The listening room at Sony’s new Nashville headquarters has, unsurprisingly, somewhat of a corporate feel. But despite the conference room-like surroundings, Miranda Lambert — who’s here one June afternoon, curled up on an oversized red chair — is in a cheerfully philosophical frame of mind. “You just hear things differently at certain times of your life,” she says, thinking back to a recent bonding session with some songwriters in Marfa, Texas, where the crew listened to “a ton of Guy Clark and Kris Kristofferson.” “It’s just growing up,” she continues. “It’s like, ‘Well, this adulting thing kind of sucks, but we’re going to go for it.’”
Which brings to mind a story: “I bought a 1983 Wagoneer named Charlotte,” begins Lambert, 33. “I’d been looking for one for a year, and I found it in Pennsylvania. The fuel gauge was a little messed up, so I couldn’t tell if I was out of gas or not. And there were also carburetor issues, so I broke down twice outside of Franklin [Tennessee, a Nashville suburb]. And I was like, ‘Listen, we’re the same age. We were born in ’83. We are not breaking down! It’s not time.’ ”
So what did she do?
“I called a friend with a gas can, for one thing,” she says with a laugh. “I had my five dogs in the car, so that was a little odd, but I just rolled the windows down and picked wildflowers till they got there.”
Lambert seems remarkably at ease for this, only the third interview she has done since the release of her tour de force double-album, The Weight of These Wings, that was released in December to raves. (It was also the latest of her six albums to debut at No. 1 on Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart.) The decision was made to release Wings without a word from the woman herself after Lambert shut down a prerelease interview when the journalist asked about the demise of her marriage to Blake Shelton. (The two divorced in 2015, after four years together.) “I just didn’t need to talk about the record,” she says now. “If you want to hear my side of the story or my opinion of what happened, it’s all on there. There’s no mystery anymore — take from it what you will.”
Wings goes much deeper than the fresh scars of a “divorce” album: It is a full-on exam of fearless characters, from the one who doesn’t give two fucks that she’s the last boozer in the bar (the crackling fuzz-bomb “Ugly Lights”) to another unabashedly pursuing a debonair man with a whiff of danger about him (“Smoking Jacket”).
On July 20, 2015, the day the news of Lambert’s divorce from Shelton blew up Twitter feeds, songwriter Shane McAnally says that she walked into the studio and they wrote “Vice” — which taunts the rumormongers with lines like, “If you need me/I’ll be where my reputation don’t precede me” — in about five minutes. “It was like a Band-Aid ripping off,” he recalls. “Sometimes you can just tell that people are ready to let off some steam.”
“I walked in with guns blazing,” says Lambert. “I just knew one thing: I didn’t want a breakup record.” Working with a select number of co-writers, she ruminated for nearly a year on every aspect of her life in the swirl of a gossip apocalypse. “I was like, ‘Let’s feel it all,’” she says emphatically. “I was ready to have the days where I can’t even stand up and the days where I’m celebrating.”
“She’s not afraid to bare her soul,” says singer-songwriter Brandy Clark, who co-wrote Lambert’s 2011 hit, “Mama’s Broken Heart.” “She could have written a whole man-hating record, but she went to a vulnerable, honest place. To be vulnerable you must be strong, and that’s what she is.”
Lambert also happens to be one of country music’s biggest stars, with the sales (7 million albums sold in the United States, according to Nielsen Music), chart successes (five top 10 Billboard 200 albums) and trophies (three Grammys, 13 Country Music Association Awards, a record eight consecutive years as the Academy of Country Music’s female vocalist of the year) to prove it. After marrying Shelton, Lambert found a mainstream, not to mention tabloid, fame reserved for a very few. But throughout her career — from her fiery early singles like “Gunpowder and Lead” to her decision to make Wings a double-album — she has resisted the conventions of the country-industrial complex. “I’m not going to try to fit in,” she says, “but I’m not trying to be an outlaw — I’m just trying to do me. And if that’s carving my own path or making my own lane, then I’ll do that.”
For that reason, Lambert appeals to ascendant outsider figures like Jason Isbell and Chris Stapleton, who count themselves as fans. Lambert being Lambert, though, she also resists being pegged merely as an ass-kicker, especially now that she’s fully adulting. “I’m more known for my fiery personality and my confidence, but that’s not me all the time,” she says. “I won’t look at things ever again in the same light, because different things in your life bring you to a deeper level with yourself. I won’t take pain for granted anymore.”
When Lambert — who’s touring the United States, Canada and Europe in 2017 — gets off the road, she likes to unwind on the 400-acre property she recently bought about an hour outside of downtown Nashville. “I go to my farm, and I don’t wear makeup for a week or wash my hair,” she says. “I put it in a bandanna and wear cutoffs and play with my dogs.” She also rides horses and writes songs.
Her return to Music City has done wonders for her social life — she’s “going out to bars and hanging out, and then having nights with girls writing songs on my porch and going to see shows” — as well as her creativity. While married to Shelton, she says, “I lived in a small town in Oklahoma. I remember I had to write a song for a Dodge RAM commercial. It was hard. I barely got it out, and I was like, ‘Man, I need some fuel. I have to go fall in love with it again.’ So Nashville does that for me.”
Lambert frequently pops up at Nashville clubs like 3rd and Lindsley to hear favorite artists such as John Moreland (“I listen to him in my bathtub and just cry”) and drives her Wagoneer to shop at Target. She likes road trips, too. She recently went to St. Louis to see Jimmy Buffett (she joined him onstage for “Margaritaville”) and attended a U2 show in Louisville, Ky., with her boyfriend, singer Anderson East, where she says she had a transformative experience.
“Stadium shows are hard. I’m like, ‘Shit, man. I just walked a million miles, I couldn’t get an Uber, and my beer’s hot,’ but I left there feeling uplifted, exhausted and stimulated all at the same time,” she says. “I grew up singing country music and haven’t gone to many rock shows. I didn’t realize just how powerful four dudes up there on this giant stage could be. I couldn’t even see Bono, but I felt every single word of every song.”
Lambert and her younger brother, Luke, were raised in Lindale, Texas, where their parents ran their own private investigation business. At 16, Lambert impressed the judges at a True Value Country Showdown competition, and her father put up $6,000 for studio time in Nashville. She left in tears when she was only offered schmaltzy pop tracks. She returned to Texas, learned to play the guitar and write songs, and after some grueling stints on the Texas music circuit, competed on the talent show Nashville Star, finishing second. She signed with Epic Records in 2005. After years of unabashedly romantic songs from Shania Twain and Faith Hill, country fans immediately latched on to Lambert’s reality-based badassery: Her first album, Kerosene, debuted at No. 1 on Top Country Albums.
In the 1990s, Reba, Shania and Faith sold tens of millions of albums and notched many hits. But recently, women in country — badass or otherwise — have struggled for traction on the country charts. The Tomatogate brouhaha (in which a radio promo man called female artists “tomatoes” in the male-heavy “salad” that’s played on country radio) came and went two years ago, but just this July, Lambert tweeted, “Where are the damn girls?” after a fan posted Billboard’s Country Streaming Songs chart, which showed not a single woman in the top eight. (Lambert herself has two Country Streaming Songs No. 1s, the last in 2015.)
“It sucks. It makes me mad,” says Lambert. “You can print out any top chart, and you’ll see maybe a couple females, or not even one. I’m thankful for my spot headlining festivals. I’ve worked for it — but I shouldn’t be on a whole show with no girls.” Still, she says women “have to bring it, too.” And she believes that men dominating country radio “is just a phase.” “I think there was a time [for women] before, and there will be again, and that doesn’t stop any of us,” she says, flashing her boot-strappy, no-nonsense ambition. “I love country radio when they all play me, and when they don’t, I think that sucks.”
There is a small but vocal contingent in Nashville that claims country radio’s influence matters less and less to an artist’s career. Lambert won’t dismiss the need for airplay out of hand, but she astutely recognizes this position. “I don’t know what the future holds in radio stations anyway,” she says. “I stream everything, or I listen to my own records that I’ve bought.” (A recent purchase? Bob Seger’s Greatest Hits, which she picked up at Whole Foods.)
Lambert still wields a great deal of commercial clout: “Vice” started at No. 2 on Country Airplay, making it only one of six songs to debut in that spot, and “We Should Be Friends” and “Tin Man” also charted. Meanwhile, the RIAA just certified Wings platinum. “I’ve heard [radio play] comes down to sales,” says Clark, who was frustrated by the lackluster radio response to her exceptional 2016 album, Big Day in a Small Town. “Well, what comes first, the chicken or the egg? You can’t sell something if it’s not heard. Miranda gets played on the radio, and it’s exciting as a songwriter to see a woman who has that platform.”
Ultimately, Lambert says, “If I get a door kicked open, I want to hold it open for the girls coming behind me.” She’s true to her word: Her 2015 Pink Guitars and Roadside Bars Tour showcased an all-female lineup. Pistol Annies, her side group with Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley, has sold nearly 1 million combined copies of its two albums in the United States. (Lambert promises a new Pistol Annies record in 2018.) “I’m writing and singing songs that count,” says Lambert, reckoning her contribution to the role of women in country. “I want to do a good job of holding up my end of the deal, which is lifting up other singer-songwriters.”
Earlier in the day of our interview, Lambert sits slouched on a cushioned footrest in a green room at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville, where in a few minutes she’ll tape a short segment about Loretta Lynn for an upcoming retrospective of the country music legend. She straightens her posture as her stylist runs a curling iron through her long blond hair. Lambert, who’s wearing tight blue Levi’s with holes in the knees and brown boots, notices some darkly colored schmutz on her white V-neck T-shirt. Instead of demanding a wardrobe change, she casually asks if the crew can just “make sure it doesn’t show on film.” She strides to a stool placed on the stage of the Hall of Fame’s theater, answers a few perfunctory queries about the influence of Lynn on her own career, and 20 minutes after she strolled in, she bolts for the elevator.
It’s not farfetched to compare Miranda and Loretta. “Because we’re in the middle of Miranda’s reign, people may not recognize that we’re dealing with a Loretta Lynn,” says McAnally. But when I ask Lambert if she thinks that at this moment in history — with, among other things, this particular president in office — there is an opening for her to make the kind of issue-oriented songs Lynn became known for, Lambert is quick to dismiss the idea. “I am a 100 percent believer in not ever using the platform that I’ve built for anything other than music, because music to me is an escape from your own reality. I don’t want to go to a show and hear somebody preach about their opinions.”
When I press her, she holds firm: “It’s so divided [in politics], you can’t win anyway — and what are you winning? For someone to agree with you, and now you’ve spoken your piece and pissed off many other people, just for one person to go, ‘She’s right’? It doesn’t do any good.”
Of course, Lambert could just as easily piss off some folks by refusing to talk politics — acknowledge their side one way or the other. But as an established woman in country, there’s already an expectation that she must succeed on behalf of all women in country. And when, on top of all that, she has been a lightning rod for divorce gossip, is it really fair to argue that she must also thrust herself — and her art — into the center of debates now dividing the nation?
“I’m a country singer,” she reminds me. “We talk about tears in our beers.” Wings has no doubt inspired many good cries. Lambert says she wrote over 70 songs in the post-divorce frenzy, and along the way, some unexpectedly positive vibes began to seep into her work. In late 2015, Lambert and East — a lanky, soulful, 30-year-old crooner originally from Alabama — were introduced to each other backstage after one of his shows in Nashville. As is now customary, they announced their new relationship with an Instagram post on Jan. 1, 2016, showing them canoodling on the couch with the caption, “The snuggle is real…”
East would go on to co-write two of Wings’ highlights, the wispy Bonnie & Clyde analogue “Getaway Driver” and the should-we-or-shouldn’t-we “Well-Rested.” But Lambert seems to address the relationship most directly on “Pushin’ Time,” where she sings, “And they say only time can tell/You already know me well/And if it has to end in tears/I hope it’s in 60 years.”
As far as her career goes, “I have no idea what will happen in the next two years,” says Lambert. “What size buildings I’m going to be playing or who’s going to be on the bill.” She knows by now that nothing’s guaranteed — “for female artists, especially.” But maybe she better recognizes just how far she has come: “It’s like, ‘Well, that was cool. Now where can we go?’”
Watch Miranda Lambert share some life lessons, like remembering where you come from and bringing “Cheetos, Tito’s and dogs” on the road.
7M Albums sold
Lambert has also moved 21.2 million song downloads in the United States, according to Nielsen Music.
31 Tracks on Hot Country Songs
Thirteen have reached the chart’s top 10, and five have hit No. 1.
6 No. 1s on Top Country Albums
Lambert and Carrie Underwood are the only artists to have their first six albums all debut at the top of this chart.
622K copies sold
Of the 2011 debut album by Pistol Annies, Hell on Heels, which reached No. 5 on the Billboard 200.