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‘I Can Sound Like Whatever I Want and Look Like Whatever I Want’: How Miranda Lambert Made Her Own Kind of Country

One of this century’s best artists goes deep on her road-tripping new album, her LGBTQIA+ anthem, why she’s proud to have been a “shit show from day one” and much, much more

Robert Ascroft*

Miranda Lambert is not used to sitting still, so a few months into pandemic quarantine she and her husband, former NYPD officer Brendan McLoughlin, bought a shiny silver Airstream and headed up the East Coast from Nashville. They made “campfire casserole,” a specialty of Lambert’s dad, drank wine on the pop-up table, and named the gleaming beast “The Sheriff.”   

“My stepson lives in New York, so we were trying to figure out creative ways to get to him,” Lambert says, sitting in a conference room down the hall from where her band is loudly warming up for rehearsal. While the country superstar usually gravitates toward vintage campers, McLoughlin had urged his wife to swap for a new model — Lambert was hesitant until she realized the modern versions come with air-conditioning. “It was a blast. We mostly stayed at KOAs,” she says, referring to the nationwide campground system. “It was such a removal from being ‘Miranda Lambert,’ not to sound douchey.” 

Turns out, she needed the break: Miranda Lambert has been Miranda Lambert for nearly two decades, after appearing on Nashville Star and releasing her label debut, Kerosene, in 2005, which established her as an artist deeply unafraid to follow her own rules, co-write almost all her own songs, and (lyrically) burn down the occasional house or two. Since then, she’s been one of the most consistent and prolific record makers of any genre, as a solo artist (her eighth album, Palomino, is coming April 29) and as a member of the Pistol Annies, with Angaleena Presley and Ashley Monroe. In the past two years alone, she’s made a polished pop-rock duet with Elle King (“Drunk (And I Don’t Wanna Go Home),” now platinum) and the exquisitely raw Marfa Tapes, cut with buddies and fellow Texans Jon Randall and Jack Ingram. She’s a fashion entrepreneur, an ally to the LGBTQIA+ community, and a fierce advocate for shelter animals with her MuttNation foundation.

At 38, the child of Lindale, Texas, will spend some time soon evaluating her own legacy: with a Vegas residency called “Velvet Rodeo,” at the Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino’s Zappos Theater beginning September 23rd, for a run of 24 shows. In true Lambert style, it’s the direct opposite of Palomino, which is dedicated to the road and the people who inhabit it. Produced by Lambert with Randall and Luke Dick, it’s a country-rock journey from the imagination and the heart, complete with an appearance from the B-52’s and a Mick Jagger cover. 

Lambert, wearing jeans, a Rolling Stones sweatshirt, and a pair of comfy sneakers, is eager — if not a little nervous — to start running through her set before she heads back on the road again. Though she wouldn’t mind, post-quarantine, if things were a little easier on the body. “I saw some meme the other day that said, ‘Normalize partying your ass off from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.,’ ” she says laughing. “And I was totally into that.”

I remember a post you shared on Instagram during that Airstream road trip, about how you ate dinner at a nearby fancy restaurant, then slept in your camper. Seems very Miranda.
We were on a lake in Georgia, and there’s an amazing KOA there. We stopped and I said, “I don’t want to cook tonight, let’s find something to eat.” I found a nice steakhouse [nearby], and it was at the Ritz. So we drop our trailer, drive to the Ritz, and start talking to some people who asked, “Y’all staying here?” And we said, “No, we’re at the campground!” They were like, “You camp in your trailer and eat at the Ritz?” But that’s kind of who we are in a nutshell.

Camping and the Ritz; “Drunk” and Marfa Tapes; country and rock: The saying “Get yourself a girl who can do both” seems to be built for you.
I love that, because it’s how I feel. I’ve been lucky enough to have a long career where I can have a little freedom creatively, but it’s still scary. I want people to accept both and not be like, “Well, that’s not country! That’s not commercial!” These are just songs I love, and it doesn’t matter where they fit. I hope that’s opened some doors for women, especially, to go, “I can put out whatever I want and sound like whatever I want and look like whatever I want. And if I change my mind, that’s just what I do.”

You’ve followed that path since Kerosene. How do you feel reflecting on that album now?
I’ve never really strayed too far from Kerosene, but I have calmed down a bit. I remember saying to people when I was first playing those honky-tonks in Texas that it was never because I wanted to be famous. I’m a shy kid, an introvert. My goal was longevity. I wanted to be someone who says something important and does it through music, and can stay a long time. I wanted an Emmylou [Harris] career. That’s what I wanted, even though some of the roads were long, because I didn’t pick the right commercial sound or the right outfit or whatever it was at the time that was hot. I didn’t have my first Number One until my third record, and that was OK with me. It was about establishing something.

Why do you think you had such resolve so young?
My heroes did it. The people I was drawn to were the songwriters, the Guy Clarks, the John Prines, the Dollys, the Lorettas. What I grabbed on to was that there’s depth, there’s truth, there’s real, and there’s ugly. I came out at a time where there were 12 blondes on my label at once. I was like, “OK, here we go — bitch better stand out somehow.” I just stayed the course. It was sometimes painful, but it was important to me. Marfa Tapes getting nominated for a Grammy blew my mind. It makes me want to cry, because it’s just real moments shared around the campfire.

Lambert with ‘Marfa Tapes’ contributors and fellow Texans Jon Randall (left) and Jack Ingram. (Photo: Spencer Peeples*)

That album was such a salve for a time when we were missing the rawness of live music, with, I don’t want to say imperfections, but—
They were! It was terrifying to put it out. There’s no fixes, there’s flats, there’s cussing, and there’s mess-ups. But again, I didn’t start out with that perfect Barbie image, so I wouldn’t have anything to live up to. I was just like, “I’m going to be a shit show from Day One, and that’ll be easier.”

Heading into a Vegas residency, you must be thinking a lot about your own legacy.
It’s forcing me to. I’m nervous in a good way. But what does that look like? Is this a time where I go through the journey, from [Kerosene] to here? Do we focus on certain songs or moments in a career? Because a lot of these aren’t just songs. They’re huge moments for me, like when I set fire to the stage at Madison Square Garden, my first TV performance after Nashville Star. That was a doozy.

You’ve usually been low-fi at shows. In Vegas, you can ride in from a trapeze if you want.
Make it rain! I’ve always been very low production, never changed my wardrobe onstage unless I ripped something. I’m very much like, “This is a rock & roll show.” But with Vegas, we have to take it up a notch. A wardrobe change? I’m going to have to get used to that. Can we get some Velcro so it’s real easy?

Vegas will be about staying still for a bit, but Palomino travels the whole country: You hit so many states, meet so many characters. Did it become immediately clear that you were going to take us into all these different worlds?You started with “Tourist,” right?
Luke [Dick] was playing my guitar that’s signed by Merle Haggard. That’s what made him come up with the stranger line, “There’s always been a stranger in my soul.” Then we wrote scenes the same weekend, and I was like, “Are we on to something?” Concept records seem so daunting, and sometimes even annoying. But this was more of “Maybe we just go places in this record because we can’t physically.” I’ve never gotten to do an album like this where I consciously go, “Who are we meeting next? Where are we going?” I loved picturing the map in my head.

It’s a nice way of showing, too, that country music belongs anywhere across the country. You’re the perfect ambassador for that.
People ask me all the time, “Where’s the most rednecks you’ve ever seen?” Which to me is an endearing term: I’m a red-dirt girl in all aspects of the word. But the most cowboy hats I’ve ever seen at a show was in California, and I’m from Texas. People who love the kind of stuff we love are all over the place. You just have to find each other. 

You come out of the gate on Palomino with “Actin’ Up,” which is about a woman who is a little bit naughty — but fully in control. That’s a theme of yours, and you’re not afraid to sing about women who enjoy men, pleasure, sex, revenge.
She is a little bit naughty. I struggle because I have to sing “Kerosene,” “Mama’s Broken Heart,” and “Little Red Wagon” forever, and what’s that going to look like at 70? Those are songs that set up that whole side of my career. My grandma was a firecracker until her last breath, drinking Crown and Coke. If she can do it, I’ve just got to figure out a way to do it artistically. “Actin’ Up” and “Geraldene” are both songs where there’s fire, but I’m not burning down the house.

The album is about characters, but there’s a lot of you here, too: “I got my own kind of country, kind of funky,” from “Actin’ Up,” sums you up.
That’s it, that says it all. These songs are fun to write, even the sad ones. I was playing my mom and dad some songs, and my dad was like, “You seem jubilant about music right now.” I’m glad he could see that on my face because there’s been times where, about every August, I’d call my parents and say I’m quitting because I’m exhausted.

And what’s more jubilant than having the B-52’s sing on “Music City Queen”?
Exactly! I called my manager and said, “Could you, like, find out who manages the B-52’s? I want them to sing on this.” They said yes, they loved this song. But they did it on Zoom, with Luke and Jon. I had no idea if they knew who I was, or cared. It makes me joyful every time I hear it. Fred [Schneider] does that whole “She’s a showboat, baby!” Pure joy.

And you cut one song that you didn’t write, which is Mick Jagger’s “Wandering Spirit.” Thematically, it’s perfect.
Luke mentioned that song, because he knew I loved it. But, first of all, you can’t cover Jagger unless you really have your own spin. I fought [Luke] so hard on it. But then we did it, and I hate to say it, but the boys were right. I just love that train groove, and the McCrary Sisters, who also sang on Wildcard’s “Holy Water.” Singing with them just feels so huge.

Has Mick heard it yet?
I don’t know! I want him to hear it. When I cut “Easy From Now On” [first recorded by Emmylou Harris], I was so nervous. Same for when I did a John Prine song; I took it apart and did it my own way. Getting word that people hear your version and love it, that’s all you ever want. If you’re going to be ballsy enough to cover something, you better do it right.

The closer, “Carousel,” makes you think of the pandemic, when the music stopped temporarily, but also when the show’s over for good.
I read something about Robert Earl Keen the other day, and he was like, “I’m just going to stop.” And how do you make that decision? How do you even know? How do you leave the faces and fans and relationships and guitars? Everything ends at some point and things are usually sad, but in this song it’s a way to appreciate the other life you are gaining. The message of it is just so vast. We all cried. When you cry writing a song, you know you needed it.

You might be unsure how to sing songs like “Kerosene” when you are old, but this one feels like it could be sung forever.
I bet you it’s the last song I’ll ever sing when it is time. 

Hopefully, in the wake of Covid, we’ve had some time to think about the overall well-being of artists, so they can grow old healthfully.
I hope so. I’ve gone onstage through some hard times physically or mentally or emotionally. I cried a lot onstage in 2015. This lady came up to me last year at a meet-and-greet and said, “I’m so glad to see you happy, because I saw you when you were sad.” I said I was sorry I was sad, and she said, “It’s OK, we forgave you. We were sad with you.” But I think it’s going to make us a little more empathetic.

Your new song for the Texas season of Queer Eye, “Y’all Means All,” is all about empathy. You spoke recently about wanting to do more for the queer community, which is personal, too: Your brother, Luke, is gay.
I feel like I didn’t realize I wasn’t helping by not saying more. I want to be a part of a wave of change, and I’m learning every single day. “All Kinds of Kinds” (from 2011) was my first statement about being who you are and being accepted, and I never would shy away from it. I just wasn’t being loud enough, I guess. I don’t usually wave flags. I just say what I want to say in my music subtly and live my life. . . .

I have always been firm on never letting politics into my professional life. There’s enough shit noise all the time that I want to be someone’s reprieve. But I do think if you have a platform like we do as musicians we should stand up for things we believe in. I am super-excited that I can be supportive of the LGBTQ community, and I hope I can be a voice that helps people to be accepting and open-minded about all kinds of things.

There’s a line: “If you’re torn between the Y’s and X’s, you ain’t gotta play with the hand you’re dealt.” That feels very trans-accepting.
That is it! It is. That’s the whole song. It’s a way to do this in not a heavy way without any arguments online or listening to any hate. We just go, “This is fun, it feels good, and it tells the truth.” That’s all we can do as songwriters. I think we are becoming a lot more open as a genre, and I’m very happy to see it.

Have you felt that you’re a little more vulnerable getting back to live shows?
With the Billy Bob’s shows [in April 2021], I cried pretty much every night. I think it’s OK to let tears fall while you’re breathing out. I’ve noticed the crowds are a little more forgiving. I was playing the Minnesota Fair this last fall, and I fell onstage three times because it was pouring rain and very slippery. Everyone’s like, “Yeah, it’s fine.”

Did you notice fewer phones out?
My favorite thing would be if phones were taken at the door at every show. You don’t want to forget, but the quickest way to forget is to look at it through the phone. Every time there’s artists who are like, “phones at the door,” I’m like, “If you can get away with it, do it.”

Did you live in your phone a lot during quarantine, or were you able to put it aside a bit?
I did both. I panicked about the news a lot, but I was so thankful to have a beautiful place to be with my animals. I started painting, writing, cooking. I did a lot of freaking laundry, man. I don’t know why, it was just something to do. Looking at my phone just made me panic worse at the news. Nobody really knew any facts for a long time, and your friends are panicking, too. I’m like, “Let’s just not look at that. Let’s create something instead.”

It’s a little weird for me to say this about your husband, but I think it’s so funny how you post shirtless photos of Brendan where you . . .
Exploit him?

Well, yes.
I told him, “God gave you that amazing body. You’re beautiful. Please share with the world. Don’t be rude.” He loves it, by the way. He’s on board and thinks it’s funny. He also works really hard at it! I’m like, “I work hard on my music, and I want people to hear it. You work hard on those abs. People need to see that, bud. I’m sorry.” I tend to take myself way too seriously sometimes. But he’s just a fun-loving, fun-hearted guy that is down for anything.

Lambert and husband Brendan McLoughlin at the CMA awards in November in Nashville. (Photo: Jason Kempin/Getty Images)

He’s exposed you to a whole New York City life, too, which seems to suit you very well — part time, of course.
I got an apartment in SoHo and did New York life. I loved it. I thought it was good for my creative process, and it was good for me to just branch out. New York is such a magical place. Mind you, after about five days of the horns and stuff, I’m like, “OK, farm time, I need to go shovel some horseshit so I can find myself again.” But I love both.

What did you watch or read in quarantine?
I read a lot during quarantine. One of my favorites was Where the Crawdads Sing. I also listened and still listen to a lot of podcasts. I loved S-Town and one called Borderlands, about Marfa, Texas. And, of course, we listen to a ton of music.

Who are you most excited by now in music, in country or beyond?
Lainey Wilson is great. She’s a new female artist on the country scene, and I think she is so badass. I’m a big fan of Miley Cyrus. Her Plastic Hearts album is great and gets me pumped up. I’ve been diving into French music lately as well. It’s soothing, and I kind of love making up my own story that I think some of the songs are about because I don’t speak French.

I read once you dream of doing a duet with Beyoncé. 
I’ve always been a fan and I just love that she empowers women in her music and in her life. I’ve been to see her, and Destiny’s Child, in concert several times and I am always amazed at the level of talent and dedication to her craft. She’s the Queen B. We all know that.

In “Bathroom Sink,” you sing, “I’m lookin’ forward to the girl I wanna be.” How far along on that journey have you come, to meeting that girl?
Well, dang, you went way back in the catalog, and a deep cut at that. I feel so blessed to be where I am today. I have learned so much about myself and about who I am as a person, and as an artist. But I think as I’ve gotten well into my thirties, I’ve really started to learn more about me the woman, not just the singer-songwriter. Bottom line, I guess, is that I’m still learning every day. I try to look at challenges as lessons now instead of just being upset because life gets hard at times. Life does life, and you just go with it on the roller coaster.

From Rolling Stone US