You remember the old quote about how “Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did… backwards and in high heels”? Miranda Lambert has a variation on that. Talking about her first time prevailing at the Academy of Country Music Awards this year in the entertainer of the year category, and what a long-overdue triumph it has been for Carrie Underwood and then her to score in that eternally male-dominated division, the singer says that the two of them “we know what we put into it. We do all the same stuff (as the male superstars), doing this career for so long. But we also do it in Spanx, which sucks.”
She’s chuckling as she says that, of course, and she can afford to laugh right now. After a period of years in which she seemed to be experiencing the same trouble getting to the top of the country airplay charts that pretty much all women were, she’s had two No. 1 hits in the last two years, “Bluebird” and “Drunk (But I Don’t Wanna Go Home)” — the latter shared with Elle King and the first chart-topping country duet between two women in several decades. An acoustic trio record last year, “The Marfa Tapes,” with Jon Randall and Jack Ingram, established that besides being a mainstream powerhouse, she has alt-country bona fides about as strong as anybody’s. She’s got a Las Vegas residency lined up starting in September at the Zappos Theatre. There’s that hard-fought ACMs achievement to finally put on a mantle alongside her countless female vocalist of the year trophies from every country awards show. And she’s got a new album out today, “Palomino,” that critics are saying fits right in the company of such classics as “Revolution” and “Platinum.” (Read Variety’s rave review here.)
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In short, she’s arguably the best ambassador country has to the world right now, in a seemingly can-do-no-wrong/doing-it-all phase of her career that has her literally recording alongside a campfire one year and preparing to unapologetically glitz it up in Vegas the next.
Before she heads to Sin City, Lambert is doing a spring/summer tour with Little Big Town. Variety caught up with her on the phone this wek as she was on a tour bus from Nashville to the first gig in Alabama. A good conversation was had even though connection kept dropping because, as Lambert said, “The people that like country music live where there’s not a lot of service sometimes. I know I do.”
The concept for your “Palomino” album seems to be visiting as many places as possible in America — or at least name-checking them. Going over the lyric sheet, I actually did a count of how many place names come up in the songs, and it’s 27, over the course of a 15-track album. That’s pretty impressive, as a travelogue.
We pretty much run the gamut on the U.S. map… if you don’t count the “Wandering Spirit” cover. [The one outside song is a cover of Mick Jagger’s early-’90s solo track “Wandering Spirit,” which takes things briefly international, with the line “I made love from Battambang to Baltimore,” the former being a city in Cambodia.)
It’s kind of a concept record in that regard. You’ve done an effective job of having each album have its own personality. No one would confuse this album with your last solo record, “Wildcard,” which was a big pendulum swing away from the one before that, “The Weight of These Wings.”
I definitely am still one of those hopeless romantics about making records. I know we’re in a time where it’s not as it was before, and with all the ways people listen to music these days, it’s not necessarily about an album or the order you put it in. But I still love that part. This is the first record I’ve written I feel like that did have sort of an intention — I won’t say “concept.” It’s got definitely this travel theme to it, and this whole road-trippy vibe. I’ve had nuggets of that throughout my career, even on “Weight of These Wings” with “Highway Vagabond,” and in “All Kinds of Kinds,” with the characters. I feel like this record just took all that sentiment up a notch. With these characters we got to make up, and the places we got to go, it was a very different writing style. I’ve never met so many people in a record before.
How much of this was living out a little bit of a wanderlust fantasy? I’d assume you’re probably not somebody who can just say to your husband, “Let’s get in the car and drive to Arizona.”
I actually am. I have five vintage Airstreams, and I’ve got a Shasta — I’m a vintage trailer collector. And part of the reason I think that I’m drawn to them is because they are freedom to me. I mean, I live on a tour bus, so I definitely already have that gypsy lifestyle — I don’t get a choice. But I think it’s always been my obsession, because I love the idea of freedom, but also your creature comforts. And what better to do that than with freaking having your house on a hitch?
And for Luke (Dick, the album’s co-writer/co-producer) as well, he definitely has that wanderlust spirit in him. And so at a time when we could not live that out very much (during lockdown), we really went there in song. That was a blessing because I think we may not have gone so far down the road that we did with “Palomino” with this travel vibe if we had been able to do life regularly. I’ve never been able to miss travel before, because I’ve never stopped traveling. So we romanticized it a little bit more in this record, because we missed it and weren’t sure when we could again.
The imagined travel takes you a little bit more west than it does south. You’ve got Joshua trees on the cover, for starters.
Well, there was only one place to shoot this album cover. I was like, we have shoot this in the California desert, period. This record just sounds like that. To me it has a little bit of that California country, early ‘70s vibe to it, which we all love — the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers are inspiration to all of us. I think we brought some of that in, and then we brought some ZZ Top, and some Rosanne Cash or Linda Ronstadt vibes.
Your pendulum can swing fairly fast as you have these big distinctions between albums. “The Weight of These Wings” was perceived as a very introspective and autobiographical album. You followed that with “Wildcard,” which was almost the opposite in some ways, seeming designed a more consciously fun album, and a more commercial turn and tour de force in terms of just really going for the songs that grab people, with Jay Joyce producing. Then you collaborated with Jack Ingram and Jon Randall as a trio on “The Marfa Tapes,” which was as basic and quiet an album as anyone’s ever made. Now, this album feels very upbeat and positive and rocking, similar to “Wildcard” in that way, but with a more loose, vibey feel. Working with Luke and Jon as your producers makes it feel very different.
Yeah. “Wildcard” was the first album that I had not used Frank Liddell. That was a huge change for me, as a person and as an artist. Frank and I had long, long talks about it over late nights with lots of wine, and even met with Jay a few times together. It was a beautiful transition because Frank and I are family, and we always will be. But it was such a long marriage, you know? Making six records and three Pistol Annies records together, it was very hard to adjust to the thought of something different, but both of us kind of knew that I needed to right then, for a lot of reasons. Also, coming out of “Weight of These Wings,” I was ready to kick some ass, have some fun and lighten up a little. It was an introspective record, because it was an introspective time of my life. There was a lot going on personally [with her divorce from Blake Shelton] and as a songwriter, what I’d promised to do was always tell my truth, and that was my truth right then. I really, really grew as a songwriter through the process of “The Weight of These Wings.” But I also was back on the road after that, and was like: What am I missing? I always put that in my head too, when I’m going to write for a record. What am I tired of? What can I replace? And our job… Yeah, it’s cool to do a few sad songs, but mostly people just want to raise a beer and give up their troubles. That’s what I want to do when I go to a concert. I’m totally cool to cry with you on the sad songs, but mostly you’re there to party, especially in country music. So with “Wildcard,” I was just ready to do that — and who is better at that than Jay Joyce? Nobody, to really give you rock ‘n’ roll songs you could do live. I mean, I’ve been opening the show with “White Trash” since “Wildcard” came out, because it’s one of those.
Then with “Palomino”… I put out “The Marfa Tapes” last year. I had been writing with Jack and Jon out there in Marfa for seven years, and then writing for this with Luke and Natalie (Hemby), the first song out of that was “Tourist,” and it all kind of came together naturally. The three “Marfa” songs that we put on “Palomino” (in newly recorded, electric, studio versions) felt like they fit right in on the map, because they were a girl chasing a cowboy through Texas, or driving back to a lost love in Waxahatchee, and this truck stop hussy that’s trying to steal her man. So it was definitely a conscious decision to go this direction with this record. It was such a fun, low-key process. But the product we got out of it is so bad-ass that it feels like: “Should that have been harder? Because this is really good.”
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Let’s talk about a couple of key one-off songs that preceded the new album, starting with “Drunk (But I Don’t Wanna Go Home).” It wouldn’t have really fit on “Palomino,” but was there any temptation to put it on just because it was a recent No. 1 hit? A record company would usually want that, whether it fits or not.
Well, it’s an Elle King song. She wrote it and asked me to sing on it back in the beginning of 2019. We got together in New York and got drunk on saki and sang the song in the studio. And you know how long it takes to get a song out, and then 2020 happened, so it just kind of sat around for awhile. It’s been three years since she and I recorded it, way before I was getting ready for “Palomino.” But obviously I would love to have “Drunk” a hundred more times. I mean, it’s very rare you get two females on a duet and it goes No. 1 at country radio. Like, that just happened! We made history! It’s been 30 years since it’s happened. [The last had been Reba McEntire and Linda Davis’ “Does He Love You” in 1993.] So it’s awesome to be part of it.
And then coming up with “Y’All Means All” for “Queer Eye.” That’s kind of in the spirit of inclusivity you had years ago in “All Kinds of Kinds,” but more explicitly, as a message song as opposed to a character or story song. You’ve said you don’t like to wave flags. Was was there anything that sort of pushed you over that obstacle where you thought, “I don’t really do message songs that much, but this one is worth it”?
Yeah. I mean, I guess I wave the flag with my music — that’s what I meant. I try not to just preach at people or put my opinions on people too much, but if it’s an opinion that is helpful and does good, then I should, more, and I’ve realized that. My brother and his husband and their friend group have really taught me a lot. I’s learning and being more open, and I realized that I have a platform that can help people if I just speak my truth. And I didn’t mean to not be doing it before; I just am more vocal about it now, I guess, now that I realize I should be, if that makes any sense. But I got asked to do the “Queer Eye” song and I was like, yes! So I group-texted Luke Dick and Shane McAnally and was like, “Hey, I asked to write for this song,” and they were instantly on board. I just feel like it’s important for me to do the the things that feel right, feel organic for me, like writing for this song. Also, I binge-watched “Queer Eye” for like a whole weekend at my farm by myself and cried my eyes out. It’s the greatest show; it’s so feel good and uplifting. And being a country artist, I think it’s important that I am part of this community of change and bringing forth some issues that needed to come to light. And if I can do that through song, then that’s my favorite way to do it.
Did you worry about or experience any pushback at all on it from a part of the audience that might not be down with a gay-ally anthem?
No. My favorite thing is when we put it out, literally every comment was a rainbow, and that made me so happy. I just felt like it’s all positivity, having to do with “Queer Eye” and those guys and how much joy they bring. I felt like it was such a good match. My brother actually came up with the title, so I have to give Luke Lambert all the credit, because I told him I was going to write for this project and said, “What are all the cool kids saying these days?” And so he said, “Well, ‘y’all means y’all’ is a hashtag right now.” Because he’s my younger brother, so he knows what’s cool and I don’t, and he’s gay, so he obviously knows everything fabulous. Technically, we should give Luke Lambert all the credit for giving us the title and the idea.
Winning entertainer of the year at the ACMs, at last, and then not being there to accept in person, because you had a gig at the C2C Festival in London — obviously you would have liked to have been there.
Obviously! And to get handed an envelope by Dolly (Parton). I was like, are you kidding me? I have not missed an ACMs in 17 consecutive years, until this year. And I was like, Oh my God — the one time I wasn’t there. Because they moved the date. We always know it’s the second weekend of April, usually, so we kind of block that out. And then C2C came up, and they moved the date for the ACMs, and I was like, “Well, I’m already committed. We sold tickets; I’m going across the pond.” Man… I mean, yeah, it was really weird not to be there.
People were talking about what it means at this point in your career, and of course the lack of women who ever win that prize at either the CMAs or the ACMs, on top of the issue of, what does entertainer of the year mean in a year where maybe people are redefining what entertainer means, in the middle of a pandemic? But it just seems like it sort of represented the culmination of a good period for you, and people were applauding for all kinds of reasons, maybe more than they would for a typical entertainer of the year win. And you must have felt that from across the pond.
I did. You know, I’ve always thought of entertainer as a bigger thing than ticket sales. I mean, I’ve been in this industry for almost two decades. and everybody that gets in the category deserves to win it. So nobody’s ever mad, you know what I mean? We’re all working our asses off. But it is few and far between for women to win. So I kind of, in a way, had given up on it. It was always nice to be nominated. I wasn’t nominated that many times, but any time I was in that category, I was thankful. And I was always rooting for Carrie, if I wasn’t in it, every time she was nominated for both ACMs and CMAs, because it’s important.
To me, entertainer of the year is the person that’s represented country music in the best way in a year. … And because I had just not counted on it for so long… I had so many other great things, so I guess I just didn’t want to seem greedy or put too much pressure on that. I won some amazing awards at the ACMs and was thankful for what I already had. And the fact that I’m still in the game — like I said, I haven’t missed one ACMs in 17 consecutive years. That’s a good run. And so, to me, it means how you’ve represented country and all the work that you’ve put into yourself as a brand and into your fans. And I put out “The Marfa Tapes,” and I put out a Pistol Annies Christmas record, and I made “Palomino,” which is coming out now, and I had really done some great things with Mutt Nation (her dog adoption charity)… I just feel like it did fall when it was supposed to, even though maybe earlier in my career I thought, “Man, this is my year,” and then it wasn’t.
I’m on my bus right now, headed to my first tour date and I’m doing a tour with Little Big Town, one of my favorite bands. And we’ve all been around for a really long time, and the fact that we can still go out and do this is so important. And I’ve got a residency in Vegas. I have a record coming. My brand is doing really well at Boot Barn. So I just feel like more than ever, I want to wear that title with pride and really work my ass off this year, to know that I’ve earned it. Because entertainer is something you really have to earn. The fact that my peers recognized that really means the world to me. I saw somewhere that Carrie (Underwood) said “long overdue,” and that really touched me. That’s really sweet for her to comment something like that, because we know what we put into it. We do all the same stuff, doing this career for so long. But we also do it in Spanx, which sucks.
You mentioned the residency, which will follow Carrie’s in town there. of course. And then I was thinking about how yours might go, because with Carrie, you expect to see eight different gowns…
Because she can! She’s going to go full-on Carrie, and she’s amazing at that. I didn’t get to see hers yet. I’m hoping that she comes back.
Will yours be more of a straight-ahead show? Because the succession of costume changes is not always a big thing for you.
I’ve never, ever done it. Actually, I am very nervous about that part of it, because I went out to Vegas and did a trip with a bunch of my band and my crew, who were also my best friends. Ten of us got on Southwest and flew out and saw Reba and Brooks & Dunn, and saw George Strait, which isn’t technically a residency, but he played the arena like 35 times, and we saw Shania, because Shania’s in the same theater I’m going to be in. I was just trying to like, learn what’s this all about… Because this has been in talks for a year, and for me, it’s very different. I don’t know what it’s like to not get off my bus and do a show. “What do you mean I drive in a car to work? I don’t understand!”
So I’m very excited because I’ve never done any over-the-top production, really, or costume changes. I kind of just treat every show like a giant honky-tonk, which means me happy and feel at home. And I think it makes the crowd feel at home because of the tone of my music. But I’m ready to take it up a notch — or seven. I really am. I’m willing to try new things. When you don’t have to put it in a truck every night, there’s so many more possibilities. So I damn sure want some fire — I mean, obviously. And, you know, don’t threaten me with more sequins and more fringe. I’m all about that. All that being said, I’ll still stay true to me. I always will, but it’ll just be a little higher hair, a little more glitter.
And are you going to fly? It seems to be in the contracts that everybody in Las Vegas flies at some point.
There’s pressure to fly, for sure. I need to ride something. I don’t know what it is. Maybe it’s like a bull or something.
Shania rode a horse onto the stage in one of her residencies, so if you can do a bull, that will up the ante.
Exactly, but not a real bull. Maybe it’s a sequined bull.
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