Miranda Lambert has been blazing her own trail in country music for more than 20 years. It’s been an uphill journey that’s included as much grit as it has heart.
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In a genre where writing for radio is the norm, Lambert takes the non-traditional route. Her yearly writing trip to Marfa, Texas, with Jack Ingram and Jon Randall turned into the 2021 Grammy-nominated collaborative album The Marfa Tapes. The trio recorded each song in one take with no fixes. It’s this organic approach that exemplifies Lambert’s artistry. In today’s culture of chasing radio trends, Lambert strips things down to how it all began: with a guitar and a song.
Born and raised in East Texas, Lambert began writing songs as a teen. Inspired by Guy Clark, John Prine, Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton, and Loretta Lynn, the three-time Grammy Award-winner penned her first song at 14.
“The first song I ever wrote was really bad,” she tells American Songwriter with a laugh. “I think it was called ‘Big Dreams.’ It was about some girl going to Nashville to be a country singer. Very cliche. It was the first time I was like, ‘Maybe I can do this.’”
It’d be a few more years until she wrote another song. She was “doing teenage stuff,” she says, like cheerleading and choir. At 17, Lambert picked up the guitar again, and her dad taught her “three actual legit chords.” It was around this time she started to hear music differently.
“We’re always chasing Prine or Guy Clark and we’ll never catch ’em, but we could try,” she says of songwriters. “The first song I felt like, ‘This is a real song, it means something to me,’ was ‘Love Is Looking for You.’ It’s on my first record, Kerosene. I think I was 17 when I wrote it. I was getting mature enough to understand emotion in every line and how to draw that out and that everything doesn’t have to make sense, but the overall feeling does.”
Lambert says some of the songs she wrote in her late teens by herself mean the most because she was finding her voice as an artist. Her new book, Y’all Eat Yet?: Welcome to The Pretty B*tchin’ Kitchen, in part details these early years.
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“What I wanted to do in country music was more aggressive and rawer than what was already happening,” she writes. “I wanted something that was still girlie and smart and fun, but I also wanted it to kick ass.”
So, has she accomplished this goal?
“My last eight years or so, I’ve really come into a good balance of both of those things,” Lambert, who announced in March she was leaving her longtime label Sony Music Nashville after 20 years, reflects. “I think a lot of my early career was proving a point because I wanted to make sure I put my stake in the ground. I had a lot to say, and I wanted to make sure I was heard. So, it was a little bit more loud rock, raw.
“I think I’ve really found a good balance of that badass-slash-feminine vibe. Sometimes it’s hard to walk that line, and I think I’ve just settled into myself as a woman. I’m going to be 40 this year, and it takes a while to really get confident in yourself.”
Lambert says her latest solo effort, Palomino, the Grammy-nominated, largest female country album debut of 2022, best describes where she is in her life now. “This whole record is about roaming and a journey and being in love and finding yourself,” she notes. “I don’t know if it was life imitating art or art imitating life, but everything just aligned.”
Palomino was mostly written at Lambert’s Tennessee farm, located an hour outside of Nashville. She teamed with frequent collaborators Luke Dick and Natalie Hemby to write the album as the COVID-19 shutdown happened. For the first time, all three songwriters had extensive time to see where the music led them.
The first song the trio penned for the project was the jaunty “Tourist,” which is the tale of a traveler who roams from town to town / taking snapshots of the world. Ironically, the song was written while the world was in lockdown. The next song they penned was another suitable for the times, aptly titled “Strange.”
“We wrote ‘Strange’ at that farm as well, and it was Natalie’s title and felt so fitting for that time,” Lambert says. “It still feels fitting because sometimes it still feels weird. I’m thankful that you can use your art to voice what people want to say or don’t know how to say and I think ‘Strange’ is a perfect example of that.”
Pick a string, sing the blues Dance a hole in your shoes Do anything to keep you sane‘Cause times like these make me feel strange
Lambert has been writing with Hemby for more than a decade. While the pair shared their first No. 1 together in 2010 with “White Liar,” Lambert says it wasn’t until 2015 that she started to develop her songwriting tribe.
“Natalie was always a staple for me because she’s somebody that is really open and really encouraging but also pushes me out of my norm, out of my comfort zone,” she says. “I always relied on her, Ashley Monroe, and Angaleena [Presley].”
The singer moved back to Nashville from Oklahoma in 2015 following her divorce from Blake Shelton and says it was around this time that she began honing in on songwriting. It was also during this difficult time that Lambert embraced writing and reconnecting with friends.
“When I moved back, I think I wrote 75 songs in 2015,” she says. “[I was able] to really cultivate those friendships and relationships that had been harder to do from a different state. … They went there with me. They freakin’ dug at the ditch with me, and they let me cry and write about it and put it on tape. I feel like that’s part of a songwriter’s job as well: dive into that emotion with a collaborator.”
Lambert’s collaborators feel the same. Hemby describes her as “a walking country song.”
“She is all heart, whether it’s broken or burning like wildfire,” Hemby says. “And that’s what she’s like when we write too … we are either lighting up words and melodies, or we’re burning down an idea we felt was half-hearted. It’s magic when we write because she’s the magic. There’s just no one like her.”
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Lambert has had a successful career as both a songwriter and an artist. She’s amassed 10 No. 1 singles as an artist and is the most decorated artist in the history of the Academy of Country Music Awards with 38 trophies. She took home the top honor as ACM Entertainer of the Year in 2022 and boasts a record-setting nine consecutive ACM Female Artist of the Year wins. In 2023, her accolades have continued as Lambert garnered her first multiple-week No. 1 as a songwriter with Morgan Wallen’s “Thought You Should Know.”
Lambert penned the song with Wallen and Nicolle Galyon three years ago. She had met up with Galyon the day before; that night, Galyon called Lambert to ask if she’d like to join the writing session after another writer canceled. The trio spent the next day on Galyon’s porch writing three songs.
“It was one of those magic moments where everything just worked,” Lambert recalls of penning the three-week chart-topper. “[He said,] ‘I want to write a song for my mom.’ I’m like, ‘I’m all about that and you picked the two right girls.’ It just fell out.”
Lambert says for the longest time she was the artist in the room, and she never had the opportunity to tap into other people’s stories and journeys. She says the day was “a cool exercise for me.”
“Now he’s out there kicking ass,” she adds. “I’m just really happy that it wasn’t forgotten.”
Wallen is a polarizing artist in the country community. He was suspended from his record label and pulled from country radio in February 2021 after being caught on video using a racial slur. When asked if she had to defend herself for writing with the singer, Lambert says she didn’t.
“People are who they are, and nobody’s perfect,” she says. “This whole journey and learning how to be a public figure is a very hard thing to navigate at first. You can’t trust people; people will throw you under the bus if they can. But you gotta learn that for yourself.
“I’m happy to be supportive of any new artist. My honest opinion about artists, in general, is, if everybody loves you, you’re probably not doing it right. I think there’s something to being polarizing. There’s something to having people be passionate one way or the other.”
Lambert says there were times during her career when she was on tours that weren’t a match and she had to “claw my way to get the audience to like me at all.” It was these experiences that made her grittier and the artist she is today.
“It’s very important to me to stick to your guns, no matter if it’s unpopular at the time because there’s something for everybody,” she says. “When I first started talking about doing this for a living at 16, my mom’s like, ‘You have to know who you are, and you have to stick with it and not sway,’ and I’ve really trusted my gut my whole career.”
Lambert has come a long way since her days as an opening act. Her Velvet Rodeo Las Vegas residency, which launched in September 2022, has been extended through late 2023 at Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino’s Zappos Theater. Each night, she performs a collection of songs from her 18-plus-year catalog.
The singer says it’s been a creative experience putting the show together. One of the most impactful moments of the residency is when she performs the 2015 ACM Song of the Year and 2014 CMA Single of the Year “Automatic.”
“It hit me really hard in Vegas because the video content behind me on that song is my journey,” she says. “It’s my first time on stage with a guitar, it’s photos of my journey from playing my first song in front of anyone to now having a residency in Vegas. All those years of work—22 years of grind to get there. That was not given to me; that was earned, and so that song rings true to me every night when I’m singing it.”
The next musical chapter for Lambert includes writing for other artists as well as her many projects as a solo artist, member of country trio the Pistol Annies, and perhaps another The Marfa Tapes edition. She spent February in Texas writing with Randall and Ingram and says, “We already have a pile for whatever’s next.” Lambert also has been working with Dierks Bentley and Dick, penning songs for the CBS drama series Fire Country.
Lambert’s recent writing schedule includes fellow Annies member Monroe, as well as Jelly Roll, HARDY, and her own husband, retired New York police officer Brendan McLoughlin. Lambert says McLoughlin often pushes her to write songs by herself “because I keep threatening to do it and then I chicken out.” Instead, she enlisted McLoughlin as a co-writer during the pandemic.
“It was a fun exercise and I liked that we shared that,” she says. “He’s creative in the kitchen. That’s his creativity, but sometimes I give him a glass of wine and make him sit down and write a song with me.
“We actually did write a song with our friend Jesse Frasure because Brendan was jokingly saying, ‘Oh, it’s just words.’ So, Jesse was like, ‘Nope, we’re gonna book a writing session.’ Jesse made him come in and he wrote to the track, and he had to spend all day [there] and he was like, ‘Words are hard.’”
Happily married to McLoughlin for four years now, Lambert admits initially being worried that channeling sad country songs would be difficult.
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“As you get older, you realize you can pull from all the sad parts that you’ve had,” she says. “I think if we tried to live every sad song we ever want to write, that’s going to be a sucky life. I am a sucker for a sad song. I love them so much, but I feel like I have a well to dig from past hurts.”
While Lambert’s songwriting tips for beginners include “write it, go for it” and “don’t overthink, write by yourself,” she jokes that she needs to take her own advice. She used to close every album with a song she penned by herself but hasn’t done that for several albums.
She says she’s “still trying to get there” as a songwriter when asked what song was the turning point in her career. Meanwhile, Galyon praises her frequent co-writer.
“Miranda still intimidates me,” Galyon says. “I’ve had two No. 1s with her as co-writers and [her] confidence is so intimidating to me. I’d like to think that I’m a confident woman. She is on another level, and she just knows herself. She knows what she likes. It’s inspiring and intimidating.”
While Lambert may intimidate her fellow songwriters to up their game, she remains an inspiration to many women in the country world and beyond. It’s something she doesn’t take lightly.
“I’ve worked really hard to get where I am, but I also want to be an example,” she says. “I want to make sure I kick the doors open for other girls, especially because my career wasn’t conventional. It wasn’t down the middle. It wasn’t an easy radio career. I’ve had to find my own way and I hope that I opened the door for some other kickass girls.
“When a couple of us win, we all win. That’s how I look at it. It’s not a competition. To me, it’s a sisterhood. It’s sometimes a hard road, but the reward is such a payoff.”
All Photos by Robert Ascroft