When the 54th annual Country Music Association Awards are handed out November 11, Miranda Lambert‘s “Bluebird” has three chances to win.
Co-written with Luke Dick (“Burning Man,” “Kill a Word”) and Natalie Hemby (“Rainbow,” “Heartache Medication”), “Bluebird” is a finalist for single, song and video of the year. As it competes for trophies, Lambert’s follow-up, “Settling Down,” will compete for chart position. In a rare progression, the two songs were penned most likely within a 24-hour window, and by the same three writers.
“We’re kind of pumped about that,” says Lambert. “Ironically enough, they go together, kind of.”
Indeed. While “Bluebird” uses a fine feathered friend for its title, the chorus of “Settling Down” launches with its own fowl language: “I’m a wild child and a homing pigeon.”
“It’s funny how a winged creature comes one day in one form,” says Dick, “another day in the form of hope.”
The two songs also find their protagonists working to unite their hearts with other parts of their being. Finding alignment between the heart and soul is the point of the earlier single (“I’ll keep a light on in my soul/Keep a bluebird in my heart”), while running the heart through a head check is the central issue in the new release.
“After you go through a divorce and live through all of that drama and then find love again, for a while, I called it ‘happrehensive,’ ” recalls Lambert. “Natalie Hemby was on my porch one day, and she said, ‘You seem so happy.’ And I was like, ‘I’m happrehensive, because it’s still new and I want to make sure I’m doing the right thing.’ “
That was similarly the theme of a conversation Lambert had with her bus driver sometime between meeting New York policeman Brendan McLoughlin on Nov. 2, 2018, and marrying him on Jan. 26, 2019. The basic question — “Am I settling up or settling down?” — was introduced as she talked with the driver about her newfound romance and how a commitment might affect her life.
“We had both been going through a lot in our personal lives,” she says. And they eventually concluded that “settling down doesn’t have to necessarily mean no more fun or freedom. Maybe it sets you more free and allows for more fun and someone to share it with.”
The hook proved useful when she met up with Hemby and Dick for three days of writing shortly after tying the knot. Dick kicked off the process with a -buoyant acoustic guitar riff that resonated with both women. Lambert -mentioned her “settling up or settling down” hook, and it led them to a chat about how a well-lived life usually requires one to balance competing interests.
“This song is full of paradoxes of wanting to do two things that don’t necessarily jive, wanting to do two things that are a little bit at odds with one another,” says Dick. “You want to be a troubadour, playing from town to town, but you want to wake up in your own house and make your own breakfast and be with the people that you love every day. The life of the artist is much more of a whirlwind than most people’s. But artists are still people too, and everybody wants those roots.”
Since the hook gave them a specific destination, they started at the front of the song, weaving a series of conflicting couplets. Hemby pulled one from her own saved phrases — “Should I give up sunsets for marigold mornings” — that launched a series of questions: “Should I look for rainbows or wait for the rain?” “Is happiness on the highway? Or is it parked in the driveway?” “Am I looking for comfort? Am I looking for an escape?”
“One thing I love about the song is that it doesn’t answer the question,” says Dick. “The chorus tag is a question. It’s an unresolved thing, which is how it has to be.”
Dick produced a fairly simple, folk-tinged demo with Lambert singing lead and Hemby adding harmony vocals, driven mostly by an intensely strummed acoustic guitar and light drums, enough to set an atmosphere without covering up the words.
“That song was so lyrical,” says Dick. “I don’t know that I even put a guitar solo or anything on it, but it’s a little more like something that you would have heard on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan or something like that. There’s this sort of rhythmic energy.”
Producer Jay Joyce (Eric Church, Ashley McBryde) capitalized on that when Lambert visited his St. Charles Studio in east Nashville to work on what became the Wildcard album. Ringing nylon strings and a trashy drum groove created an edge for the track, while Joyce built an additional arc with a gritty approach to the prechorus. That section uses a funky, almost-grunting mix of sounds — seemingly keyed by a clavinet, since it sounds a tad like Stevie Wonder‘s “Superstition” or a Kendalls record — to create some separation between the verse and the chorus. Lambert isn’t certain how he achieved the grit. (Joyce did not respond to a request for confirmation about that part of the arrangement.)
“When you leave, Jay goes into vampire mode, and who knows what he does all night long,” she says. “You get it the next morning and whatever it is, I like it.”
Lambert nailed most — if not all — of her lead vocal during that original tracking session, though she did come back later to sing the background parts.
“Sometimes I get scared that my voice is so specific,” she says. “I’m like, ‘Do I sound chipmunky?’ I don’t want to be singing all harmonies with myself, but I think some of it really works.”
From the outset, McLoughlin — the man who inspired “Settling Down” — lobbied for it to get the spotlight.
“My husband has been saying since he heard the record that this was the single and that we were messing up by not putting it out first and blah blah,” says Lambert with a laugh. “And I’m always like, ‘Whatever, me and the label will make that decision.’ And you know, he was out there with us on the road and he was hearing, when I was hanging with radio, that people were responding to it.”
Vanner/RCA released “Settling Down” to AM/FM country stations on Aug. 31 via PlayMPE, and it flies to No. 40 in its fourth week on the Country Airplay chart dated Oct. 27. Thus, while the heart-and-soul poetry of “Bluebird” is positioned for potential CMA love come Nov. 11, the head-and-heart introspection of “Settling Down” is poised to play to people on radio and streaming playlists while the coronavirus forces many to put their travel desires on hold.
“I think it’s timely for how people feel,” she says. “Right now, there’s a lot of people at home that never have been. So I’m really excited about this single. And also tired of my husband rubbing it in my face that it should have been a single in the first place.”
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