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MSN Music News

Miranda Lambert: Beyond Nashville

Why this year's CMA Awards front-runner rocks and rules

book cover

On Sept. 30, Texas-raised, Oklahoma-based Nashville-conquering Miranda Lambert launched her second headlining road trip of 2010. Dubbed the Revolution Tour to distinguish it from the Roadside Bars & Pink Guitars Tour, it kicked off in, of all places, Manhattan, at, of all places, Terminal 5, a 3,000-capacity stand-up rock venue that two nights before presented Ratatat and two nights later presented Soulive. After 20 minutes by John Mayer/Dave Matthews-fan Josh Kelley, the far meatier Eric Church got the night rolling with a guitar-driven half hour he climaxed by revving his minor country hit "Smoke a Little Smoke" into a rocking showstopper that ended "Then I'll maybe break out that old rock and roll/Drink a little drink, smoke a little smoke." "Old rock and roll." Not country. Get it?

Though she was leading her own bar band before she left high school, the 26-year-old Lambert got her break finishing third behind soon-forgotten Buddy Jewell in 2003's inaugural "Nashville Star" competition. All three of her albums--2005's Kerosene, 2007's Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and 2009's Revolution--debuted at No. 1 on the country charts. Her nine 2010 CMA nominations are the most ever awarded a female artist. Yet it took her forever to win over country radio. Not till 2008 did she score a top 10 country single, and she didn't go No. 1 until Revolution's "White Liar" and "The House That Built Me," both now CMA-nominated. She's just never been very Nashville. Early on she regularly praised the kind of tough-minded semi-folkies her songwriting cop-turned-P.I. dad always played her--Guy Clark and John Prine, Allison Moorer and Emmylou Harris--while distancing herself from "pop country" artists she diplomatically failed to name. She wrote her own songs and played her own guitar. Like Natalie Maines, another role model, she wasn't ready to make nice.

Lambert's CMA coup establishes that she's moved on. To an extent it rewards sheer talent--country radio seems less make-or-break when your albums debut No. 1 without it. But it also rewards both her maturation and her willingness to compromise. Are you a big Blake Shelton fan? Actually, no--but he's destined to become your fiance anyway. Is Carrie Underwood "pop country"? Maybe, but she's also a nice gal you've bonded with at backstage get-togethers. Is "The House That Built Me" a Music Row heart-tugger that doesn't represent the life experience of a hard-riding pro who's written terrific songs about the upside of leaving home? Doesn't matter, not with every word and note so well-chosen that half the women at Terminal 5 will sing it a cappella if you give them the chance.

With most artists coming off their third and biggest album, these would be ominous signs. But with Lambert they're more like course corrections. Due to its pyromaniac title song, which with its fierce beat and snarly vocal was taken more literally than its lyric warranted, Kerosene created more stir in New York than Nashville, and far from letting up, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend was fiercer: damn near as angry as one of those stupid anti-A-Rab albums that preceded our unfortunate Iraq adventure. In the lead track Lambert shoots up a boyfriend who'd beaten her down; in the title song she sanely leaves her pistol in the car in the role of the crazy ex. But songs such as "Desperation," "More Like Her" and the painfully conflicted "Guilty in Here" offset hot-bloodedness with self-doubt. It's the most consistent country album of the '00s as well as the feistiest.

Still, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend was too feisty for Nashville--I've read three reviews of Revolution that congratulate Lambert for putting what they all call "bluster" behind her. This is their way of praising God that, like any self-respecting country album, Revolution has soft spots. I don't mean the pitch-perfect "House That Built Me"--I'm talking fuzzballs like "Virginia Bluebell," "Makin' Plans" and, worst of all, "Love Song," a strained attempt by Lambert, Shelton and the yeomen of Lady Antebellum to snatch some of the marital wisdom Brad Paisley keeps in his back pocket. But those gestures give Lambert room for the two twistiest songs she's yet recorded: the multivalent extended metaphor "Me and Your Cigarettes" followed by the barely-two-minute "Maintain the Pain," which puts a bullet in Lambert's car radio only after establishing an arrangement that, from big strings to bigger drums to arpeggiated guitar hook, is country only because the CMA says so.

It took a major songwriter to come up with those tracks. But Lambert loves songs so much she doesn't insist on her own. Slant's Jonathan Keefe got carried away calling her "perhaps the finest interpretive singer of her generation." Her sharp twang isn't as nuanced as it will be. But she sure does unearth great material--her daddy taught her well--and make it her own: On Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Patty Griffin's "Getting Ready," Carlene Carter's "Easy From Now On" and Gillian Welch's anti-Prohibition "Dry Town"; on Revolution, Fred Eaglesmith's "Time to Get a Gun," Julie Miller's "Somewhere Trouble Don't Go" and John Prine's hard-rollicking "That's the Way That the World Goes 'Round."

The covers kept on coming at Terminal 5. "Time to Get a Gun" was there--Lambert is very Second Amendment--and the Prine song came 'round as a forcebeat barn burner getting the crowd in the mood for the climactic "Gunpowder & Lead." But mostly Lambert revived new stuff: Steve Earle's "The Revolution Starts Now" as a lead-in, the Blasters' Hank Williams tribute "Long White Cadillac," and the pre-climactic "Rock & Roll Hoochie Koo," which once upon a time was a flag-waver for her Texas homeboy Johnny Winter. And in a concert that skipped past "Me and Your Cigarettes" and "Guilty in Here," she devoted her encore to two turf claims: Merle Haggard's "Misery and Gin" for authentic country, and one called "Call Me the Breeze" that somehow got ID'd as a Johnny Cash song. Cash did record it. But it was written by Lambert's Oklahoma homeboy J.J. Cale and, more significantly, made famous by a Jacksonville band called Lynyrd Skynyrd. That's the "old rock and roll" Miranda Lambert is targeting as she tours North and South with the CMA shindig approaching. She's country all right. But that ain't all.

Although Lambert's a good-looking blonde with killer dimples, she's not skinny or even lissome. She's a little chunky; she's got some thighs on her and, typically, puts them out there. Sometimes she dresses country. At Terminal 5, she wore a short black dress and high black heels that somewhere in there got kicked off so she could better prance around to John Prine or Johnny Winter or maybe even the LOUD two-step her "ass-kickin' group" made of "Airstream Song." Rock 'n' roll hoochie koo. She's got the CMA no matter how many firsts she wins or doesn't. Now she's thinking about conquering the world.

MSN Music, November 12, 2010