Features

How Miranda Lambert Became One of Country’s Most Important Voices

Ethan Miller/Getty Images

When she was just a teenager, Miranda Lambert made a trip to Nashville. She entered a radio contest and lost, but felt encouraged enough to record a demo in Music City. The results, she told the Washington Post, were “awful” and “cheesy.”

“I cried in the studio,” Lambert said. “My dad spent $6,000 to do those demos, and we didn’t have $6,000 at all. It was terrible. But he says it was a cheap lesson because I learned in three hours what I wanted to do.”

That’s because she knew, from that moment, not to let somebody else choose her sound for her. She went and bought a guitar and began writing songs. In her own words, music became the first thing she felt naturally good at. She sucked in school. She sucked in sports. But she felt drawn to songwriting.

Since then, she’s become one of the most critical voices in modern country music.

Getting There the Hard Way

Miranda Lambert found her voice the hard way. As her dad Rick noted, she paid $6,000 to find out what she didn’t want to be. It’s an important step, but finding out what you’re not doesn’t leave you with what you are. So, she took lessons from guitar teacher John DeFoore (who also later taught Kacey Musgraves).

She wrote and she toured. The pressure of late nights didn’t jive with her school schedule, so she graduated early — through a program mostly meant for addicts and pregnant girls, she says.

She released an independent record and eventually found her way back to Nashville under the guise of contestant. That’s because a new show called Nashville Star held auditions in Houston, and she knocked it out of the park.

Ultimately, the show provided her a much bigger stage, and one she relished. But she finished third, behind two folks who did not live up to the namesake of the show. Executive producer H.T. Owens acknowledged the show gave her a boost, but she wowed the world all on her own.

“I think she would have made it anyway,” Owens said. “I’ll put it this way: Being on Nashville Star wouldn’t have been that helpful if she wasn’t so great.”

Lambert ultimately earned the ear of Epic Records executives and landed a deal with the label. But more importantly, she earned the ear of producer Frank Liddell.

A Match Made in Heaven

Lambert actually heard Liddell’s work before she even made it to Nashville Star. She loved his production on Jack Ingram’s Electric in 2002, so when it came time to make her introduction to the greater country world, she chose Liddell as one half of a crucial production team (along with Mike Wrucke).

Liddell and Lambert have worked in tandem ever since.

One thing Liddell really encouraged in Lambert was the thing she encouraged in herself: write more. And boy, did she write. Though she only counted 20 years under her belt, Lambert tapped into a wealth of experiences and wrote or co-wrote all but one song on her debut album, 2005’s Kerosene.

That record began the grinding of the gears for Lambert. That gritty, “pretty girl on fire” attitude that seemed far angstier than country was used to at the time. Much less from a pint sized powerhouse whose voice was as much about character as technique. Liddell encouraged that in her from the get-go. And one of the first things she did was reward her father, a lifelong musician himself, with her first single, “Me And Charlie Talking,” which Rick Lambert co-wrote with his daughter and Heather Little.

The song presented a youthful and optimistic look at love, life and promises. It was a striking difference from album opener (and only No. 1 single from the record) “Kerosene,” which she wrote with the great Steve Earle. And of course, the future stories she put to pen and paper after talking with her parents.

You see, Rick was a police officer who eventually joined with her mom Beverly as private investigators. You can only imagine how songs like “Gunpowder & Lead” stemmed from tales of domestic abuse. Liddell never shied away from telling those stories in the most badass, guitar-driven, raunchy, greasy way possible.

Heartache Hits

By the time Lambert released her third record Revolution, tunes like “Only Prettier” solidified her as the resident fire starter. She embodied everything about the cool girl who may not be popular but doesn’t need to be. And she was becoming very, very popular.

In fact, “The House That Built Me” won her the Grammy for the Best Female Vocal Country Performance (among a gaggle of other recognitions). 2011’s Four The Record doubled down on everything Lambert established about her image, from mega-hit “Mama’s Broken Heart” (which completely shattered the conventions of what a modern country hit sounds like) to “Over You,” a tune penned with her star-crossed love at the time, Blake Shelton.

Faith Hill said of her husband Tim McGraw that perhaps nobody is better at picking song for his own career. Miranda Lambert proved to have a similar ear. As her worldwide touring demands grew, her albums featured more and more outside cuts — but never more than songs she had a hand in writing.

A Page out of Her Diary

By 2014, Miranda Lambert was the unquestioned queen of country. More than Carrie or any other female artist. In fact, that voice that was so strongly hers won the CMA Award for Female Vocalist of the Year for six years straight, an unprecedented streak.

Platinum was a critical and commercial smash. Tunes like “Little Red Wagon” once again showed her deftness for picking outside songs that represented her voice, while “Bathroom Sink” reaffirmed her downright incredible ability to put pen to paper all by herself and return something completely soul-stirring.

Then the bottom fell out in her personal life. The Blake Shelton divorce was inescapable. The speculation on new music carried the undertones of “dirty laundry.” We all waited with baited breath to see what musical masterpieces would rise from the ashes.

For Shelton, it was a mostly forgettable album of more of the same. He had a clever little ditty involving words and heartbreak. But Lambert took her time. Her first new song since, “Vice,” is probably her best yet. Not recently, ever.

And then she announced her new album, The Weight Of These Wings, would be a double album split into two sections, “The Nerve” and “The Heart.” And you better believe she got back to her writing roots, taking some lyrics straight out of the diary. And, in a nod to the man who inspired her relationship with Liddell, Lambert teamed up with Jack Ingram for a tune.

The Weight Of These Wings comes out Nov. 18, and it’s ok for you to go ahead and pencil it in as an album of the year contender just about anywhere you please. She commands that kind of credibility.

Even more amazing, she’s only 33 years old. In just a little over a decade, Lambert rose to the top of the commercial country world using her own voice. And, more importantly, her own words. She never shied away from outside cuts. And she never shied away from laying her soul on the line for the world to see.

Miranda Lambert is living proof that artistry in commercial country is alive and well. Here’s to many more!

5 Country Dance Moves You Should Master:

recommended for you

How Miranda Lambert Became One of Country’s Most Important Voices