As Miranda Lambert worked through a session at Nashville’s Sound Stage a few months ago, she periodically stopped to text messages with cartoony emoticons to songwriter Natalie Hemby (“Pontoon,” “White Liar”), providing clues about the titles she was cutting. When Lambert sent the image of a gun, it was an immediate sign to Hemby: they were working on “Automatic.”
There’s a distinct irony to the exchange. “Automatic” is a song wrapped in another era, when clotheslines outnumbered driers, when drivers stood in line at the gas station counter instead of swiping a card to fill the tank, when people dropped hand-written letters into the U.S. mail instead of tapping out a 140-character direct message on Twitter.
“I don’t, for the record, like change a lot,” she admits. “When I get comfortable, I kind of like sticking with it.”
But there are clearly some changes -- texting included -- that she ultimately embraces.
Change was, in fact, in the air as Lambert went about assembling her next album, "Platinum."
“She’s known as the rock chick and male-basher chick and everything else,” says Sony Music Nashville chairman/CEO Gary Overton. “But this sets a tone for the album. She’s got rock stuff on there – don’t get me wrong – but there’s things she’s talking about and saying that you haven’t heard her say and contemplate.”
“Automatic” came about in a condo she and husband Blake Shelton own in Nashville -- purportedly the same place where Taylor Swift resides. Lambert had flown to Music City last summer, and booked a writing session with Hemby and songwriter Nicolle Galyon (“We Were Us”), who commiserated the prior night on ideas they might present. Galyon had the “Automatic” title, and Hemby was playing around with a melody that seemed like it was suitable for a chorus. Both elements triggered a response in Lambert.
“She started to tell us this story of how artists back in the ‘90s used to carry bags of quarters because they needed them to do their their radio interviews from a pay phone,” Galyon says. “And that’s where ‘Quarter in a pay phone,’ the first line of the song, came from.”
It was just the start of a big nostalgia trip. They talked about having to drive 80 miles or so to the nearest big town to get a suitable dress for prom, about using maps to plot out vacation trips, about recording Bob Kingsley’s “American Country Countdown” on cassettes, since they couldn’t afford all the music but refused to be without it.
“I had to wait and wait ‘til I could go with my mom to the next big town where they actually had a place to buy a single,” Galyon recalls. “I used to buy singles on CDs. We all did. Music used to feel like it was a luxury to get to own a song, and now it’s so commonplace, it’s everywhere.”
The convenience of downloading songs from the couch or finding a restaurant out of town with a GPS is undeniable. And yet the ease of life in the digital age has been offset by a loss of appreciation.
“It goes deeper than a device,” Galyon elaborates. “The heart of the matter is that what you put into something is what you get out. We live in a world of instant gratification, and that’s fun for the moment, but long-term, you know, it is about the getting there. It’s not the being there, it’s the getting there. It’s a very simple concept.”
They put it together really simply, too -- one of two songs they wrote that day at Lambert’s condo with Galyon playing chords on electric guitar through a Gorilla amp. Hemby made a slightly more advanced version later, chunking out the chords on the beat, similar to the way Waylon Jennings used to make records.
“That’s the only way I can play guitar,” Hemby concedes.
But that was perfect for “Automatic,” providing enough of a blueprint that the studio band found a direction fairly easily when Lambert played them Hemby’s recording. Randy Scruggs mirrored the chunking approach on acoustic guitar at the outset, and the rest of the players found ways to frame it without getting in the way of the words. It helped, too, that it was out of the ordinary.
“The majority of songs that we hear generally are love songs, and this is obviously not,” says co-producer and bass player Glenn Worf (David Nail, Pistol Annies). “There was a certain universal appeal in what the song was written about, looking back at the way things used to be.”
The arrangement grew in size with drummer Matt Chamberlain (Sara Evans, John Mayer) lacing a shiny layer across the top.
“He tends to hit his cymbals a lot, but it’s so tasteful that it’s not like thrashing and bashing,” says co-producer Frank Liddell (Eli Young Band, Sam Palladio). “It’s so musical.”
Jay Joyce overdubbed lengthy guitar notes that sound vaguely like a string section or steel guitar, and Carolyn Dawn Johnson, the Academy of Country Music’s top new female vocalist in 2002, added harmony parts that have their own mysterious quality. In the final moments, she adds a barely distinguishable phrase -- “Push, push, push, push a button” -- that ties in the convenience of the remote control, the download button or the electric car windows.
“I find it fascinating how sometimes when you’re working on these records, people say ‘Oh, I can’t understand that word,’” Liddell muses. “Half the time, you go back to the Michael Jackson records, and what is he saying in any of them? And they’re major hits. I like that element of it.”
Engineer and co-producer Chuck Ainlay (Mark Knopfler, Jason & The Scorchers) suggested a couple more elements -- provided by male background singer Gene Miller and keyboard player Mike Rojas -- that create additional depth and subtlety.
While Lambert, Hemby and Galyon picked images from the ‘90s to address the nature of change, the underlying message crosses generations. Jay Leno’s departure from “The Tonight Show,” for example, might have affected Lambert the same way that Johnny Carson’s retirement would have touched her father. Similarly, the younger members of Generation Y, who take the Internet for granted, are still likely to understand the ideals beneath “Automatic.”
“The 18-, 16-year-old girls, they’re not thinking about, ‘Gee, I wish I was six again,’” Overton suggests. “But they are looking at the world they’re going into, the world that [our generation] created, they’re scared to death of it. There’s war, there’s inflation, you can’t trust anybody, and I believe, through this song, they can look back for that simpler, more innocent time than today.”
Released to radio Feb. 5 through Play MPE, “Automatic” debuted on Country Airplay at No. 26, Lambert’s best start to date. It also launches on Country Digital Songs this week at No. 3, also a personal best – appropriate for a personal song.
“I had a special feeling about that song from the second that we wrote it,” Lambert says. “It really speaks about who I am and what I love.”