The Nerve and the Heart of Miranda Lambert

M-Lamb. The Texas Tornado. Country Beyonce. Those are just a few nicknames I completely made up for Miranda Lambert, that no one calls her. I think the last one has legs though.

I’ve never interviewed Miranda Lambert. I’ve never felt like I needed to. I have all her records – even the early self-titled one we’re kind of meant to act like doesn’t exist now. She’s been telling us all how she feels, what she wants and who she is, for years.

Lambert’s new record (her first in two years) is ‘The Weight of These Wings’. It’s a double album. “Double album. One story” she recently tweeted.

A double album? People don’t make double albums in 2016. That’s an artifact of the 70s – Pink Floyd, Elton John, The Who. These days people barely even talk about the album as a viable format. It’s all about singles man. A number one on top forty radio. Spotify stats.

Miranda Lambert made a double album. Miranda Lambert does what she wants.

The record is divided into two discs – The Nerve and The Heart.


- T H E  N E R V E -

“No one’s heard music from me in a while and this felt like the perfect song to lead off with because it’s still me just being who I am.” – Lambert on her new single ‘Vice’.

Miranda Lambert has always had a lot of nerve. Albums littered with ‘frighten the horses’ subject matter like assertive sexuality, domestic abuse and violent revenge, records that are equal part 70s country lineage and smoldering southern rock. Taking a break from a gigantic mainstream country career to start an Americana trio. You’ve got to admire her force of will. So many artists today seem like they’re boxed in by commercial boundaries or pressures, or compromising their music to fit into a prescribed radio format. Miranda Lambert does what she wants, and that is her power.

There’s been a lot of talk in recent years of feminism and misogyny in life, culture and politics. Without ever (that I recall) mentioning the F word, Lambert has become a fighter for feminist ideals in country music, devoting her energies to boosting opportunities for other women as much as her own.

As an artist, her most prominent tool is her voice. A voice she often deploys for the benefit of other women. Whether it’s using that voice in (literal) harmony with Ashley Monroe and Angeleena Presley (as the rowdy rootsy trio the Pistol Annies), or recording and promoting the incredible songcraft of women like Gillian Welch and Kacey Musgraves (‘Mama’s Broken Heart’ was a hit for Lambert, recorded before Musgraves released her breakthrough single ‘Merry Go Round’). There’s a spotlight pointed in her direction, and she’s going to pull other women into its light.

Proud tomato Miranda Lambert (It’s not worth explaining this. I only have 1000 words here. Google it).

She’s the current Queen in a lineage of legends, some of them men (she is devoted to Haggard) and many of them incredible women (Emmylou, Loretta – we know these icons by single names)

- T H E  H E A R T -

“I just hope that everybody that hears it can kinda feel like they’re not on an island. That we all have things in our life that aren’t necessary pleasant to talk about, but this song is just honest as you can get about emotions, and letting raw emotions live where they live until you move on to a happier place.  It’s kinda the cycle of life, we can’t all be sunshine and roses everyday and sometimes when we’re not we find things that make us feel better at the moment and that’s what a vice is.”

There’s a theory that for a time, American country radio only had room for one of each ‘type’ of female artist at a time. Mature power ballad singer with a massive voice? Martina McBride in 1998, Carrie Underwood in 2008. Sensitive traditionalist harkening back to classic country? Patty Loveless in 1995, LeAnn Womack in 2005. When it came to “bad-ass redneck woman” Gretchen Wilson carved that space out for herself in the early ‘00s. But that slot was going to open up again soon.

Miranda Lambert announced herself to country radio with ‘Kerosene’, a electrifying, raucous stomper of a single, inspired by Steve Earle and bursting with attitude. The third single from her next album - ‘Gunpowder and Lead’ – became her first top 10 single and one of her signature songs. A fiery anthem of a battered spouse waiting to meet out justice to her abuser with a shotgun, it solidified a perception of her as a “kick-ass no apologies shit-kicker”. While not necessarily inaccurate, it was simplistic. It ignored the other side of her personality hidden in plain sight a little further into the track listings. It reduced to her to one note, and while avoiding most of the clichés associated with female performers, it locked away a big part of who Lambert is as a woman and an artist – her heart.

From ‘Revolution’ onwards, you can sense a deliberate effort from Lambert and her team to paint a more complex portrait of who she is. Guitar shredding southern rock anthems are still present, but more vulnerability shines through on much of the album, and it’s reflected in the initial single choices. ‘Dead Flowers’, ‘White Liar’ and ‘The House the Built Me’. Sincere, nuanced, sensitive songs. These songs, especially the third, showed Lambert was willing to put her heart out there in all its facets.

Lambert isn’t doing much press for ‘The Weight of These Wings’. Why would she? Doing interviews when you have a new album out is often like some version of purgatory – an endless series of phone calls, distant voices down the end of a line asking exactly the same questions in slightly different orders. If you’ve just spent months making an album to tell the world how you think and feel, the idea that you then have to literally do that again but through talking is pretty unappealing.

The other thing is that since her last album, Miranda Lambert got divorced. It’s difficult to imagine a scenario where this wouldn’t come up in around 98% of all interviews. If you think answering ‘So where did the album title come from?’ and ‘Which comes first – the music or the lyrics?’ a million times doesn’t sound like your idea of a good time, swap those questions out for ‘When did you know your marriage was over?’ and ‘Please tell me exactly which lyrics are about your ex-husband, the more scandalous the better if you don’t mind’.

“It’s written so much on the line of, it could be real, or it could be a character. And we purposely — and will continue to — leave that open to interpretation,” – Vice co-writer Josh Osborne to Taste of Country.

Perhaps every song on both discs of this album is a chronicle of Lambert’s emotional turmoil and the resilience and/or pain coursing through her heart as her romantic partnership dissolved. Or maybe it’s all imagined, the stories of people she knows or invented. It is more likely, as with most songs, to be a fair bit of the personal and a little bit of artistic license and observation. Trying to work out which is which is almost impossible, and trying to parse it out isn’t fair to Lambert herself. She is, after all, a musician and not a journalist.

If you take this album on its own terms, as challenging as that might be, it is full of treasures. Each album Lambert has made, from her self-titled independent release fifteen years ago to this brand new record, is a more complete statement of what and how things matter to her at this moment in time.

I’m told Lambert ‘wants the album to do the talking’. It should. Twenty-four songs is more than long enough to tell a story. You might find her story in there, you might find your own. Maybe both. Give it a shot, from “Runnin’ Just In Case” to “I’ve Got Wheels”. Take a road trip, or a walk, or open a bottle of something. Have a listen.

I’ll wait.