And by going great, Lambert means Revolution yielded her first two country number ones – “The House That Built Me” and “Heart Like Mine” – songs that, for all their commercial success, certainly weren’t lacking in storytelling nuance. She’s achieved remarkable feats like this in an era when corporate radio ownership has all but wiped out regional uniqueness and risk-taking of any kind.
“I admire the hell out of her,” says Moorer, whose own against-the-grain Nashville albums possessed a depth that inspired a teenaged Lambert to hone her craft. “She has stuck to her guns, she’s written her own songs, and she actually has accomplished something that I was trying to do when I had a major label deal in Nashville, when I made those records there. She’s actually mixing the singer-songwriter philosophy with the commercial country [mindset]. And I find it just inspiring. My hat’s off completely, because she’s pulling it off, and I couldn’t figure out a way to do it.”
Region may not be so relevant to 21st century country radio, but it’s had more than a little to do with the evolution of Lambert’s sensibilities when it comes to the songs she wants to sing. She grew up in small-town Lindale, Texas, with a father who wrote and sang his own songs and absorbed the fierce independent-mindedness of the Texas singer-songwriter scene.
One of her longtime producers, Nashville’s Frank Liddell, affirms, “She came to town and she had a very strong Texas mentality. And the Texas mentality is that everything here sucks. She did get put through the system with a lot of the hit songwriters, who were great songwriters, but it was more like ‘This is how it’s done here.’ It turned her off – not specific people, but the whole system turned her off. And she wanted to do something, I think, that she could play for her friends in Texas and they would say, ‘Okay, well you’re still Miranda.’”
Being from Houston himself, Liddell knows of what he speaks. Add to that his two decades of experience in Nashville song publishing (he co-founded the notable publishing outfit Carnival Music) and it shouldn’t be all that surprising that he can translate between the languages of the Lonestar State and Music Row and come up with an example of another Texan who was the exception to the rule.
“Willie Nelson had written a number of not only hits but standards,” Liddell says. “And his first hit was ‘Blue Eyes Crying In the Rain.’ I think it was written by Fred Rose. And he’s always recorded other people’s songs, mainstream writers, off-the-beaten-path writers. In the meantime, he’s maintained a career as one of the greatest American songwriters of the last fifty years. My whole thing is, if Willie Nelson can record outside songs, anybody can.”
Enter Lambert, and her Texas mentality. “What I wanted to point out to her over time,” says Liddell, “was that John Prine lives here; Buddy and Julie Miller live here; Allison Moorer lived here. I mean, there are so many amazing songwriters of all ilk that live in this town that are just geniuses, and it’s more than just the people who are in the top ten or fifteen on Billboard every week. And those people, a lot of them are unbelievable songwriters too. I think it took her a while to step back and say, ‘You know what? There are some great songs out there.’”
A great song that no doubt helped win Lambert over was “The House That Built Me”, the work of ultra-successful Nashville pros Tom Douglas and Allen Shamblin. It’s a modern folk-country song that captures the psychic power of place and memory in a way that’s at once tangible and eloquent, and in Lambert’s hands it became CMA and ACM Song of the Year (and nearly won the Grammy). For the record, nobody had to twist her arm to give it a chance.
Recalls Liddell, “That song was pitched to her husband, who’s a very mainstream commercial artist. [Lambert married Blake Shelton this past May; the occasion made the cover of US Weekly.] And she said, ‘No, I’ve got to have that.’ I think the fact that she could open herself up and realize that a song that could be pitched to her husband could possibly work for her is just part of this whole metamorphosis I’ve been talking about – she’s letting her guard down – and just recognized a great song … I do think she recorded that song because it’s her story and it spoke to her.”
In the most recent chapter of her story, Lambert has succeeded in learning how to stay an artist that lots of people strongly identify with – compellingly down-to-earth – even though she’s no longer exactly an underdog. A case in point: at a time when making her own album ought to have been sole priority, she started an all-female band called Pistol Annies with two other country-to-the-bone singer-songwriters – Angaleena Presley and Ashley Monroe – both of whom have considerable talents yet to be appreciated by wider audiences.
The three of them, in various combinations, wrote a sparkling, off-the-cuff batch of songs telling the sorts of stories that have fallen out of favor in country music of late: those of a desperate housewife’s unglamorous struggle to keep her head and heart above water. Without waiting to get things sorted out with a record label, the Annies went ahead and started recording their stripped-down, loose-limbed album Hell On Heels. It came out just months ahead of Four The Record.