Saturday, June 9
Main Stage – 10:30 p.m.
On the evening of November 15, 2005, a young woman of 22 walked onstage at New York’s iconic Madison Square Garden in front a full house of thousands, not to mention a live television audience numbering millions. It was her first such experience on a stage that big, in a venue that massive, with that many eyes – in the room, across the nation, and in other countries – watching.
As if all of those factors weren’t enough, she faced other obstacles– she wasn’t a household name like others on the bill…she didn’t have a Top 20 hit to her name…she’d had to scale back her song from its recorded original length. But in the two-minutes-and-thirty-seconds that followed, this young woman armed only with a guitar, a voice, raw talent and sheer conviction managed to claim her spot in country music.
“I remember being so nervous. That was the first time I’d ever performed on an awards show…it was at Madison Square Garden, and…there was fire. I remember thinking, ‘Oh my gosh – this is it. If I don’t nail this, then no one’s ever going to “get” me.’ And I remember thinking, ‘All right, Miranda – it’s time for you to deliver.’”
In those two-minutes-and-thirty-seconds Miranda Lambert emblazoned her image on the country music world – not only the tastemakers of Nashville, but on fans of the genre far and wide. She’d made a statement, effectively announcing her arrival, her presence, her intentions. And in the decade that’s followed, that moment at the CMA Awards – seared into the minds of so many – has lived up to its bold promise, those initial flares growing into a career that’s blazed its way into the annals of country music history and produced a catalog of music that’s warmed the hearts of fans.
“I’m so thankful for being able to make art for a living. Sometimes you look back and you go, ‘Wow – where was I at that time in my life? What was I doing? What made me make this record?’ And then you evolve and change.”
For all that’s been achieved…all that’s been accomplished…all that’s transpired in the past decade – there was certainly no guarantee it would come to fruition. Miranda wasn’t predestined for success, nor was she always on a clear-cut path toward music stardom and acclaim. Her beginnings were humble – home was Lindale, a small town in East Texas. Dad Rick was a police officer-turned-private investigator, assisted by Mom Bev in his work. Theirs was – and still is – a tight-knit family of four, rounded out by Miranda’s brother, Luke.
“A friend asked me the other day, ‘What would you be doing if you weren’t doing this?’ I never thought about it, and I still don’t because I don’t have a backup plan. There’s no other thing that I felt in my life that I could do or wanted to do. And I never explored any other options. Music was it. It was the first thing that came naturally to me. I played sports and wasn’t very good. I wasn’t very good academically at school. And when I finally picked up a guitar and started writing songs, it was like, ‘This feels natural’ for the first time. And I went with it!”
Music wasn’t always a goal – early on, it wasn’t even a visible creative outlet. As a teen, her parents allowed her to enter a talent show…and Miranda enjoyed it. But it wasn’t until the following year – at the age of 16 – that she picked up a guitar, asking her dad, who played, to teach her the basics.
By 2003, Miranda found herself in Nashville, part of the inaugural cast of a reality and talent show called Nashville Star. She didn’t win…but the charisma she displayed in reaching third place earned her a record deal, and the shot at making the album that would secure that two-minute-and-thirty-second moment on the 2005 CMA Awards.
“I never grew up going, ‘Oh, I want to be famous.’ I just grew up saying, ‘I want to be a country singer.’”
Still, there was no guarantee Miranda’s songs or sound would register with fans or at radio. Sure enough, her debut single – a sweet song of youthful love called “Me and Charlie Talking” – garnered a bit of airplay, but not enough to be a breakthrough. A second song fared about as well. But fans who’d watched the spitfire from Texas on Nashville Star hadn’t forgotten – Miranda’s debut album, Kerosene, opened at #1 on the country charts. It was enough to make some of Nashville notice.
“Fans are the ones that keep me going. When I see them singing along…and someone comes up to me and explains how a specific song helped them through a time in their life, it’s like, ‘Okay – this is what it’s about.’”
When the ballots were tallied, Miranda’s debut earned her a Horizon (now Best New Artist) Award nomination at the 2005 CMA Awards…and that nomination gave her those two-minutes-and-thirty-seconds that catapulted her into the spotlight.
It wasn’t planned. Though “Kerosene” had lit up the CMA Awards, and Miranda’s performance had fueled interest in her music – sending many who might’ve missed her album back to check it out (making it her first million-seller) – it still didn’t set the airwaves on fire. Though her highest-charting song to date, it fell short of the Top 10; a decade later, it receives more play than many hits that were technically “bigger.”
“It just took a while for people to understand who I was and for radio to embrace somebody a little left of center, I guess. I still had a great career – I was on tours and playing shows and selling records – but I wanted the validation of, ‘Hey, I belong on the radio, too!’”
While some artists might’ve felt pressure as they began to create the follow up a platinum-selling debut, perhaps the fact that she hadn’t blazed an automatic path to the top actually worked to Miranda’s benefit – not to mention ours as the ones who reaped the rewards of the music she wrote and recorded for Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (2007).
All of the elements that had ignited around her as a result of that two-minute-thirty-second performance of “Kerosene” seemed to coalesce into a sort of barely-contained blaze on songs like the title track, “Gunpowder & Lead” (her first Top 10 hit) and “Getting Ready.” But here, too, was pure story-telling (“Famous in a Small Town”) and displays of vulnerability (“More Like Her,” “Desperation”) – together, our first clear hint of how Miranda’s music draws from that Loretta-Dolly-Tammy lineage.
“I just tell the truth. Whether it hurts or whether it’s angry or whether it’s happy or sad – I just try to tell the truth about where I’m at as a person. And I guess that comes across to people. I’m a normal, everyday, average country girl. I just happen to have a job that lets me make people feel like they’re not alone in that emotion.”
What less would we expect from a young woman who admits she “nearly died” when she crossed paths with her idol, Merle Haggard around this time…the same woman who was photographed in a Willie Nelson tank top and an “I Rode The Bull At Gilley’s” t-shirt for her first album – not because a stylist suggested it might be cool, but because it’s who she is.
The album’s success…and radio’s embrace of “Gunpowder & Lead”’s imagery (“I’m goin’ home, gonna load my shotgun / Wait by the door and light a cigarette”)…stoked Miranda’s confidence. “I knew what the song was…it meant something to me…and it ended up being one of my biggest hits,” she recalls. “That showed me that, as long as it’s honest, people will relate to it.”
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend – the album – solidified Miranda’s place in contemporary country music. The Academy of Country Music named it Album of the Year…setting the stage for an unprecedented run she would enjoy in that realm. But if Crazy Ex proved that her debut was no fluke, then Revolution was about to live up to its name and take her career on a 360-degree trajectory.
Revolution (2009) found Miranda truly taking control of the creative spirit that burns within her. “It’s a great feeling,” she says of the recording experience. “[But] it’s also scary in a way because I don’t want to let anyone down. I want to keep saying things that people need to hear.” There was little worry of that – this music came with a bit more intent; it almost felt as though she was embarking on a mission…one that she’d “chosen to accept”…realizing so many were looking to her to lead the way. Here was joy (“Love Song”), pain (“Dead Flowers”), humor (“White Liar,” “Only Prettier”), anger (“Maintain the Pain”) and truth taken from her own life story (“Heart Like Mine”).
Here, too, was the song that would spend a solid month at the top of the charts, a song she didn’t write but performed in a voice that convinced everyone she’d lived it. “The House That Built Me” resonated in every way possible…and, in a world where ballads and female voices were becoming few-and-far-between on country radio playlists, it struck a chord, racking up enough airplay to effectively become the Song of the Summer in 2010, a moniker typically reserved for up-tempo, carefree, feel-good numbers. But “The House That Built Me” was a feel-good song…of the truest, most real kind. It also earned Miranda her very first Grammy Award.
“Up until ‘The House That Built Me,’ I sort of had this image of ‘I’m guns ablazin’…lightin’ fires…a badass.’ And I didn’t necessarily mean to put myself in that sort of corner – it just kind of happened. So when I did ‘The House That Built Me,’…a very tender, sweet song that didn’t even have drums on it…people sort of went, ‘Well, okay – there’s more to her than just all of that.’”
Revolution proved a commercial and critical juggernaut. Named Album of the Year at the CMA and ACM Awards, it also earned a Grammy nod as Best Country Album. “White Liar” not only became Miranda’s first #1 hit – it also scored Single, Song, and Video of the Year nods from the CMA and ACMs…eclipsed only by the nominations – and wins – racked up in those same categories by “The House That Built Me.” And Miranda suddenly went from having a secure spot among the genre’s annual Female Vocalist of the Year nominees to being its standard-bearer.
“Female Vocalist of the Year.” Even if Miranda could embrace and accept that her name had been added to a list that includes Loretta, Dolly, and Tammy – as well as Reba McEntire – she still finds it incomprehensible that her name was again called the following year…and every subsequent year since. “Seven-time ACM and six-time CMA Female Vocalist” – that is Miranda Lambert’s title. In world where we know all of these women as icons and true “Queens of Country,” Miranda – in the record books – reigns supreme in her own right, having earned the honor more times than any of those legends at the CMA Awards and matching McEntire’s long-standing tally in the Academy’s annals.
In 2010, Miranda got to pay homage to the time-honored woman she often draws comparisons to, joining Sheryl Crow and Loretta to sing “Coal Miner’s Daughter” on a tribute album honoring the iconic entertainer…even as she was completing work on her fourth album, the appropriately titled Four the Record (2011). Again, staying true to herself, Miranda went “on record,” giving fans exactly what they wanted while still challenging herself as a writer and artist. As she had on Revolution, Miranda embraced whatever sound was needed to express the music’s message and tone – unafraid, she continued to include searing guitar where it fit…allowed her longtime production team to maximize volume, even to a point where it bordered on distortion. An album cover showed her walking away from a burning car, its engine block ablaze…there were bullets and guns (“Fastest Girl in Town”), a threat of items going up flames (“Baggage Claim”), societal observations (“All Kinds of Kinds”) and the raw pain of loss (“Over You”). And again, there was a chart-topping debut…Album of the Year nominations and accolades…and award-winning, chart-topping hits (“Mama’s Broken Heart”).
Leaving her 20s behind, Miranda entered her 30s as the gold standard by which women in country music were being measured. At every turn, from every angle, as a performer, songwriter, vocalist, headlining entertainer. Several platinum-selling singles, every album she’d ever made certified as such by the RIAA, millions of fans lining up and filling stadiums, arenas, theaters and clubs to be entertained by high-energy performances that would end with her platinum tresses tossed and tumbled as she gave herself to the music and the moment. Was there any other title she could have given to her fifth album?
“I feel like when you hit 30, you sort of go, ‘Okay, let me slow down a little,’ because you fly through your 20s. I did, anyway. I worked really hard and had fun and worked some more – you know what I mean? When I hit 30, I just started to go, ‘Okay, what are my priorities and…and what do I want to say now?’”
Platinum (2014) was equal parts reminiscent and futuristic. Miranda expressed a longing for the past (“Automatic,” “Another Sunday in the South”), a grasp of her present (“Priscilla”) and yet looked ahead (“Gravity Is a B**ch”), doing it all with her now trademark combined sense of humor and self-affirmed attitude…wrapping her words and phrasing in melodies and musical stylings that ran the gamut from rock to a hint of ragtime. “Time spanning” and “genre-bending” are phrases that could’ve been applied – along with “award-winning,” as the project racked up Album of the Year honors at the CMA and ACM Awards and earned Miranda her second Grammy – but “trailblazing” may sum it up best.
Just over a decade into a career of commercial success and acclaim, one could easily say that Miranda Lambert sits at the top of her game…if one thought that this is as good as it gets or the best she has to offer.
“The funniest part about it is that I feel like I’m just getting started. I don’t feel that I’ve been doing this 12, 13, 14 years for a living. And I don’t feel like I’ve even scratched the surface of everything I want to say and do and be. It’s encouraging, because…if I worked this hard and got all of this done in the last 10 years – in the last decade – I can look forward to what’s coming! I’m still hungry for it, and I love it so much. There’s nothing else in life that I want to do. It’s the perfect time for me to start ‘living’ more than I ever have.”
With a track record that has shown us time and again she is always reaching, growing, seeking, striving, trying to follow her instincts and bring her innate creative energies to light, fueling the passion within her…is there anyone among us who feels she won’t take us – and herself – to new heights with each subsequent musical offering?
“My biggest goal is to just become a better songwriter. I’m in this headspace of letting life happen and letting the music come. And that’s a little scary. It’s like I’m standing on the edge of a cliff – What’s going to happen? But I’m ready to just take the leap and let whatever life has to offer find me – as a person, as an artist and as a songwriter.”
Much has been made of Miranda’s ties to “fire” ever since that two-minute-thirty-second show-stopping CMA Awards performance of “Kerosene” in 2005. Her music, her style, her candor all lend themselves to it. Licks of flame have crept into reviews and recaps of her music and her performances ever since. She’s “fiery”…a “spitfire”…a “firebrand”…“ignites” a crowd – we’ve heard them all, and she’s earned each one. The intensity may rise or fall, the light may brighten or soften…but that spark is always there. And clearly, it always has been. “I feel that way. But it doesn’t have to burn on 11 all the time, you know?”
But dare we say that fire – and the glow that’s generated by her career and success – now takes on a different form? As she embarks on a second decade of artistry, Miranda Lambert may also be country music’s best “keeper of the flame” while also being its brightest “trailblazer.”
Neither is a responsibility she seeks. “I don’t have set-in-stone goals. I did that all through my 20s. Markers, and I would work really hard to achieve ‘em. Now I feel like I can just take a deep breath and go with whatever is headed my way.”
But does it not seem that Miranda is the one worthy of such description? Consider this – that heat…those flames that have been so synonymous with Miranda’s name…could not have sustained – no matter how much fuel they’re provided – if there’s wasn’t always an ember of truth burning at her core.
“The hunger to learn and grow is the same as it always has been…if not more. I’m still the same exact person…I keep my feet on the ground like I always did.”
Think about it – honesty pervades everything she’s written, everything she sings, everything she does. It fuels her stories, her music, her performances. There is nothing contrived, nothing manufactured, nothing artificial about her. And, to quote another proven lyricist – no less than William Shakespeare, in fact – “Truth will come to light.” For Miranda Lambert, there is no doubt that has been – and always will be – the case.
Some of Miranda Lambert’s hit songs:
“The House That Built Me”
“Gunpowder and Lead”
“Famous in a Small Town”
- “Baggage Claim”
- “Little Red Wagon”
- “White Liar”
- “More Like Her”