There’s nothing fake about Miranda Lambert. She comes across as one of those people who wear their heart on their sleeve. She always does, and says, just what she feels. She sweeps into Refinery29’s downtown Manhattan office in a red leather jacket adorned with silver studs, her expression serious as she sits down to talk. She looks like she’s girding herself to be asked questions she doesn’t want to answer. It’s for good reason: Her personal life became the stuff of tabloid fodder during her marriage to fellow country star Blake Shelton from 2011 to 2015. Lambert has remained part of the gossip industrial complex’s steady churn into her second marriage to NYPD “hot cop” Brendan McLoughlin (yes, Lambert calls him Hot Cop, just like the tabloids). When it’s suggested that becoming a fixture in the Us Weeklys of the world was a life-changing event, she chuckles and says, “No shit! I was not prepared for that.” Does she still see fake stories about herself? “All the time.”
When we meet on a fall day that is perfect leather weather, the headline following Lambert isn’t about her surprise marriage, which she one-upped tabloids by announcing herself on Instagram in February, or some tawdry take on her relationship with ex-husband Blake Shelton. It’s her Instagram post making the case for why she thinks fellow country superstar Carrie Underwood should be the Country Music Association’s (CMA) Entertainer of the Year. Lambert’s words and mannerisms take on an intensity as she describes numerous conversations she had with her bandmates (and best friends and songwriting partners) in the Pistol Annies, backstage on tour with anyone who would listen, and then with her manager, asking what they could do. She launches into a laundry list of things Underwood has accomplished, detailing the ins and outs of her numerous achievements like a lawyer making her case in her closing statement to a jury.
“I was just sitting on the porch one night, thinking about how much I respect her,” Lambert says, noting that it started quite a conversation among her fans and some accusations about why she chose to stan for Underwood. “People are writing me comments like, ‘Well I’m tired of these flags being waved.’ This is just artist to artist, this has nothing to do with if she’s a female or not.”
Except it’s impossible to divorce Underwood being the lone woman nominated for the CMA’s biggest award this year from her being a woman. That fact fits into a larger conversation around how country radio has been rolling back airplay of women artists for the last decade, lowering the profile and profitability of women in the genre, and giving them fewer awards. It’s clearly a double-edged sword for Lambert, whose new album, Wildcard, is a pivot back to what works for her. Her first single, “All Come Out in the Wash,” already landed her the biggest radio add day of her career. Her 2016 double album, The Weight of These Wings, written about her divorce while the ink was still drying on the papers, received critical praise but struggled to gain ground on mainstream country outlets, including radio. Music programmers had a handy reason not to play tracks from Wings. It was a confessional album exploring relationships and life after the demise of one from a woman’s point of view, which is something sorely missing on country radio. At the same time, the album truly did not sound like most of what was on their playlists. Lambert opted for guitars and ballads over the Southern rock and hip-hop sounds paired with lyrics about cracking open an ice-cold domestic beer and dancing in the moonlight that many country fans are used to. Stations didn’t know what to make of it.
I know I’ve done a lot of work, but I have so much more work to do.
It strikes me as funny that I came to New York to interview Lambert, since I live just over an hour from her hometown of Lindale, TX. (When I tell her this, she looks pleased but not surprised — I hear her ask her publicist as she leaves if he knew they’d brought in a writer from Texas in a buoyant tone.) She is still heavily invested in her hometown, despite now living mostly in Nashville and New York — the latter thanks to her new husband. She owns a boutique called the Pink Pistol and has helped revitalize Lindale’s downtown as well as its music scene. I can see a lot of Texas mannerisms and hear the sayings she’s kept. She’s the daughter of two private investigators whose major career moment was being hired by the legal team representing Paula Jones to investigate Bill Clinton in 1997. Then-teenage Lambert got pulled into some of their investigations, helping them collect evidence like a Texas version of Veronica Mars.
Her first break came courtesy of a long-forgotten 2003 turn on a reality singing show called Nashville Star. She came in third place. Realizing she wasn’t ready yet, Lambert held off on releasing her debut album until 2005. It would take her until 2010 to land a No. 1 single with “White Liar.” I was living in San Antonio, TX when that happened, and every time I went to the legendary dancehall Cowboys, every woman was dressed like Lambert did in those days. Her signature strapless knee-length dress paired with cowboy boots was the new uniform. She wasn’t just the next woman who would break through in country music, she was on the way to being the genre’s next superstar.
Lambert calls Wildcard, her seventh album, a “full circle” record, but she’s never been far from her songwriting roots. “I’ve built my career on being honest, but there has always been a lot of kitschy sarcasm. I feel like that’s back,” Lambert notes of her new work. The opening track, “White Trash,” is about exactly what the title implies, while “Pretty Bitchin’” rakes the tabloids over the coals for “the free press I been gettin.’” It’s a lot like Lambert’s early stuff: rowdy, funny, and self-aware. “Locomotive” is maybe the most old-school song, evoking the hard-rocking sound of her 2007 sophomore album, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. The music is Lambert turned up to 11, the chorus uplifting the partner who “gives me wings.”
Her favorite song from the album right now — and maybe of all time — is “Tequila Does.” She imagines being dropped down to play it in a favorite spot for any Texan worth their salt: Gruene Hall in Gruene, TX. She says it’s a song that feels like home. “I haven’t changed from Lindale at all,” Lambert says with a laugh. “The only thing that has changed is that now I live in Nashville, I spend time in New York, and I have had a really amazing journey artistically so my career is on this path. Other than that, I’m still this same booze and jeans girl that I was before I left.”
That’s not exactly true. As someone raised in a small East Texas town, I feel I must object, telling her that I know what she means but have to ask if she thinks that living other places does change you, influence you. “I think you need it; it’s growth,” Lambert concedes. “I am so thankful for all the experiences. I travel around and sing for a living, but I always find that my roots will never change.”
New York is fully present in a few songs on Wildcard, especially “Fire Escape” and “Dark Bars.” Lambert says the buzz of the city has inspired her, that she finds inspiration everywhere from dive bars to street art. That feeling of being surrounded by more than you can take in permeates her new work. There’s a thing about Texans in New York: We all flock together, and we like to sit around talking about Texas shit. It’s not like being from anywhere else, and you almost never get over it to an extent that’s annoying to other people. I tell Lambert that I didn’t find it hard to fit in here, though, because there’s something familiar about the way people behave. She knows exactly what I mean. “I always have said, when I first started coming to New York to play or to work, the people are sweet but aren’t going to put up with any shit,” she says with a laugh.
If it sounds like there’s a little of everything on this record, that’s because Lambert put a little of everything on her studio list — and at 14 tracks, she’s given herself room to explore multiple aspects of her personality. All her choices on Wildcard say she cares about her place in country music. Lambert explains she didn’t overthink it when she put the album’s tracklist together, but she clearly did some songs for them and some for her. She wants to be on the radio, but she’ll go her own way when she feels like it. There’s an edge in her voice when she says, “I have a front-row seat to the crowd, so if they don’t know [the record], I’m very aware. If they do know it, I’m aware.” She knows that country radio, whether people hear it in their cars or stream it at their desks, still works, especially in rural areas. She also knows she “can’t bank on it.” She pulls no punches when describing how programmers have treated her. “I’m hoping that [radio] keeps the door open a little bit more for some more girls to be played,” Lambert says. “But also, a lot of people in radio have said, ‘Well, you’re back — we’re glad to have you back.’ I’m like, I didn’t go anywhere.”
For Lambert, it’s about knowing that no one else will do as much for her as she can do for herself. She has just wrapped up her Roadside Bars and Pink Guitars Tour, which featured all-women acts, and co-written “My Only Child” for The Highwomen record. Every song but one on Wildcard has women writers. In addition to talking up Underwood as seriously as if I were a voting member of the CMAs, she takes the reins when I mention Brandi Carlile, going on and on about how impressed she is with Carlile’s achievements this year — one of which includes co-producing Texas legend Tanya Tucker’s cover of Lambert’s hit single, “The House That Built Me.” It’s a song so good that the Academy of Country Music (ACMs) gave it their Song of the Decade award in September.
Lambert doesn’t demure when asked how winning an award of that magnitude felt. She looks me dead in the eye and says, “It felt right.” But when questioned about contemplating her legacy, Lambert’s workhorse qualities show. “Legacy is such an intimidating word,” Lambert says. “Some days I feel like I have been doing this 300 years, and some days I feel like I’ve been doing it for three days. I know I’ve done a lot of work, but I have so much more work to do.”