natural to spin the radio dial from the country station playing Reba McEntire to the rock station playing Heart to the urban station playing Whitney Houston. It’s more honest for her to draw on this eclectic musical education than it would be to focus on one narrow slice of it. And no matter what genre she turns to at any given time, the rural East Texas twang of her soprano and her feisty, compulsively honest personality unites everything she does.

“No one has ever told me, ‘Cut this song to appeal to this market,’” she insists. “Every song shows a different side of my personality. On this record in particular, every song brings out something that inspired me growing up. I love Patty Loveless and ‘Dear Diamond’ reminds me of Patty. ‘Baggage Claim’ brings out my love for Beyoncé because it has that groove—it came about when I wanted to get up and put my fingers in someone’s face. ‘Fine Tune’ reminds me of Sheryl Crow; I love to do that rocking stuff on stage so I can run around and sweat. I want every record to have some rocking songs that make you want to drive real fast a real long way. On these last two albums in particular, I wanted to find songs that would work in my live show.”

When her live show came to Maryland’s Merriweather Post Pavilion in July, Lambert sharpened the edge on “Baggage Claim,” the first single from the new album. The singer wore a sleeveless, faded-denim jacket with a silver-sequin mini-skirt and tan cowgirl boots. Big silver hoop earrings dangled near her blonde bangs and cherry cheeks, but she belted out the song like the defiant feminist anthem it is. She told the man in the song that she was no longer willing to put up with all his baggage—his “sensitive ego” and “that sweet little habit you can’t kick”—and warned that he’ll find his clothes “all over the yard.” She added, “Call your mama when you get to town, ’cause I ain’t gonna be hanging around.” The song, like so many of her others, had just enough comic exaggeration to be funny while also making it clear that this was no idle threat—she had drawn a line in the sand that he’d better not cross.

That song was followed by Lambert’s guitarist Scotty Wray picking out the traditional ballad melody of “Shenandoah” on acoustic guitar as an introduction to the singer’s biggest hit, “The House That Built Me.” It was quite a transition—from Beyoncé to Appalachia—but Lambert pulled it off. She proved she could do both: threaten someone who tried to take advantage and appreciate someone who had been kind, growl like a biker and croon like a farmwife.

Earlier in the show, Lambert had brought out two friends, Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley, to join her band on stage. The three women had formed a trio called Pistol Annies, and their debut album, Hell on Heels, was about to hit Number 1 on the country charts (Number 5 pop). Backed by a string-band arrangement that featured mandolin, lap steel and stand-up bass, the three women—Lambert surrounded by the towering, dark-haired Presley and the diminutive, sandy-haired Monroe—shared the lead vocals on their co-written title track, bragging how they had weaseled a diamond ring, a credit card, a Lincoln, a GTO, a Mexican estate and a Hollywood high-rise from the foolish men who fell for them. “I done made the devil a deal,” they exulted. “He made me pretty; he made me smart, and I’m gonna break me a million hearts.”

They followed that with “Takin’ Pills,” another comically exaggerated, three-person autobiography with the chorus hook, “Who in the hell’s gonna pay these bills, when one’s drinkin’, one’s smokin’, one’s takin’ pills?” Lambert took the lead on “Boys from the South,” a tribute to cute kissers from Texas to the Carolinas. The trio’s mini-set climaxed with a song not on the album, a rollicking version of Ray Charles’ “Hit the Road, Jack.”

“I’ve been friends with Ashley for seven years,” Lambert says to explain the trio’s genesis, “since we were both signed to Sony. Not long ago she said, ‘You have to meet this girl Angaleena; we’ve written a great song.’ They played it for me and she was right; it was great. Before long we were singing together, and I said, ‘Why don’t we turn this into a group?’ The feeling just came over me; the music was too good to not take it to the world. Fortunately I have a manager that when I say, ‘This is a priority for me,’ she says, ‘Then it is for me too.’

“It’s so awesome that this slumber-party project turned into a record that come out and went to number one. It gets lonely on the bus when you’re the only girl with all these guys for years. I was so happy when the Pistol Annies got on the bus too; not only are they girls but they’re amazing songwriters and singers. We’ll literally be on the bus painting our nails, talking about what girls talk about, and a line we’ll pop out. We’ll say, ‘That might be a song,’ and we’ll grab our guitars.”

While Four the Record continues the blend of Southern-rock, modern country and traditional country that marked Lambert’s first three solo albums, Hell on Heels focuses on the semi-acoustic, traditional twang of her roots. It taps into the source waters for all her music, her father’s love of storytellers with acoustic guitars, singers like Merle Haggard and John Prine.

“I can’t tell you how obsessed my dad is with the Pistol Annies,” Lambert laughs. “He likes all my music, but I’ve never heard him as excited by any of it as he is about the Pistol Annies. He says it sounds like something that could have come out in the ’70s. It’s true; the songs we wrote seemed to want that style. When I think of what a country woman should be, Dolly, Loretta and Reba come to mind. They’re real smart, they know the business and they stick to their guns. They may reinvent themselves, like Loretta did with Van Lear Rose, but they still sound like themselves.”