Behind the microphone in a club a fraction of the size of her usual venues, Miranda Lambert was nervous. “We always get a little jittery when we play in Nashville,” she admitted briskly, “’cause the energy is high and the expectations are high.”
Her audience was an invite-only industry crowd of management reps, label staffers, media company executives, professional songwriters, journalists and others who’d have a hand or stake in the reception of her new music, and who she’d already loosened up with catered burritos and nachos, themed cocktails and a photo booth.
Between tunes, she spoke like she was addressing comrades and confidants, thanking them for their continued goodwill and support. “I appreciate everybody in this room,” she said, but she couldn’t resist getting in a little crack as she introduced “Tequila Does,” with its wryly tipsy, waltz-time feel: “If you don’t like this and you don’t think it’s country, then you don’t like country music.”
Fifteen years into her recording career, Lambert, raised in Texas and still deeply attached to her Lone Star roots, is a Nashville insider and a rarefied embodiment of country ambition who hasn’t entirely let go of her outsider’s irreverence.
In 2003, when she was eliminated from the reality show music competition Nashville Star, winding up in third place, she didn’t have to feign cheerfulness for the television cameras. The 19-year-old searched the front row of the audience for her parents’ faces and mouthed a relieved, “Yes!”
As with the rest of the show’s finalists, Lambert had been asked to record a song, though only the victor’s would be released as a single. The prospect filled her with dread. “I’d be promoting something that I’m truly not in love with,” she explains now. “I felt like, ‘Well, that’s gonna be fleeting, because that’s not really who I am.’ So I didn’t want to win.”
Mere months after her loss, one of the show’s judges, Tracy Gershon, who worked in the artists and repertoire department at Sony Nashville, got her signed. When it came time to hash out details with the label brass, the still-teenaged Lambert walked into a conference room and delivered an ultimatum that’s become the stuff of legend among those in her orbit. “The story goes that she more or less told the company that was how it was going to be — either this way or I’ll just go home,” marvels her longtime guitarist Scotty Wray, who’d already logged a couple of years with Lambert and decades of performing before that, some of it with his brother, country singer Collin Raye. “I’ve gotta respect her for that, man.”
In Lambert’s mind, “Whatever they were going to have me doing that was uncomfortable wasn’t worth it,” she says. “I told everybody, ‘I’d rather spend another decade in honky-tonks and do it my way than be the pretty girl for you.’ Because back then it kind of was happening still, you know, changing the image and rewriting the songs and all that stuff.”
It wasn’t a bluff. She was making headway on the Texas club circuit and burning through the 3,500 copies she had of her independent CD, selling them out of the trunk of her mom’s car. “I really thought that I could find a way to make the career,” she recalls. “Looking back now, I can’t believe that I had the guts to do that.”
New arrivals to Nashville typically showed deference to those with musical and marketing know-how, resources and institutional knowledge, those who know how things have been done and what works and care about what reflects well on the industry community. Into that atmosphere came Lambert, empowered by a combination of ambition, idealism and naiveté, protecting her sense of artistic identity and insisting on professional autonomy from the start.
She’d bought herself time and leeway to make the debut album she wanted to make, what became 2005’s Kerosene, with minimal interference. “I didn’t know the scale of what I could do or what was going to happen,” she says.
There was no real precedent for the path Lambert wanted to pursue. So many of her country heroines and heroes had faded away from the format, aged out, been deemed not radio-friendly enough or — in the case of the Dixie Chicks, whose spunk and self-determination she admired so deeply that she initially signed with their manager Simon Renshaw — weathered heinous and sudden rejection. Other singers and songwriters she dug, like Buddy and Julie Miller or Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, belonged to the radio-indifferent Americana scene. On top of that, she was drawn more to what had historically, and inaccurately, been pegged as masculine modes of music-making — troubadours and class-conscious honky-tonkers — than the tools of pop savvy, strategic crossover moves and fashionable visual presentation that had been more readily available to female country stars looking to expand their reach. Watching Lambert figure out how to be both a serious-minded singer-songwriter and an arena-rocking entertainer, how to close the distance between her version of country artistry and the commercial center, continually readjusting her approach, has made her the most riveting country star of her generation.
At her first meeting with Marion Kraft, who initially worked under Renshaw, before she eventually took over Lambert’s management, Lambert declared that she wanted a “long-haul” career like Dolly Parton has enjoyed. “‘I know as I get older, I will have more things to say, and I want to have the time to do it all,'” Kraft recalls her client explaining. “So I knew early on we needed gas for a long journey.”