A Double Shot of Honesty With a Reality Chaser

by Daniel Ramirez in Fall 2016
ML O2C2C 056 Christie Goodwin e1472786144177

Every country music artist has his or her corresponding drink. From the sugary sweetness of power-pop country standard-bearers, best accompanied by a margarita or a glass of sangria; to the bar room belters that are any lager’s best complement; and even to the singer-songwriters that are like a fine glass of cabernet, the full spectrum of country music delivers its messages by the glass. It’s a perfect pairing, fusing lyric, melody and mood.

And into this harmony, Miranda Lambert is like an entire fifth of whiskey—undeniable, strong in large and small amounts and, most importantly, very real.

As a mainstay of the country music spotlight for over a decade, Lambert has evolved from an aspiring teenage singer from Longview, Texas, to a frequent fixture of magazine covers and entertainment news programs.

Should anyone find it hard to believe the “gal from Texas with humble beginnings,” her first concert and the journey it began tell enough of the story. When asked about the first concert she attended, Lambert needed neither pressure nor time to produce an answer, proudly proclaiming “Garth Brooks at Texas Stadium – the second night.” She recalls, “They did three in a row. I think it changed the course of my journey as a person. I was only 10 years old, but it was so much production and so much energy. It was part of what set a fire in me, even at that age, to go, ‘Oh my gosh, I want to be part of that.’”

Her confession spills out so humbly and with such conviction, that you can almost see the light in the eyes of a little girl in the Texas Stadium stands, despite the fact that these words are coming from a powerhouse of a 32-year-old woman on the eve of her late summer tour. Though she is relaxing as best she can in Nashville, her adopted home, it is clear from her words and her obvious passion that the fire still burns. It’s the same fire, burning so long and so hot, that has fueled her rise from spectating to headlining the very same venues that Garth and her other heroes commanded. She lives now in the same limelight that inspired her journey.

But, such a high profile life is usually accompanied by equally high exposure, and her personal life rapidly became a public one. Every move was scrutinized and every triumph lauded, whether in the storied music halls of Nashville or the private halls of her home. And, as with nearly every face that graces the cover of Cosmopolitan, Redbook or Marie Claire, it wasn’t long before her face and life were cover stories for publications that approach their subjects differently. The rumor mills and gossip gluttons often cast as dark a shadow as the spotlight is bright as they documented Lambert’s every step.

It all served the music, of course. Whether she was chronicling the excitement and adventure that took her from small-town East Texas to the bright lights of Nashville or lamenting the volatile end of a bad breakup or reflecting on her roots, the music was where everything went.

“I grew up in a musical family,” Lambert says. “My dad plays guitar and writes songs. I was always around music and he was always playing music and so was my mom.”

You might say of her musical talent that she ‘came by it honestly,’ but it might not prove entirely true. Her thirst for music may have given birth to some good-natured theft in order to be quenched. “I love older music,” she confesses. “My dad had vinyl records, which I’ve stolen many of!”

True to her love, she supports the industry, as well as being a part of it. She doesn’t only have the vinyl of any album she likes, because that’s impractical for the car or the plane. Instead, as she happily confesses, “I’m anywhere from vinyl to Spotify and Pandora. I also buy all the records I love on iTunes, so I kind of run the gamut. All the music I love, I have every form of it I can get.”

And even this fun minor detail feeds the music. One of the first lines of her latest single, “Vice,” incorporates the numbers 33, 45 and 78. For younger listeners, they might sound like very odd measurements, but for older crowds and vinyl lovers, they practically scream of newly discovered tunes, as well as old classics.

This is the sort of character that Lambert pours into every line, making certain that her singles find an audience and climb to the top of the charts. It’s far more than a formula. It’s the unrelenting reality evident in her vulnerable songs that resonates with people who’ve been where she’s been. It makes for quite the success story.

Her success, however, isn’t solely a sequence of hit singles, as modern radio and online purchases have made commonplace. She is in the middle of an active streak of platinum albums, from the breakthrough “Kerosene” to the appropriately titled, “Platinum.” When her new album is released, it’s a good bet that it will add yet another shiny platter to Lambert’s wall. It goes a long way to proving that the world doesn’t so much consume Lambert in small amounts, whether musically or otherwise. Instead, it takes in everything the native Texan has to offer.

This level of indulgence can be both a blessing and a curse, as the past year has taught her. It was a harsh lesson, when, after ten years of marriage to Blake Shelton, Lambert suffered a heartbreak that would devastate most people – whether woman or man. It was a double shot of misery, as her divorce, painful enough on its own, ignited every rumor and suspicion that the Hollywood set could imagine; and saw accompanying round-the-clock coverage, splashing the end of a cherished bond in Lambert’s face with every article.

Whether a sobering reality or a reason to abandon sobriety, the music, again, benefits. Her forthcoming album was built from those wounds and scars, and pushed an already expressive Lambert to get even more vulnerable.

“The most I can say about [the new album] is that it’s honest,” she explains. “It’s reflective of what’s gone on in my life for the last year. There’s everything from fun to sad to reflective and introspective. I was just really honest with myself when I was writing it.”

The honesty is nearly blinding in “Vice,” the first single from that production. In addition to the nod to her cherished 33s, 45s and 78s, she gives voice to the confusion and the infinite emotions that follow great pain. “Standing at the sink now, looking at the mirror. Don’t know where I am or how I got here,” the song bellows. It’s just a taste of what’s in store on the rest of the album.

“I still have a ways to go until the record’s out for everyone to hear,” Lambert explains, “so I’m still a little protective of it. I have to adjust to letting the world hear it.”

Her apprehension may stem from being more vulnerable than she’s ever been before, even though her music has always projected confidence. “I’m blessed that I have an outlet for my thoughts and feelings.”

She may have banked on music as an outlet for all these years, but the years have never presented such a need for expression. “‘Vice’ is the perfect first single to come out on,” she says, “because it comes out of the gate telling the truth.” And that truth is that she is, for all her scars and struggles, for all her tragedies and triumphs, still here, still powerful, still undeniable.

The music always has something to teach, and life usually offers back to the music. Still, there are those lessons that everyone is loath to learn. Lambert’s came at the hands of an industry that proved far more complicated than writing and performing songs to a thirsty audience.

“I don’t necessarily love the music business – learning all the ins and outs and politics and rules and which ones to break and which ones you can’t. It’s definitely been a lesson for me over the years. It’s not necessarily about the art. It’s about what goes on behind the scenes,” Lambert reflects. It’s hard to blame her for this perspective, when coverage of her private life has, on occasion, eclipsed the spotlight on her music.

Yet, even a superstar like Miranda Lambert, wishes she could teach certain things to her younger self. No, they’re not about who to avoid or where to turn, or even about the heartbreak and soul-searching of her last year or the perils of the music industry. They’re simpler and yet more profound. They’re purer, less diluted.

“Learn patience and just do the work,” the more mature Lambert says. “I think I did, but when you’re young, you’re just ‘going, going, going’ to get where you’re going; and, before you know it, you’re there and you look up and go, ‘Wait, what did I miss?’ Being present and living a little bit more in the moment would be something I would tell my younger self.”

It’s good counsel, and less gloomy than you might expect, considering that pain most efficiently feeds the music. But it isn’t the only way to power the songs or the feelings they inspire. And, while Lambert can fall prey to the harsher emotions and sullen tones that are the bedrock of country music, she also manages to be just as real and just as accessible as any woman, particularly when it’s time to let go of any sadness and get lost in the beat.

“It just depends on my mood, I guess,” she says. “It’s obvious those moods change a lot. I’m mostly feisty in my personality when I’m not being emotional or being reflective – so, I lean toward Beyoncé.”  She is no less vulnerable for revealing her emotions. Even in her more playful music preferences, she still remains accessible and understandable. Lambert stifles a chuckle admitting her go-to in more joyful times. And the homeland that they share isn’t lost on her, as she further defends her choice. “Of course, she’s a fellow Texan,” Lambert laughs.

It’s an honest laugh from an honest woman who has been through the gauntlet life has thrown at her, both for good and for ill. She has been tested and refined since that day in Texas Stadium, from Texas honkytonk to Nashville bar scene, from minor stages to sold-out stadiums, and from hometown hero to national headlines. And the expressions that find a voice in the music that has always been a part of her journey are no less honest. They have no frills, no fanciful flourish added. They don’t bother with fluff or with fantasy. She’s come too far and through too much to be anything other than real and honest; and when asked what she would do without music, she is no less so. “I have no idea. I don’t have any other skills. This is all I really can do,” she muses.

She is a pure spirit—undeniable, strong in large or small amounts and very, very real. And we can’t wait for the next round of Miranda Lambert.