Miranda Lambert says she’s always wanted to be different. And different is, indeed, an apt description of this country newcomer.
Well, for starters, there’s her unique vocal style — a mix of tangy, Texas twang and honey-dipped, country soul, often delivered with the graceful swoop and glide of a barn swallow’s aerobatics. Then, there’s her songwriting, which shuns the formulaic tendencies typical of veteran, music row tunesmiths. Unlike most Nashville writers, she writes most of her songs by herself. At 21, she’s several years younger than the average country artist. Even the production of Kerosene, her debut album for Epic Records, has a decidedly left-of-center appeal.
Oh, and then there’s the fact that her debut album entered the country charts at #1. That singular feat is so out of the ordinary that it’s only been done by five other new acts since 1992.
That Kerosene‘s out-of-the-box success was fueled by Lambert’s high profile, runner-up finish on the 2003 edition of Nashville Star is evident; Buddy Jewell, the show’s winner, also landed on the #1 spot the week his debut CD was released. By building a huge fan base through TV exposure before she even had a record deal, Lambert didn’t have to rely on the traditional star-making machinery of label promotion to get her act in gear. So, even the route she took to the top of the charts was different.
It seems different has worked well for Lambert. And though conservative, country labels are prone to play it safe with the acts they sign, rarely venturing far off well-mapped roads to success, Lambert has no plans to change directions.
‘There’s definitely a line that’s mainstream,’ she says. ‘You can get off the beaten path and I have a tendency to do that. But I don’t think it’s necessarily dangerous.’
Still, just months into her professional recording career, the new perspective Lambert has already gained into the music business finds her occasionally struggling to resist a tug to conform to industry standards.
‘I’m battling it right now with my writing,’ she says. ‘When I was 17 and writing, I didn’t know anything about the music business. I didn’t know anything about hooks and three-minute songs on the radio. I didn’t understand any of that. Now, when I start writing, I sit down and think, ‘Does this sound like a single?”
The real danger for artists, Lambert believes, lies not in straying from the norm, but rather, in not being true to their own artistic vision.
‘I want to please radio,’ she says. ‘I want to have songs on the radio and I want to have #1 hits. Doesn’t everybody? But I want to do it and still stay true to Miranda Lambert. I can’t worry about [being different] because that’s where you get into the danger zone as far as selling out. I put it out of my mind. I think I wrote my best songs when I didn’t have a clue, because I actually wrote from my heart and I meant the words I was saying.’
Indeed, many of the songs on Lambert’s critically well-received CD were written when she was a teen soaking up the musical atmosphere at her Lindale, Texas home. Her father, Rick Lambert, a private detective by trade and a singer/songwriter by hobby, often held pickin’ parties with other local musicians on the family’s front porch. It was her father who bought Lambert her first guitar when she was 13 and encouraged her to learn to play.
‘I wasn’t interested,’ she says. ‘I was busy being a kid. My dad wanted me to play so, of course, I didn’t want to play because I was being a rebellious 13-year-old.’
As she grew a little older, however, Lambert’s interest in music also grew until, at 16, she entered and won a TruValue Country Showdown competition. Basking in that spotlight, something clicked.
‘That’s when I thought, ‘Hey, this singing thing is pretty cool and I’m kind of good at it. Maybe I should look into it,” she recalls. ‘I went to my dad and said, ‘Hey dad, how ’bout that guitar? Can you teach me a few chords?’ He was so happy because he’d always been trying to get me to play.’
The day her father taught her to play three chords Lambert wrote her first song. These days, the father and daughter occasionally write together. In fact, Lambert’s first single, ‘Me and Charlie Talkin’,’ is a song she co-wrote with her father and Heather Little, a singer/songwriter they met at a songwriting competition.
Co-writing, however, is something Lambert isn’t completely comfortable doing. Half of the songs on her CD she wrote by herself and most of the others she composed with her father or close friends. Writing with other professional writers with whom she’s not well acquainted, a common practice for collaborators on music row, isn’t appealing to Lambert.
‘It’s hard for me,’ she says. ‘I’m really kind of a closed person. I don’t open up to just anybody. Having an appointment to write with someone I’ve never met and then telling them everything is a little scary for me. Writing by yourself is almost unheard of now. Nobody does it anymore but I still can, so I’m going to try to hold on to that.’
Lately, just finding time to write at all has become increasingly difficult for Lambert as she deals with the demands of touring to promote her CD.
‘I’m trying to make time to write,’ she says. ‘People say, ‘Oh, you can write on the bus, but the last thing you want to do after you’ve done a sound check all day and signed autographs is pick up your guitar. You’re exhausted and it starts to feel like work after you’ve been doing it for six days straight. I have to find time on my own for writing. I never say, ‘I have to write today because then it never turns out good. I have to do it when I feel like it.’
However, even with the rigors of the road to contend with, it’s unlikely Lambert won’t find plenty of time to devote to songwriting, which she’s considered her ‘passion’ since she was 16.
‘I’m obsessed,’ she says.
Hit songwriter Jeff Crossan is a recipient of the BMI Million Air Award for one million broadcast performances of a single song. Crossan, who is based in Nashville, is also a freelance journalist and cartoonist. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org