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Texas Wrangler
Miranda Lambert Has a Feisty Side That Others Won't Want to Cross as She Shoots for the Top of Her Field

By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 15, 2007

NEW YORK

Miranda Lambert is the most dangerous-sounding woman in country music. She's also No. 1 with a bullet. So you have to ask: Miranda, are you packing heat?

"Can't tell you," Lambert twangs. "That's why it's called a concealed weapon. How about you just be nice?"

Asking Lambert about her armament is a legitimate question. The country starlet's new album, "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend," opens with the raging "Gunpowder & Lead," in which she sings of delivering shotgun-pellet payback to an abusive man. She wrote the chorus's kicker -- "I'm gonna show him what a little girl's made of / Gunpowder and lead" -- during a concealed handgun class back home in East Texas.

"Miranda has lived in gun culture all her life," explains her father, Rick, a retired cop and private investigator. "I'm a firearms collector and hunter. She was taught to shoot when she was a little bitty girl. So it's natural for her to put a gun in a song.

"But she's not a gangsta talking about shooting cops and bonking women on the head. She's talking about real things that happen to real people. It's not that safe [stuff] that's going on in country music, and some people are scared of it."

And how. Miranda Lambert specializes in rough-and-ready music -- drinkin' songs and breakup songs and bloodthirsty revenge fantasies about, say, torching a cheating boyfriend's abode ("Kerosene") or starting a bar brawl over a former flame ("Crazy Ex-Girlfriend"). The 23-year-old singer and songwriter can come across like a loose cannon with a Texas-size temper onstage, too. Remember that performance on last year's Country Music Association Awards that ended with Lambert looking all wild-eyed as she smashed her Gibson Epiphone? So not Nashville nice!

Lambert promises she'll be on her best behavior during tonight's Academy of Country Music Awards show (8 p.m. on CBS), on which she's performing her self-explanatory single, "Famous in a Small Town," and possibly accepting an award. (She's up for two: best female vocalist and best new female vocalist.)

"Crazy Ex-Girlfriend" is a stunning recording that's brimming with energy and personality. Featuring 11 superlative songs -- eight of which were written or co-written by Lambert -- the CD flirts with perfection and might well be the best new album you'll hear all year, in any genre. As on Lambert's 2005 major-label debut, "Kerosene," the music on "Crazy Ex" isn't slick or safe or glitzy or designed for maximum mainstream appeal. It's raw and full of verve, with lyrical depth, like a louder, harder-edged take on the outlaw country music on which Lambert was raised.

During promotional appearances, she hears one question a lot -- Are you, like, crazy?-- but, in fact, if you listen to her new album, you'll hear a completely different side, particularly on the bittersweet ballad "Love Letters" and the aching, yearning "More Like Her."

"I'm really glad the album's out, because I feel like people really were starting to think of me only as the bad-ass 'Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,' " Lambert says. "I'm not that mean, scary, hard-core chick. I mean, I can be, because I'm from Texas. But I also have that 23-year-old-wanna-be-in-love thing, too. My music is about being strong, even in your vulnerability. I have all kinds of emotions, but I think having strength is the main thread to my writing on this album."

Released May 1, "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend" entered the country album chart at No. 1, edging out "Pure BS," the new CD from Blake Shelton, who happens to be Lambert's boyfriend. Lambert says she won a bet with her beau by outselling him; he now owes her a vacation. "He plans it, he pays for it," she says. "All he tells me is what day we're leaving and what clothes to bring." She giggles.

Shelton, 30, who divorced his high school sweetheart last year, "is so great," Lambert says. But she admits: "I was never really into his type of music. It's mainstream country, and I like singer-songwriters, like Chris Knight -- kind of raw country. But I think Blake's a great singer, and I actually like his new album. As a 23-year-old girl, it's something I'd actually listen to and go buy. I just won't buy it until he takes me on that vacation."

Teenage Cheerleader

Lambert is sitting in a corner booth at Cowgirl, a Manhattan restaurant that serves "fine chuckwagon cuisine" and Southwestern kitsch: The tables are covered with plastic gingham, the chandeliers are made of antlers and there are steer horns mounted on the wall next to a Texas star. Lambert is polite and Texas-cheerleader pretty, with perfectly bronzed skin, pouty lips and long blond hair. "And her dimples!" says Devra Dedeaux, one of the restaurant's owners. "They're so adorable." Lambert is wearing a sundress and weathered cowboy boots. A tattoo of her crossed pistols-and-wings logo adorns her forearm.

Lambert is nobody's Nashville puppet and certainly isn't the product of any sort of Music Row assembly line. She writes most of her own songs, cranks up the volume in concert ("We're a rock band with a country singer," she says) and is headstrong enough that shortly upon signing a record deal with Sony Nashville, she informed the company that she was either going to cut the album she wanted to make or she was going home. Smartly, the suits acquiesced: Though country radio gave Lambert a relatively cool reception, "Kerosene" entered Billboard's country album chart at No. 1 -- just the sixth time a new artist had done so -- and went on to sell nearly 900,000 copies.

She celebrated by buying a 400-acre hunting ranch and a John Deere tractor.

Lambert and her kid brother, Luke, grew up in Lindale, roughly 80 miles east of Dallas. It's a small Texas town (population: 3,370) whose motto is "Good Country Living." After Rick Lambert retired from police work, he opened a private detective agency with his wife, Beverly. In the mid-'90s, the couple worked for the Texas attorneys representing Paula Jones in her sexual harassment lawsuit against Bill Clinton.

"We investigated the president's sex life," Rick says from his Lindale home. "We were kind of the anti-bimbo squad." More commonly, the Lamberts were hired on child-custody and divorce cases -- work that wound up providing Miranda with a wealth of source material.

When she was 9, her father -- who wrote and performed country songs himself -- took her to a Garth Brooks show, at the height of the singer's popularity. "She came back and said, 'Daddy, I would like to do that someday,' " Rick Lambert says. At that point her only experience was singing in a praise band at church. "I told her she had the voice, and pretty soon after that, I was trying to put a little pressure on her to learn how to play the guitar. But she showed no interest."

That was true, he says, even after he bought his daughter a guitar when she was 13. "We have a saying in our family: 'You raise a child according to their bend.' And at the time, Miranda was doing the dancing and cheerleading and all the things young girls get involved in with their peers."

Lambert went on with her teenage life until she was 16 and heard a radio ad for the True Value Country Showdown. She told her parents that she wanted to enter, recorded two of her father's original songs and was accepted into the competition. She lost but was encouraged by the feedback and soon went to Nashville to cut a demo. She does not have fond memories of the experience, saying the songs she recorded were "awful" and "cheesy."

"I cried in the studio. 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."

Upon retreating from Nashville, she asked her father to teach her some guitar chords and she immediately started writing songs. "It's the only thing that's ever come naturally to me," she says. "I had to work at everything. I sucked in school. I sucked at sports except for softball, but I had to work at that. I was a cheerleader but always had to stay after. Music was the first thing I did where I was naturally talented."

Lambert began performing with a band around Texas, including a bar 45 miles from home, where she gigged three nights a week, four hours a night. She'd get back to Lindale around 4 a.m., then get up for high school. "It wasn't working," she says. So she graduated early, through, she says, "a program what was supposed to be for kids that were on drugs or pregnant."

Lambert released an independent CD and continued to do hard time on the Texas music circuit, with her mother handling her booking and her dad sometimes paying the band with his own money. She also tried acting and worked at a department store, where she cleaned hanger racks and sorted underwear. She quit after two weeks.

Then, in 2003, Lambert tried out for a new USA Network talent show, "Nashville Star." She wound up flooring the program's producers at her Houston audition. "We knew we'd found someone special who'd really help put the show on the map," says H.T. Owens, an executive producer. "She was this incredible 19-year-old ingenue from the heartland of Texas who had so much talent."

Lambert didn't win the competition (she finished third to Buddy Jewell and runner-up John Arthur Martinez), but "Nashville Star" put her on an accelerated schedule to country stardom.

"The show was an incredible shot in the arm for her," Owens says. "But I think she would have made it anyway. I'll put it this way: Being on 'Nashville Star' wouldn't have been that helpful if she wasn't so great."

While Lambert has an effective voice, her true strength is her songwriting, which was deeply informed by her parents' work. That was especially true on "Kerosene."

"When I was writing for that album, I was 17 to 20 years old and I didn't have a lot of life to write about," she says. "So I was really taking from other experiences. This time around, I feel like I've lived a lot more and I feel like I have more soul to me than I did when I was 20. So a lot more of this album is me. But not all of it. 'Gunpowder & Lead' isn't me. It's more like a mini-movie -- though I'm not saying I wouldn't be like that if it came down to it."

Rick Lambert believes he knows exactly what inspired that song. "We used to take in abused women and their kids," he says. "Miranda's been moved out of her room several times to make room for a mother and her teenage daughter. She's heard me tell those wives, 'If he comes over here, he might get shot 'cause we're not going to take [guff] from anybody.' She saw these women break down and talk about how they were mentally and physically abused. She gleaned content just by listening. She did that a lot. We didn't hide anything from the kids. So the content of her songs doesn't surprise me."

Nor does her spitfire attitude. "People say: Where'd she get that anger? But it's not necessarily anger. It's a lifestyle." Just consider that guns-and-wings logo, he says. "You know what that means? It means if you jack with the Lamberts, we'll send you to heaven."

Radio Barriers

If you want to see Miranda Lambert get worked up, start talking about country radio, where the format's gatekeepers regard her as a bit too tough, or left of center. The men who program the format generally like Lambert but say she just hasn't delivered "that song."

It's mystifying that her singles never reached higher than No. 15 on Billboard's Hot Country chart, which is where the Molotov cocktail of a title track from "Kerosene" peaked. (Lambert, by the way, had to give Steve Earle co-writing credit on the song after realizing she'd swiped the melody from Earle's "I Feel Alright." "I pretty much ripped him off without realizing it," she says.)

Her struggle to break into the upper reaches of the singles charts is a festering wound. "I really don't understand radio at all," she says. "I don't feel like I'm too edgy or out there. A million people don't. I don't know what I could do differently. And if I did anything differently, I wouldn't be me. So I'm not going to. But I'm really frustrated."

Gregg Swedberg, program director for the Minneapolis-St. Paul country station KEEY, says Lambert "is one of the most talented females we've got." And: " 'Crazy Ex-Girlfriend' is an awfully good record." And: "I suspect that anybody who buys the album is going to be really happy they did." Yet Swedberg doesn't think there's anything like a hit on the CD. "I hear 11 really good songs, but I don't think there's a giant anthem.

" 'Gunpowder & Lead' is one of the nastiest songs I've heard in any genre, and I love it," he continues. "But I don't think it's a number one record because it's too angry."

Joe Galante, chairman of Sony BMG Nashville, says Lambert's struggles to break through on radio seem strangely familiar. "I've been through this before: I worked Waylon in the '70s, and heck -- we didn't have a Top 10 with him for six years." Galante's message to Lambert: "It's the same thing we tell all our artists -- you have to show patience. Some people are going to be late to the game with her, but so be it. They'll catch up eventually."

Even if, for now, it makes her crazy.

Miranda Lambert will appear in concert with Toby Keith on July 14 at Nissan Pavilion.

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