DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Country music superstar Miranda Lambert has a new album out. It's called "Wildcard," a title that really could fit any of the albums she has released over the last decade and a half. The singer-songwriter has figured out how to please her fans and give the industry what it expects without compromising what she wants. Jewly Hight has more.
JEWLY HIGHT, BYLINE: How many of those costumes are you going to wear tonight?
MIRANDA LAMBERT: Both of them are...
HIGHT: On the first day of Miranda Lambert's tour, a brand-new black bodysuit embellished with sequins, silver stars and fringe hangs on the rack in her dressing room.
LAMBERT: Is that not country and western (laughter)? Although I haven't tried on stage yet - I'm just hoping it doesn't bust anywhere (laughter).
HIGHT: It's Lambert's style to poke fun at showbiz glitz just hours before she plays an arena show with an elaborate lighting rig and three massive video screens.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOCOMOTIVE")
LAMBERT: (Singing) I'm like a locomotive. I don't run out of steam.
HIGHT: Ever since she was growing up in small-town East Texas, Lambert's biggest ambition has been turning three guitar chords into something sturdy and meaningful.
LAMBERT: My favorite song, even when I was, like, 12 was "Desperados Waiting For A Train" by Guy Clark and "Hello In There" by John Prine. And I was kind of listening to music way older than me, and I loved it. Allison Moorer was one that totally changed my life. My first songs weren't very good, but I was already headed in a direction that wanted to be a writer and say something and not just have fluff. And it's from all the music I grew up on, truly.
HIGHT: Lambert brought that youthful conviction to her dealings with the industry. She was wary of handing her career over to people who might try to mold her into their idea of a marketable performer.
LAMBERT: I just had to tell the whole label in the conference room. I was scared. But I was like, look. I don't dance around in halter tops. I don't cut pop songs. I'm a country singer from Texas. And I'm going to be who I am. I'd rather not be here and waste any of our time. And, I mean, at that moment, my life could've changed completely. They could've said, well, you're not easy to work with. Bye.
HIGHT: But they didn't. They more or less left her alone to record her 2005 debut.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KEROSENE")
LAMBERT: (Singing) Forget your high society. I'm soaking it in kerosene. Light 'em up and watch them burn. Teach them what they need to learn. Ha.
SCOTTY WRAY: I got to be honest with you. When her first record came out and I heard it, I thought, we're going to have a pretty good career.
HIGHT: Scotty Wray has been playing guitar with Lambert since she was 17.
WRAY: But we're going to get to, like, this level, and then we'll just kind of level off 'cause in my experience, people that were trying to break the norm a little bit - that's what you - you have a nice, little career, but you never go up here.
HIGHT: Neither the first album nor the second generated a ton of radio airplay. Even so, Miranda Lambert developed a vivid persona thanks to the characters on her songs, especially when she played women pushed to the point of fighting back.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GUNPOWDER AND LEAD")
LAMBERT: (Singing) I'm going home, gonna load my shotgun, wait by the door and light a cigarette. He wants a fight - well, now he's got that one. And he ain't seen me crazy yet. He slapped my face, and he shook me like a ragdoll. Don't that sound like a real man? I'm gonna show him what little girls are made of. Gunpowder and lead.
Yeah, I'm firebrand and fiery - all these words people use to describe me - my early couple of records. That's all people thought of me. And I thought to myself, that's going to get old fast. And I'm going to get older. I can't always be banging my head, screaming at people (laughter), you know what I mean? Like, that's part of it. But...
HIGHT: There were other stories she wanted to tell, other tones she wanted to strike.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DEAD FLOWERS")
LAMBERT: (Singing) I feel like the flowers in this vase. He just brought them home one day. Ain't they beautiful? - he said. They've been here in the kitchen, and the water's turning gray. They're sitting in the vase, but now they're dead - dead flowers.
HIGHT: Lambert adapted to the demands of country stardom at her own pace, finding some co-writers she was comfortable with among the ranks of Music Row pros and letting a stylist coax her out of T-shirts and jeans. Her longtime manager, Marion Kraft, says Lambert became a savvy partner in her own business.
MARION KRAFT: At this point, she understands she's not just a singer-songwriter. She knows she's a brand. And it's something that we collaborated together. She's not, like, 10% of the equation. She's 50% of what makes this a whole. That's why it's good, and that's why it's authentic because she's all in.
HIGHT: It wasn't until Lambert's 10th single in 2009 that she started scoring big radio hits. She could've kept her focus on repeating that success. Instead, she started a band on the side, the frisky down-home trio Pistol Annies with Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BAD EXAMPLE")
PISTOL ANNIES: (Singing) Somebody had to set a bad example, teach all the prim and propers what not to do. Nobody 'round here wants to ramble. What the hell? That's what I was born to do.
HIGHT: Ashley Monroe says it was remarkable that Lambert would show such solidarity with a couple of songwriters who weren't well-known at the time.
ASHLEY MONROE: And it'll never not be odd to me to think about us going out, nobody having a clue who we were. And then it started catching on. And thank God 'cause Miranda really took a big risk. You know, I always felt like, what if we go out there, and everybody's like, get these girls off the stage? You know, we want to hear you.
HIGHT: Lambert took a different kind of risk in 2016 after her high-profile marriage to a fellow country star came to an end. She made an emotionally intricate double album.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TIN MAN")
LAMBERT: (Singing) Hey there, Mr. Tin Man. You don't know how lucky you are. You shouldn't spend your whole life wishing for something bound to fall apart.
HIGHT: She even stopped doing interviews for a while.
LAMBERT: I guess I got selfish and sad. And when you get selfish and sad as an artist, you're going to make a record like "The Weight Of These Wings." That's what you're going to do.
HIGHT: Now Lambert's decided it's time for the opposite approach.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT ALL COMES OUT IN THE WASH")
LAMBERT: (Singing) If you wear a white shirt to a crawfish boil, stone-washed jeans while you're changing the oil. When you find yourself dating the bridesmaid's ex, you accidentally bring him to the wedding. Whoops.
HIGHT: Miranda Lambert can deliver tunes with broad appeal while also giving herself room to explore. She's changed producers for the first time in a decade and a half and mixed in cosmopolitan touches that piqued her interest when she married a New Yorker in January.
LAMBERT: You say so many things about like, this is what I'm doing. This is who I am. And then you grow. If you don't, there's a problem. I'm still stubborn and hardheaded and believe what I believe. But I also am like, I can calm down because it worked. I have a career. Like, people heard me. I don't have to scream it out anymore. Like, so I'm just more open.
HIGHT: But to be clear, still the one supplying the vision. For NPR News, I'm Jewly Hight in Nashville.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLUEBIRD")
LAMBERT: (Singing) And if the whole wide world stops singing...
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