Springtime has a firm hold on Tishomingo, Okla. The storm clouds are gone, and Miranda Lambert is having a very good day.
She spent the morning astride her Gypsy Vanner purebred horse, a gift from her husband, Blake Shelton, for her 30th birthday last November. Lambert has been taking riding lessons all year, and she'll have her first competition by the end of May.
"I needed to learn how to ride properly," says Lambert. "I just learned to throw a Western saddle on and go." She has been learning English riding, "and it has been awesome. I'm having a blast with it."
From the stables, Lambert cruised over to the Pink Pistol, one of the two women's western wear stores she owns (the other is in Lindale, Texas, where she grew up). "People were buying some cute spring stuff," she says. "It was hopping." Then it was off to the local bank to open up an account for Ladysmith, a renovated 100-year-old home that Lambert will soon open as a bed-and-breakfast across the street from the Pink Pistol. Her entrepreneurial duties tended to, she headed back home to check in on her six dogs, who themselves just moved into their own new climate-controlled digs. ("They're very spoiled, clearly.") "Just a regular, normal, low-key day at home," says Lambert. Tishomingo, population 3,100, sits halfway between Oklahoma City to the north and Dallas to the south, each a two-hour drive away. The small town has become a refuge for Lambert and Shelton (who grew up in nearby Ada, Okla., until he left for Nashville at age 17), country music's reigning power couple, with 12.5 million albums sold between them, according to Nielsen SoundScan. (Lambert can claim 6 million of those, thanks to her four solo releases and two albums with her trio, Pistol Annies.) Shelton flies in from L.A. when he's not taping The Voice, but Lambert has had more time here since wrapping a tour in October.
It's her longest break from the road since releasing her first album almost a decade ago. "On the road, everything happens at night," she says. "Here at home, I'm up at 7:30 or 8, feeding the animals, then heading to ride horses. I love the slow pace, the normalcy that it gives me. But I don't know that I would have loved it had I not got to experience everything that I've experienced. I feel like I get to live two lives. They both keep me stimulated in a different way."
Lambert has been chasing the stimulation of stardom almost half her life. Her first trip to Nashville came at 16, after winning a talent show. Disappointed at the poppy material she was offered, she headed back home to Lindale to ask her father to teach her how to play the guitar so she could write her own songs. In 2003, at 19, a spot on the first season of the now-defunct USA Network music competition show Nashville Star (she placed third) landed her in the national spotlight, along with a label deal.
She first drew attention for tough-girl songs like "Kerosene," where she burns a cheater's house down, and "Gunpowder and Lead," in which she loads her shotgun to welcome home an abusive boyfriend. (The daughter of two private investigators, Lambert has a tattoo of two pistols with angel wings on her left wrist.) She understood she had been tagged with a label: the girl with a gun who will kick your ass and set your house on fire.
"Every single article, every single interview, every single review was all of that," she says. "Yeah, that's me, but that's just a part of me. I'm not that all the time." It was no accident that though she either wrote or co-wrote most of the songs on her third album, Revolution, she also picked out the one that would become her biggest hit to date: "The House That Built Me," about as perfect a heart-tugger as Music Row has produced in the last 10 years, the story of a lost girl trying to put the pieces back together by visiting the place where she grew up. "Revolution was my chance to break out of that [girl with a gun label]," she says. "'Hey, I have this other side. I love pink and puppies, too.'"
Still, "all that fiery stuff and guns is what set me apart in the beginning, because nobody else was doing it," she says. "And nobody else was really that. You have to actually live it, or people are going to find out it's fake. That is who I am. I'm just a Texas girl that speaks her mind, and sometimes that gets me in trouble." So just as Lambert balances two lives - one on the road and one in Tishomingo - there are two sides to her music.
"With success, I've been able to sort of calm that down and go, 'OK, I don't have to be guns a-blazin' all the time. People are listening, so I can open up my softer side and show people who the whole Miranda is.'"
About halfway through Lambert's upcoming album, Platinum (out June 3), there's a song called "Bathroom Sink." It's the one track on which Lambert has sole writing credit, and she says she came up with it "on a plane by myself headed to a show." "Bathroom Sink" is a pulsing country rocker about putting on your makeup and hiding "the tough stuff" behind false eyelashes and a fake smile. "It's amazing the amount of rejection that I can see in my reflection," she sings in the chorus.
"It's one of those [songs] where your mom says, 'Oh, this makes me sad,' and that's exactly what she said," recalls Lambert. Laying her soul so bare is "kind of scary, for the rawness, and for the emotion in it," she admits. "It's just, 'Here I am, here's me.' But it's just real, just a real moment. I don't live there, but it's something you go through. Everybody does."
"She lets her music speak for itself," says Sony Music Nashville CEO Gary Overton. "She puts herself out there every day, letting the chips fall where they may. There is an honesty and a realness about her that is palpable."
That's the sort of thing often said of an artist, but it feels particularly true listening to Platinum. The new album finds Lambert picking up where she left off with 2011's Four the Record, when she continued to blow past those who might have written her off as one-note, all bombast and arsenal. Platinum showcases her skills as a vocalist and a top-shelf songwriter, capable of sharp observations and scorching introspection and vulnerability. "At 30 years old, having lived and done a lot of things in my career and my life, I have a different take than at 20 when I was making Kerosene," she says.
Some of that introspection comes with the sense of humor Lambert has always displayed, like the difficulties of getting older described in "Gravity's a Bitch," or the title track, with its refrain of "what doesn't kill you makes you blonder." It might seem cocky to name an album Platinum before it even hits the shelves, though all of Lambert's previous albums have indeed gone platinum. "That's not what I'm thinking," says Lambert. "I mean, yeah, I'd love that - Mom says, 'Say it as though it's so.' I hope all my albums go platinum. But it's more about my life and my lifestyle." Which means, broadly: "Platinum is a lot of things: It's hair, it's diamonds and platinum, it's Bud Light Platinum, it's the color of an Airstream."
In this case it's an unusually varied album, with guest appearances from Little Big Town and Carrie Underwood (Lambert and Underwood will debut their duet, "Somethin' Bad," at the Billboard Music Awards on May 18) and a track with western swing band The Time Jumpers. Lambert has showed a rock'n'roll side - big drums and loud guitars - from the start, but Platinum has echoes of everything from Merle Haggard to The Who.
Co-producer Frank Liddell, who has worked with Lambert on all of her records, says she "stood up for herself" more while making Platinum. "I can't try to make her sound different than she wants to sound. It's just all in her heart and in her gut - 'This is who I am' - and when we go in the studio, that's what you're chasing." Lambert agrees she has "been driving the ship a little more" of late, but attributes that to maturity. "I used to just kind of be happy where I was: 'People, just tell me where to go, what time to be there, and I'll sing. That's my job and I'll do my job,'" she says. "But now, I feel a little more involved in the business side of everything, most importantly in the music, because that's where it starts and ends. If I don't deliver the goods in the songs, then I don't have crap. None of this matters."
Ultimately, Lambert feels Platinum is "turning a page and going to the next decade of what I have to say, so it needed to be right. I wanted every sound, every note, every lyric to represent where I'm at now, and where I'm headed. So I was very picky about the production, where I wasn't in the past."
Platinum's first single, "Automatic," marked Lambert's 10th top 10 hit on Billboard's Country Airplay and Hot Country Songs charts. But in these days of "bro country," when it did reach the top 10 on the Country Airplay chart dated April 19, it was the first time in two months a solo female artist had done so. "Blake was reading me some stats the other day," says Lambert. "When you don't count groups [and] you just count solo female acts, it's a little bit jarring to look at. I have to say, I'm damn glad to have my spot here. I'm happy as a little lark. I have worked hard to make relationships with radio and with my fans. It took a long time to get where I am, and I'm thankful that people are responding."
But Lambert is also perplexed by the trouble female country acts have at radio. "I don't know what's going on with all the other great female artists. I don't know where the connection is off right now as far as the airplay," she says. "I champion the females. I'm a huge fan of female artists, and strong females in general. I'm proud of them, and I'm so thankful I've been able to follow in the footsteps of the ones before me, and I'm holding the door open for the ones that want to follow behind me. This is just one of those waves where females are struggling a little bit, but we'll come back around and be a force to be reckoned with."
In general, Lambert is proud to point out that "country music is on top right now. I might be a little prejudiced toward country, and happy about it, but we are popular music. Everybody wants a piece of country, everybody wants to make a country record, everybody wants a country artist on their team. It makes me so proud we're getting in the spotlight, because we deserve it."
But with the red-hot status of country music, and Lambert and Shelton's superstar positions within it, comes a brighter spotlight than ever. With Shelton's stardom growing as a result of The Voice, his last album, Based on a True Story..., was the ninth-best-selling album of 2013 (moving 1.1 million units, according to Nielsen SoundScan), and he's putting up the best touring numbers of his career. He and Lambert have become huge targets for the tabloids and paparazzi. "It takes some getting used to," she says. "I always heard 'no publicity is bad publicity,' and I don't necessarily agree with that. But, if they're talking about you, it's a good thing, especially if you have a record coming out."
Still, some of the tabloid stories have been "hurtful" - not to mention contradictory, with the same publication that declared they were expecting a baby announcing their marriage was over a few months later. "None of it's true," she says. "All of a sudden this page turned, and it was like overnight we couldn't go to a restaurant. There's people outside waiting, flashing cameras in our face, and I'm going, 'What just happened?' Nobody told me about this. I thought this was only in the magazines I bought at the airport, and now we're in them!"
Tabloid reports notwithstanding, those close to the pair say the Lambert/Shelton union remains strong. "The two of them are in such a good place that they can look at this as a couple and say, 'We're in Oklahoma, and obviously the world seems to care about what we do or don't do, and they make up these stories,'" says Marion Kraft, Lambert's manager at Shopkeeper Management. "If we had a choice of saying 'Yes, please' or 'No, thank you,' we'd absolutely say, 'No, thank you.' It doesn't mean anything in the big picture, but does it interfere? It's easier for us to say it's no big deal because it's not true, but it is her face and her name and the world's reading things about her that are made up. It can't feel that good."
Shelton, says Lambert, "just shrugs it off. He doesn't care at all. But girls are more sensitive. I'm like, 'But they're telling lies!' So dramatic. Now, it has actually brought us closer, which is probably the opposite of what they're trying to do. We just laugh about it. I think I've had like five sets of twins in the last two years, and we've been divorced four times, and one of us had a $100 million divorce. We both agreed, 'If one of us has $100 million, one of us is killing the other.' It's craziness."
Lambert showed up looking particularly svelte at the Academy of Country Music Awards in April, generating a wealth of media comments about her weight loss. "It just feels like you can't do anything for yourself anymore. There's always got to be some reason behind everything," she says. "Have you ever thought I might just be turning 30 and trying to get a little ahead of the game? Isn't that just a normal thing to do?"
So if the weight observations touched a nerve, it wasn't for the usual reasons. "I'm super into giving girls - especially younger girls - a positive body image," says Lambert. "I'm just a normal-sized girl, the girl you would probably come over and have a beer with if you lived next door right now, and we'd probably be frying chicken. I don't ever want to stray away from that. A lot of female fans come up to me and say, 'Thanks for being normal. You made me feel OK about my size 8.' Or, 'I threw my scale away today thanks to you. You're so confident in who you are.' So whenever they talk about my weight loss and all this crap, that doesn't define me. I'm so much more than my jean size - it's not even about that."
Platinum stands as an of assessment of sorts. With the gift of perspective, Lambert says she now views her 20s as "work hard, play hard" and "also a little bit about learning who I am, learning who I was, figuring out everything, and sort of controlled chaos.
"Really, I started making a living at music when I was 17, and I haven't stopped," she says. "I'm 30, and I'm married happily, and I have a life up here in Oklahoma that I'm enjoying ... When you're just a kid, you fly by the seat of your pants: 'Who cares?' But it's a lot different once you have your roots set."
Chaos or no, she says there's nothing she would have done differently. "Of course, I have random regrets, bad decisions, hungover mornings," she says. "But I learned a lot, and I'm sitting perfectly where I want to be sitting right now at 30."