Country

Makin' Tracks: Miranda Lambert's 'Bluebird' Takes Flight

Miranda Lambert
Ellen von Unwerth

Miranda Lambert

When Miranda Lambert named her current album, she took note of three previous projects -- Kerosene, Revolution and Platinum -- and focused on fitting an obvious theme.

“My one-word titles have been special records, a little more special than the others for some reason or another,” she notes. “So I wanted a one-word title, but I wanted it to be right.”

The name she landed on, Wildcard, comes from a song with its own one-word title -- “Bluebird,” released to terrestrial radio via PlayMPE on Nov. 25, 2019 -- and the word “wildcard” appears in that song because of its relevance in Lambert’s life. “Easy From Now On,” a Carlene Carter/Susanna Clark composition that closed Lambert’s album Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, includes the phrase, “Don’t worry ’bout me/I got a wildcard up my sleeve,” that Lambert highly values. Taking a cue from that, she got a queen of hearts tattoo inked on her right arm in October 2018, guaranteeing that she had a love-related wildcard literally up her sleeve.

It would prove prophetic. The following month, she met New York police officer Brendan McLoughlin, and she quietly married him less than three months later. So when she showed up days later for a songwriting appointment with Natalie Hemby (“Heartache Medication,” “Rainbow”) and Luke Dick (“Burning Man,” “Round Here Buzz”), Lambert was euphoric, and felt those emotions were key to the day’s writing. She had to share.

“I felt like for that song I might as well tell my news to my friends, because I felt like it would really add [to it],” she says. “And it turned out that it did.”

Lambert knew what they would be working on before she ever arrived at Dick’s studio. He had sent her a text with a few lines that had their own source of inspiration. He was fascinated with a 1992 poem, “The Bluebird,” by Charles Burkowski, that treats the creative spirit as a thrush locked away in an internal cage. Lambert had responded favorably, and Dick in turn worked up a guitar bed for the session -- along with a good bit of the chorus and few lines from the first verse. Hemby and Dick sensed something was up with Lambert, and it took little time for her to let her secret out of its cage.

“She poured a glass of wine and held up her hand,” recalls Hemby. “She goes, ‘I got married three days ago.’ And Luke and I started laughing; like, we just couldn’t believe it. Brendan is so sweet, and they’re so happy.”

That wildcard perfectly fit the first line that Dick had created for “Bluebird” -- “I’m a turner/I turn pages all the time” -- and they essentially found themselves with the beginnings of a song that ideally captured Lambert’s latest incarnation.

“All I knew was that it would be cool to just have a statement song about yourself, and it was about all of us,” says Dick. “There’s these characteristics of yourself, and then how you deal with adversity, but in an impressionistic way instead of in a literal way. That was the only guideline that I had imagined.”

Every thought in the verses would start by turning a verb into an “-er”-ending noun -- “I’m a keeper,” “I’m a giver” and “I’m a rhymer.” The last one was Lambert’s idea, and its follow-up sentiment, “I can turn 20 cents into a 10,” leaves a lot of room for interpretation. Is she turning 20 cents into a dime? Yes. But she also could turn 20 cents into $10.

“That girl could take a penny and turn it into a bajillion dollars,” suggests Hemby. “She’s very resourceful.”

Dick fitted the original musical bed with a wavering six-note passage that Hemby fixated on throughout the day. It became a signature riff for “Bluebird.” And Lambert’s queen of hearts tattoo likewise became a hallmark of the chorus when she changed one of Dick’s initial phrases to “I got a wildcard up my sleeve.” She turned another image into a conversational citrus allusion that characterized her romantic state of mind.

“I kind of twisted it to fit a little bit more of what I sing about and how I state things,” she says. “There was a lot of poetry in the song, and a line like ‘If love keeps givin’ me lemons/I just mix ’em in my drink’ was something to sort of bring it back and simplify for a second.”

They finished late in the evening, and Dick held on to the track to do a little more work with it. He sang the lead for that demo and fully expected to get Lambert’s voice on it, but nothing more was required.

“That might’ve been one of the last songs that we wrote together [for the album], or she just liked the vocal on it, because she never sang a demo,” says Dick.

Instead, Lambert took it to producer Jay Joyce (Eric Church, Ashley McBryde), who recorded “Bluebird” at St. Charles Studio with a sense of grit and mystery, leaving the framework minimal enough to focus the listener’s attention on the lyrics. Drummer Fred Eltringham plays a straight, spacious backbeat; steel guitarist Dan Dugmore provides ghostly atmospherics; and Joyce’s mandolin parts lend an additional other-worldly voice. Bassist Joel King of The Wild Feathers embellishes with a few well-placed runs underneath to create movement without stealing the limelight.

Lambert knocked out most, if not all, of the lead vocal during the tracking session, feeding on the emotions of the moment.

“I’m a Scorpio, and I’m a woman, so that equals emotion,” she reasons. “If you’re in the room with musicians and you’re putting down this track of a song that you love dearly, you’re going to sing like [the room feels]. But if you’re running in there at 2:30 and you’re like, ‘I have an hour before my next interview, I’m going to get this vocal,’ it just doesn’t work for me, you know. I have to be put into place. I guess it’s almost like an actress being put in her role at the time. Like it’s hard to snap in and out.”

Hemby, who’s also a member of The Highwomen, came in later to overdub harmonies, and she was impressed with the careful treatment “Bluebird” had received. She texted Lambert several times from the studio -- “OMG, it’s beautiful” -- and added an extra layer to Lambert’s airy vocal. “Hers is a lighter, higher register, and mine sits in a low part, kind of hugs hers,” says Hemby. “I just follow her like a shadow.”

They didn’t bend “Bluebird” in any way to fit it into radio’s parameters. Instead, they let it find its own voice and -- appropriate for a song about resilience -- stayed optimistic about its future. “That’s all you can do,” Dick says of staying positive, “unless you want to be miserable.”

“Bluebird” debuted on the Country Airplay chart dated Dec. 28, 2019, and is currently perched at No. 41 in its fourth week. It suits Lambert’s personal turnaround, which influenced the album’s Wildcard title and perhaps its cover art, too; as Hemby pointed out to her, it’s the first LP jacket fronted by a happy Lambert.

“That smile may just be the wildcard I pulled out of my sleeve this time because of where I’ve gotten in my life,” says Lambert. “The title just fit.”

This article first appeared in the Billboard Country Update newsletter. Click here to sign up for free.