How Miranda Lambert became country's queen without ever kissing the ring

How Miranda Lambert became country’s queen without ever kissing the ring

When Miranda Lambert was preparing to open her Casa Rosa Tex-Mex Cantina here last year — it sits across a busy stretch of Lower Broadway from Jason Aldean’s Kitchen + Rooftop Bar and just a few doors down from the joint owned by Lambert’s ex-husband Blake Shelton — someone on the country singer’s team tried to convince her to make a prominent space for the oversize birdcage she occupies in the music video for her 2019 hit “Bluebird.”

Lambert had misgivings.

Jammed with memorabilia from her nearly two-decade career, the black-and-pink-bathed Casa Rosa is the first of Nashville’s many celebrity saloons to be branded by a female country star; as such, she was after a certain vibe.

“It had to be, like, girly,” she said. “Nashville is No. 1 for bachelorette parties” — the city not long ago surpassed Las Vegas for that title, according to Lambert — “so I want them to have somewhere they can feel comfortable because it’s a female-driven bar.” She laughed.

“I’m not having girls dancing in cages here.”

Lambert settled on putting the prop in a corner of the VIP balcony, mostly out of sight of any potential leering dudes, above Casa Rosa’s main stage, which is where she was rehearsing on a recent evening ahead of a launch party for her excellent new album, “Palomino,” and an upcoming Vegas residency.

Wearing jeans and a faded Judds T-shirt, her blond hair in a high ponytail, Lambert, 38, took a sip of her Tito’s-and-soda as her band eased into the loping groove of the LP’s slyly gender-bending lead single, “If I Was a Cowboy.” It’s about a woman imagining herself with the freedom of an old-timey gunslinger — and with “a little lady on the front porch wishing my heart would start settling.”

“You thought the West was wild, but you ain’t saddled up with me,” she sang, grinning out at the empty room, “If I was a cowboy, I’d be the queen.”

In truth, Lambert might be the freest member, male or female, of Nashville’s ruling A-list; certainly, she’s making more interesting use of her country stardom than any of the other nominees she beat out last month, Luke Combs and Carrie Underwood among them, for the Academy of Country Music’s entertainer of the year award. “Palomino,” due Friday, follows 2021’s Grammy-nominated “The Marfa Tapes,” a seriously stripped-down collection of love songs and drinking tunes she and a pair of fellow singer-songwriters, Jack Ingram and Jon Randall, recorded around a campfire in the Texas desert with two microphones and two acoustic guitars.

With its full-band arrangements and glossy production by Lambert, Randall and Luke Dick, the new album isn’t as radical as “Marfa.” But it’s still full of daring and idiosyncratic touches: an opener, “Actin’ Up,” built on a low-slung psychedelic-soul riff; a funky party song, “Music City Queen,” featuring the B-52’s; the gutting “That’s What Makes the Jukebox Play,” about an “old dive bar with the hand-drawn heart hanging lonely on the bathroom door”; a rowdy cover of Mick Jagger’s “Wandering Spirit” with background vocals by gospel’s McCrary Sisters. The music is steeped in country-rock tradition — think Loretta Lynn meets Tom Petty — yet alert to the thrill of disruption.

“People are afraid to try s—,” said Natalie Hemby, who co-wrote half the tunes on “Palomino” and who plays in the Highwomen with Brandi Carlile, Maren Morris and Amanda Shires. “But Miranda’s attitude has always been: Hold my beer — watch this.”

Taken in tandem with “The Marfa Tapes” — and with “Drunk (And I Don’t Wanna Go Home),” Lambert’s bachelorette-bait duet with Elle King that just became the first track by two women to top Billboard’s Country Airplay chart since 1993 — “Palomino” posits that Lambert has reached a point where she’s more or less doing whatever she wants even as she’s come to a kind of fruitful understanding with the hidebound country-radio establishment that hasn’t always valued her work.

“Basically, I don’t expect too much, and they don’t either,” she said of a format that routinely marginalizes women in favor of cookie-cutter male acts.

Miranda Lambert performs “If I Was a Cowboy” at the CMT Music Awards in April.

(Mark Zaleski / Associated Press)

Unlike the similarly adventurous Kacey Musgraves, who grew up about 20 minutes from Lambert in small-town East Texas, Lambert hasn’t abandoned the Nashville industry; she’s still got a foot planted firmly in the biz here, as she demonstrated when she fielded a series of softball questions from a chipper iHeartRadio host during that party at Casa Rosa. But she’s clearly playing the game by her own rules, and in doing so she’s found huge success — including being named the Country Music Assn.’s female vocalist of the year a record seven times — and become a key influence on the generation of country singers behind her.

“Miranda was already making it when I was just getting revved, and I remember thinking, How cool is this person?” said Ashley Monroe, one of Lambert’s bandmates (along with Angaleena Presley) in the Pistol Annies, with whom the singer has released four albums. “She’s beautiful. She’s feisty. She doesn’t care what anybody thinks. It’s like she made everyone realize you don’t have to be so prim and proper and delicate.”

Added up-and-comer Hailey Whitters, who stumbled into a Lambert concert at a county fair when she was in junior high: “Miranda has such a strong sense of self that was so attractive to me as a young artist.” When fans tell Whitters she reminds them of Lambert, she takes it as a compliment. Yet when execs would make the comparison as she was hunting for a deal, “it was more as a deterrent — like, ‘We’ve already got a Miranda,’” she recalled.

“I’d be like, ‘Well, you’ve got 10 Jason Aldeans…”

Lambert broke out in 2005 with “Kerosene,” the revenge-minded title track from her major-label debut, after she appeared on the first season of “Nashville Star” (a.k.a. the country “American Idol”). That TV gig is what got her signed at age 19, but by then she’d already been writing songs and performing for years in honky tonks in Texas, where she’d seen the likes of Ingram and Pat Green and Robert Earl Keen build audiences before her.

“Knowing that I’d been doing pretty good at home gave me the confidence to say, I’ll always have a place to sing and play my music,” she said the morning after the rehearsal, curled on a sofa at her manager’s office, Judds T-shirt replaced by a Rolling Stones one. In person, Lambert is warm and chatty — the type to make you laugh more than once with an account of the busted ice-maker (and the resulting leak) she woke up to at home this morning. “I didn’t have to change my appearance or lose 80 pounds — whatever Nashville was gonna ask me to do to make it — because all my heroes made careers out of playing Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Louisiana.”

Miranda Lambert performing on the reality TV competition “Nashville Star” in 2003.

(John Russell / WireImage)

Having taken the baton from the Dixie Chicks and Gretchen Wilson, Lambert ran with the tough-talking act for 2007’s “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” which spun off her first top 10 single in “Gunpowder and Lead”; soon, though, she was showcasing her flexible singing voice — dreamy and yearning, yet shot through with an essential Lone Star State honesty — in all kinds of songs, from grandly emotive ballads like “The House That Built Me” to frisky slow jams like “Fine Tune.” Lambert’s catalog might be the most consistent of any current country star’s. But nobody has taken more chances with her sound than she has.

In 2011 Lambert married Shelton, then becoming a household figure thanks to his role as a coach on “The Voice,” which brought a new degree of tabloid scrutiny that registered as “a shock to my system,” Lambert said. “I’m a Scorpio, so I’m already very private and protective. And choosing the job I chose — I mean, I get onstage, I’m in front of people. But I didn’t choose random photos of moments when I wasn’t at work.”

Country stardom had promised “a family feel,” she said, adding that “TMZ has tried to come to Nashville like three times, and we keep running them out. We’re like, ‘Nope, not here.’” Yet living part-time with Shelton in Los Angeles was different. “It taught me that Hollywood is not anything I want to be part of.”

The couple divorced in 2015, an experience she described as “horrible — like the death of something”; the next year Lambert released an introspective double LP, “The Weight of These Wings,” which earned rave reviews and won album of the year at the ACM Awards. Asked what she thinks of the rootsy breakup records that have followed hers of late — Musgraves’ “Star-Crossed,” Adele’s “30,” Carly Pearce’s “29: Written in Stone” — Lambert laughed and said, “I see all these women getting divorced, and I’m like, ‘You got one year, then no more wallowing. Let’s cry these tears and move on.’” (Lambert remarried in 2019 to Brendan McLoughlin, a former New York City police officer she met when he provided security for a Pistol Annies performance on “Good Morning America.”)

Brendan McLoughlin and Miranda Lambert at the 63rd Grammy Awards in 2021.

(Jordan Strauss / Invision)

Work on “Palomino,” Lambert’s eighth solo studio disc, began in 2020 when the singer convened a series of songwriting weekends with Hemby and Dick at her farm outside Nashville; this was peak pandemic, so they channeled their pent-up wanderlust into creating “a travel record while we can’t travel,” as Lambert put it, full of made-up characters in different settings around the United States.

“I met a trucker named Dwayne south of the 10,” she sings in the slow-rolling “Scenes,” which goes on to imagine “skinny-dipping in Havasu Lake” and a night of “fun money at the Gold Casino.” “Actin’ Up” ventures to Colorado and California in search of a “sunset ride” and a “velvet rodeo,” the latter of which she’s using as the name of her Vegas show set to open at Planet Hollywood in September. Before that she’ll tour sheds and amphitheaters this summer with Little Big Town.

The ability to write from imagined perspectives was something Lambert had long admired about Guy Clark and John Prine; developing those muscles herself was both artistically and emotionally gratifying. “I kind of learned after ‘Weight of These Wings’ that I don’t want to live everything I write about,” she said. “That’s too much life — and too much heartbreak too.”

Which isn’t to say she’s lost her taste for sad country songs. Lambert and her friends play a game called Death By, in which they try to one-up each another with the most miserable tune they can think of. (One favorite she keeps in her back pocket: Doug Stone’s “I’d Be Better Off in a Pine Box.”) “By the end we’re all drunk and crying and loving it,” she said.

Still, it’s no coincidence that “Palomino” is more up than down. Lambert said she’s “learned how to care for myself and to be cautious” since her divorce. “But I’m also one of those people that loves love, and I love big. So if I believe in it, I go for it.” She and McLoughlin spend most of their time in Nashville, though they have an apartment in New York, where he shares a young son with an ex, and make occasional trips to see Lambert’s parents in Lindale, Texas.

“They were the first people to sell liquor in our county, which gives me great joy,” she said of her folks, who operate a winery called Red 55 with Lambert’s name attached to it. “Last time we were home, Brendan was like, ‘There sure are a lot of churches here,’” she recalled. “So I Googled it, and it turns out there are 212. I told my mom, ‘If you get a backdoor, you can get all the Baptists.’”

Last month, Lambert played a gig in Dublin, and afterwards the couple stuck around for a week to vacation in Ireland; she even posted some cute personal photos on Instagram. “My husband’s a big-time extrovert, which is good for me because I got so defensive from the PTSD of being on magazine covers for things that weren’t true,” she said.

She’s making more time for herself these days than she used to. “I was so into my career for so long that I feel like I was a little behind in getting to know myself outside of country music,” she said. This year she skipped the COVID-delayed Grammys ceremony, even though “The Marfa Tapes” was up for country album of the year, because she’d already committed to throwing one of her oldest pals a birthday party that day.

Reckoned Hemby: “I think she’s just kind of chilling now. This girl’s worked her ass off for I don’t know how long, and I think she’s starting to enjoy the journey.”

A few years ago, Lambert might’ve been peeved by the fact that “If I Was a Cowboy” had peaked (at least so far) at No. 16 on the airplay chart, stuck behind more widely spun — if far less inspired — singles by guys like Cody Johnson and Dustin Lynch. But then neither of them has a restaurant with his name on it or can call himself entertainer of the year.

“I set all these goals, and that award was the last one on the list,” Lambert said. “I’m like, Well, that’s a freakin’ great place to be.”

“I kind of learned after ‘Weight of These Wings’ that I don’t want to live everything I write about,” said Lambert. “That’s too much life — and too much heartbreak too.”

(Robert Ascroft)


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