LINDALE, Texas – Sitting on the redwood deck of Miranda Lambert’s cottage conjures images of Norman Rockwell’s wholesome Americana paintings. Picture 24 acres of tranquil, nature-kissed greenery, a couple of friendly Labradors, a lake and two houses side by side.
Now throw in some dark, American Gothic undertone. All is not as it seems.
That could be Lambert’s motto. One quick look and she appears to be the fresh-faced example of Texas upbringing. The pretty and petite blonde is personable, genuine and hospitable. She fits right in with the rural lifestyle and yet carries herself beautifully in a more urban setting.
Dig a little deeper, and you may be surprised by what you uncover. The 23-year-old Lambert writes and sings country songs with a rock edge. Onstage, she’s a tough, no-nonsense firecracker. The daughter of semiretired private investigators who followed philandering spouses for a living, she knows her way around firearms. She’s got a license to carry a pistol. In her songs, she defends herself with gunpowder and lead.
In fact, “Gunpowder & Lead” is the lead track from her bold second CD, “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” which arrived in stores Tuesday. The disc follows the million-selling 2005 debut “Kerosene,” an album that captured a burgeoning talent we first spotted in 2004 when she placed third on the inaugural season of “Nashville Star.”
“I feel like I’ve grown up,” Lambert says while sitting in a comfy Papasan chair in her writing room, a cool space where she houses stacks of vinyl LPs, posters, instruments, a Texas flag, music awards and a prized autographed LP cover by Jessi Colter.
“I’ve been on the road for two years. I’ve been in relationships. There’s a lot more personality in my writing now because I’ve actually lived through a lot more things,” Lambert says. “In three years that doesn’t seem like that long a time, but with everything that’s happened in my life, having an album out, going on tour ... I think it’s really changed me as a person and as a writer.”
One spin of “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” and you’ll hear stories that are true and embellished. She shoots an abusive boyfriend out on bail in “Gunpowder & Lead.” On the title cut she charges into a pool hall to take revenge on her former beau’s new fling. On “Guilty in Here” Lambert laments her trouble with men, singing about “daytime boys and nighttime boys” that “don’t see eye to eye.”
Luckily, she’s not afraid to reveal vulnerability on organic ballads such as “Desperation” and “Love Letters.” Her most bona fide tune is the current single, “Famous in a Small Town.” It might as well be her autobiography, a song about seeing life through “the telephoto lens of fame,” all the while knowing that “everybody dies famous in a small town.”
Lambert was born in Longview, Texas, but her parents moved to Dallas when she was a few months old. She spent the early part of her childhood in Big D while her parents did the PI thing. The brood later moved to Lindale, a city of about 3,000, when she was 6. Now that Lambert’s had national success, including touring with superstars George Strait, Toby Keith and Keith Urban, she’s undoubtedly the toast of East Texas.
Take a short drive to downtown Lindale, and you’ll see the Miranda Lambert Store & Headquarters, a quaint structure considered the oldest building in the city. It’s a former barbershop built in the late 1920s. Now it’s a homey shrine to the local celebrity.
Bev Lambert designed the store - a fan haven filled with newspaper and magazine clippings, photos and memorabilia and selling T-shirts, hats, jewelry, boots and towels. You can also pick up a copy of Miranda’s discs.
It looks “exactly like you crawled inside my brain,” Lambert told her mother when she first opened the store.
Hanging by the door is a gray cowbell autographed by Merle Haggard. An iPod plugged into a PA system is filled with Haggard classics, among other country tunes.
“When a Merle Haggard song comes on, we ring the Merle bell,” Lambert says, “and whoever is in the store gets a prize.”
If you’re on Interstate 20 heading east approaching Lindale, around Van, you’ll see the huge billboard directing you to her shop. Customer traffic is 75 percent from out of town, according to Bev Lambert, and 60 percent from out of state.
Lambert takes it all in stride. She’s too stubborn to let herself get seduced by the star trip. Her journey to platinum-selling recording artist took years of hard work. Before she ever auditioned for “Nashville Star” at her mom’s insistence, she’d already begun making the rounds of Texas honky-tonks.
Her main goal on “Star” was to stay in the running long enough to sing “Greyhound Bound for Nowhere,” a touching ballad she wrote with her dad.
“I thought if I could make it through the original song night, then I could get a publishing deal out of it,” she says. “I wanted a publishing deal. Luckily I got everything. I got a record deal and the publishing deal. I was really happy with the whole experience.”
While it took almost a year from the end of “Star” to the release of “Kerosene,” she made sure to get exactly what she wanted. She walked into the offices of Sony in Nashville and all but demanded that she be allowed to record her songs. She was barely 20 and had come in third place in a TV talent competition. But she stood her ground.
“When I went in to get signed, I already had songs. I know who I am as an artist. I’m good enough to where I feel I could put songs on an album on a major label. I said, `If y’all are going to try to change that or make me cut these No. 1 singles or whatever they are, I’m not going to do it. It’s wasting everyone’s time. I’ll just go back to Texas and playing in clubs.’”
“Kerosene” contains 11 tracks she wrote or co-wrote. “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” includes eight from her pen. On the new CD she offers covers of songs by Gillian Welch, Carlene Carter and Patty Griffin, all strong, left-of-mainstream singer-songwriters.
“The reason Miranda has been successful is because she’s cutting her own path,” says Joe Galante, chairman of Sony BMG Nashville. “On the record, she takes chances. Performance-wise, she takes chances. She is not your run-of-the-mill country artist. Having worked with Waylon and Willie, they made records that weren’t always square pegs in square holes. But this is where they were comfortable. They considered themselves country artists, just like Miranda.”
Lambert grew up surrounded by music, raised by open-minded, loving parents. “I got spankings, but I also got toys,” she says. “I was a really well-balanced kid I think.” Her father, Rick, played guitar. He also had an extensive collection of vinyl LPs, most of which now are in Lambert’s writing room.
“I remember my dad would take me, and we’d listen to albums. He had old records, vinyl. I remember my parents swearing that when I was 3 years old, I was harmonizing. My mom was like, `Is she singing harmony?’ And my dad said, `I think she is.’ As far back as I can remember I’ve loved music. My dad would play guitar, and I would sit on his lap and sing with him. I just grew up with it. It’s in my blood.”
So is the fighting spirit. Because of the family private-eye business and the fear of revenge from one of those “cheating spouses,” Lambert and her brother were taught how to use guns early on. She carries a pistol for protection, and she’s a hunter.
“Because we are gun owners and carry licenses, her (attitude) didn’t come from nothing,” says Bev Lambert. “We don’t really confine ourselves. We can go anywhere, and people say nothing.”
But if they do talk, Miranda Lambert would only encourage them.
“There is no bad publicity,” she says. “Talk about me any way you want to. If you hate me, tell people. Just say my name.”
Most importantly she wants to carve out a career as a serious country singer-songwriter. “Nashville Star” was a steppingstone. “Kerosene” sold 1 million copies, cementing her as a new artist to watch. Now that the buzz on “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” is building, she wants to be like her musical heroes, from Willie Nelson to Steve Earle.
“There’s a way to be cool, and there’s a way to make records that are hits and stay mainstream. I think Dwight Yoakam did that, and I think the Dixie Chicks did that. I want to be one of those people. I want to be me, but I also want a lifelong career.”