HOLMDEL, N.J.—“Cut it out!”
Backstage at the PNC Bank Arts Center, Miranda Lambert is laying down the law.
As usual, the object of her wrath—in this case, Delilah, the “terrier-slash-whatever mix” who’s yipping at a visitor to the country starlet’s tour bus—falls meekly into line.
That’s one smart doggie. For if the mutt has been listening closely to her master’s work—like the 2005 hit CD debut “Kerosene,” and its follow-up, “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” which topped the country charts on its release in May—she’s learned an unmistakable lesson: Miranda Lambert don’t take no mess.
For starters, look at the title cuts to the two albums by the East Texas singer and songwriter.
On the former, Lambert borrowed a guitar lick from Steve Earle’s “I Feel Alright,” and set a wayward boyfriend’s house aflame. On the latter, she tracks down another cheater, calmly leaves her pistol in the car, then stomps into a bar to exact bare-knuckled revenge.
While those payback songs are incendiary enough, they come across as mild-mannered compared with “Gunpowder & Lead,” the lead track on “Girlfriend.” She confronts an abusive boyfriend with a double-barreled blast of bluesy rage: “His fist’s big but my gun’s bigger/He’ll find out when I pull the trigger.”
All this might lead one to believe that a confrontation with Lambert would be a frightening experience for a member of the opposite sex. Sitting back in a red leather chair with the docile Delilah by her side, Lambert, who has a permit to carry a concealed revolver “for protection,” admits that some guys do seem to be scared of her these days.
“I don’t consider myself mean or scary. It’s not `Gunpowder & Lead’ all the time,” says Lambert, 23, who dates Oklahoma country singer Blake Shelton. She rests her pointy-toed silver boots on a cowhide rug and wears a sleeveless T-shirt showing a skull with an eye patch. “I have a girly side, too.”
She points to vulnerable songs like “Love Letters” and “Desperation” on “Girlfriend,” which will likely stand as the best country album of 2007. A former high school cheerleader, Lambert is a “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” junkie, but also drives the boys in the band batty by watching “Dr. Phil” and “Trading Spaces” on the bus’ wide-screen TV.
She credits a “really strong raising” in the tiny town of Lindale, Texas—the inspiration for her single, “Famous in a Small Town,” and where she lives in a house on her parents’ property—for instilling her with a “don’t-take-any-crap attitude.”
Her father was a country songwriter (he has two cowriting credits on “Kerosene”) and a fan of Merle Haggard and David Allan Coe. He’s also a former policeman who formed a detective agency with Lambert’s mother.
“We have a gun range at our house,” says Lambert, whose logo shows two crossed revolvers with angels’ wings. With her father, she hunts deer and wild turkey. “I’ve been around guns all my life. It’s part of who I am.”
The Lamberts were hired as investigators into former President Bill Clinton’s sex life by the law firm that represented Paula Jones. But the greater impact on their teenage daughter’s songwriting came when the family offered temporary housing to the Lamberts’ clients, abused women and their children.
“I have that feisty part in me,” Lambert says, “that don’t-get-mad, get-even part.”
Lambert is part of a nuevo-traditionalist wing that’s been playing the time-honored role of country outlaw in its quest to win back the country charts from feel-good, pseudo-cowboy soft-rockers like Kenny Chesney. Among the most successful have been blue-collar heroine Gretchen Wilson and humorous guitar-slinger Brad Paisley, along with Toby Keith, a macho man whose good taste can be seen in his choice of opening act for his summer tour: Lambert.
The fightin’ side of country has always appealed to Lambert.
“I just got burnt out on the whole thing where country got really poppy-sounding,” she says. “To me, that’s not country music, like how great life is every day and all beautiful and everything. I mean, regular people go through bad things, and so do I. I have a great life, but I want to hear songs about drinking, cheating and dogs dying. That’s country music to me.
“I guess I’m just drawn to it because it’s real people writing about real things. I just feel that more people have (crappy) days than good ones. When you’re stuck in traffic for five hours in the heat in August you don’t want to hear about how great life is. You turn on country radio and you want to hear `my wife left me and I’m drowning my sorrows in whiskey.’”
In major-label Nashville, new artists especially are expected to record would-be hits tailor-made by teams of professional songwriters. But Lambert writes almost all her own songs, the exceptions on “Girlfriend” being handpicked covers of tunes written by Gillian Welch, Patty Griffin and Carlene Carter.
Lambert had more clout than most when it came time to record. She was already famous from her third-place finish on the 2003 inaugural season of the country music “reality” show “Nashville Star.”
She had been dead set against trying out for the show. “I thought: It’s really not for songwriters and it’s going to be like another `American Idol’ thing, and that’s just not me.”
But her mother put her up to it, and she came to savor the experience: “It taught me how to work under pressure,” and, she figures, “saved me about five years working in bars.”
She approached her record deal with typical determination.
“I was like: I just want to lay this out before I waste everyone’s time,” she recalls. “If you try to change me, or get me to try to do some quote-unquote `hit single,’ I won’t do it, and I’ll quit and wind up wasting you-all’s money and time. So is this the type of deal where I get to do my own songs and be my own self? And they were, like, `Yes, go ahead and do it.’”
So far, Lambert has done just fine in meeting the goal she announces in “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend”: “They’re damn well going to know my name!” “Kerosene” sold 876,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan, and “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” is at 167,000.
She’s had only limited success on the radio. Her biggest hit so far is “Kerosene,” which peaked at No. 15 on the country charts.
And stations nationwide seem nervous about giving airplay to such a locked and loaded firebrand. Are programmers afraid of her hellacious image?
“Yeah, and I don’t know why,” says the sweet-voiced singer. “Because people obviously like it. Almost a million people bought it. I talk about guns and burning people’s houses down, but people watch movies like that all the time, and they don’t go out and do it. It’s not real, it’s a song. ... And when I listen to country radio, I think, wow, my song would fit perfectly in this format. I don’t understand why it’s not on there.”