Photo by Ellen von Unwerth
If one believes the french philosopher Albert Camus’s profession, “To know oneself, one should assert oneself,” Miranda Lambert must be the epicenter of self-knowledge. With “Gunpowder & Lead,” “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” and even the fiery, retributive “Kerosene,” the daughter of two Lone Star State private eyes demonstrates zero fear of standing up for herself in song.
Lambert has won nine Academy of Country Music (ACM) Female Vocalist awards, as well as five Albums of the Year, on her way to breaking Brooks & Dunn’s record for most ACM wins. At the Country Music Association Awards, she’s taken seven Female Vocalist awards as well as a pair for best Album, Single, Song, Musical Event, and Music Video—plus she’s won two Grammys for Best Female Country Performance and Country Album of the Year.
Still, she laughs when talking about “losing charm” and the state of mental erosion that accompanies all things “glam”—especially the smile-and-look-pretty tediousness of photo shoots. Recognizing that, the woman who concedes that she’d “much rather run around in cutoffs with no shoes on” put her self-knowledge to use in the buildup to Wildcard, her new album debuting in November.
“I looked up photographers,” marvels the woman who just kicked off the third edition of her Roadside Bars & Pink Guitars tour, this time featuring an all-female rotating cast of seriously engaged country, rock, and roots stars. “First time I ever did that all on my own.”
She landed on Ellen von Unwerth, the iconic German high-fashion model turned femme-powering photographer. Known for her grasp of eroticism and extravagant femininity, Unwerth is miles from Lambert’s barnyard bravado. She’s an equally large leap from the style of The Weight of These Wings, Wildcard’s harrowing but critically acclaimed double-disc predecessor.
“I think the sepia tone of the [Wings] cover wasn’t just the pictures. It really matched the tone and idea of the record,” Lambert explains. “This time, I wanted to do something over-the-top, just really bright and alive and crazy. . . . I wanted to just let go and go for it! Just fall into it.
“And. . .” the woman with the pummeling downstroke pauses for impact, “look at some of those shots.”
Lambert, sans “liquid courage,” sports knee-high, rust suede stiletto boots, industrial fishnets, trapeze panties, and a serious satin corset top as she lies on her back on a zebra-print rug. Shades of Anita Pallenberg—chic, knowing, bohemian, strong, and come-hither—ripple from the image.
If the woman who’s won 74 major awards is known for a hard-hitting, red-dirt country that falls between post-honkytonk-hero Steve Earle and classicist George Strait, Wildcard works a decidedly Rolling Stones edge as comfortably as a stripper works a pole. Perhaps it’s the introduction of Iodine guitarist/producer Jay Joyce, a multi-instrumental attack player whose credits include Coheed and Cambria, the Wallflowers, Cage the Elephant, Eric Church, and Patty Griffin’s Flaming Red.
Wildcard, Lambert’s seventh studio offering, is hands down her most diverse. Crunchy Zeppelin-meets-Fleetwood-Mac rockers (“Locomotive,” “Mess with My Head”), swampy gospel featuring the sweltering McCrary Sisters (“Holy Water”), a waltz/two-step hybrid perfect for Gruene Hall (“Tequila Does”), vintage country (“Dark Bars”), and her usual tongue-in-cheekiness (“White Trash,” “It All Comes Out in the Wash,” “Way Too Pretty for Prison” with emerging country girl-power denizen Maren Morris) temper a record that seeks new horizons.
“Before [we started this record], I was just tired and sad, but I wasn’t that broken,” Lambert says. “I got a divorce—so what? Happens to people all the time. But once I got through it and moved on, I felt rejuvenated. I’ve been making music and touring the road for a long time. People get forced to where they have to reinvent themselves. I didn’t have to do that.
“Part of my career was built on my being defiant, you know, my image and how people saw me,” she continues. “At some point, you get tired of that. So at 35, I can calm down and don’t have to yell to prove my point anymore. There’s this fresh getting-started-all-over-again vibe that has appeared, and I’m so ready!”
Ready enough to take these new songs out on the road. With Roadside Bars & Pink Guitars 3—featuring rotating support from Morris and Elle King, with newcomers Caylee Hammack, Tenille Townes, and Ashley McBryde—look for fun, cocktails, laughter, animals, and a lot of great songs. As she raves, “I’m inspired by all these girls, especially the young girls. They keep my fire going. Everybody has their own swagger and their own style, so this is going to be a night of some really badass music.
“We didn’t intend to have an all-girl tour. But when we looked and saw a bunch of badass girls, the idea of rolling down the road, playing music, drinking beer, having fun, and enjoying the fans? Every single one of them knows who she is; they’re making music that comes from that. And it’s gonna be awesome.”
Lambert—to be clear—is an equal-opportunity badass. While she knows she speaks for a lot of women pushing back, the once-upon-a-time wild child realizes men can find their own way into her songs. Recently married (after her high-profile divorce from another country star), she’s not about to forget the fun-loving hot messes who view her as their patron saint.
“I’ll never not feel at home in a honkytonk,” she explains. “That’s just the way it is. It’s not shameful to be drawn to places where the stories are, you know? ‘Track Record’ is funny because it’s one of those after-it’s-all-over-’n’-you’re-out-of-your-‘Mis’ry-and-Gin’-phase. It’s just going, ‘Oh, remember that time I was a little crazy?’ We all weave in and out of trouble, the good and bad in your life.
“I feel like the girls I’m singing to, or even the people listening, are people just like me. Men or women, they’ve made their mistakes; they go through things, high and low. So, I tell stories for everyone who can’t. I’m kinda representing all of us.
“And when you come to one of our shows, we’re all kinds: blondes, brunettes, redheads, big, and little. We’re all fighters, fighting for what we love. You don’t stop because [being a woman in music] is hard; you fight a little harder. My top-earning song, ‘Gunpowder & Lead,’ went to number 7, but when the crowd sings every word back to you, that’s when you know a hit is not a number.”
She doesn’t laugh, even though you expect her to. She doesn’t sigh either. Deadeye, the girl with the wildcat soprano draws down on the truth that’s brought her here. “The social media, the press, they’re always looking for a story or a way to get you to click. Anyone who knows me knows I put everything in the songs. If you wanna know, all you have to do is listen to the records.
“I’ve put my life in my songs—and I’ve never counted on my hair, my makeup, and my boobs to get me over. I’ve always used my guitar. A guitar and a real stubborn head will get you a long, long way.”