There comes a time in every country music career when an artist passes a road sign of sorts, a demarcation between the past he or she has led — and, in many cases, a past that established stardom — and a future that suggests something greater — and more uncertain. That is where Miranda Lambert was situated roughly a year ago.
She had established the kind of fan base that most performing artists, country or otherwise, strive for. It was built not on immediate commercial success but through a mounting popularity that had gathered steam since 2005.
At its core was a contemporary sound fueled by a refreshingly gutsy spirit. Both championed a level of narrative independence that bordered on the rebellious. The songs Kerosene and Gunpowder and Lead embraced a confidence and attitude that can be traced to Loretta Lynn's hits Fist City and Don't Come Home A-Drinkin'. But the sound was contemporary honky-tonk with an electrified charge that matched the rockish extremes of Lambert's male contemporaries when it saw fit.
The hits, most of which Lambert wrote or co-wrote, made the native Texan a staple on the charts, but her live shows — which incorporated decidedly non-country covers of songs by The Faces, Creedence Clearwater Revival and Joan Jett — solidified Lambert's place among country royalty.
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For Lexington fans who had seen a stream of Lambert's shows since Kerosene hit the charts in summer 2005, all of which were abbreviated opening-act sets, the payoff came in late September 2009. That's when she kicked off a show for Jason Aldean at what was then Applebee's Park before a sold-out crowd during a pounding storm. It was an exhibition of tireless stylistic smarts and performance savvy that drew no distinction between country or rock camps.
That performance coincided with the release of Revolution, the album that cemented Lambert's star status. A more varied array of hits, from the party anthem Only Prettier to the chart-topping ballad The House That Built Me, kept the airplay rolling. A year later, Lambert, 28, picked up a record nine Country Music Association Award nominations. She walked away with a trophy for female vocalist of the year, and Revolution took album of the year.
What followed was a year of considerable growth. In 2011, she married longtime mate and fellow country star Blake Shelton, formed a hit side-project trio called The Pistol Annies (with a subsequent recording called Hell on Heels) and released a new solo album, Four the Record. The latter is the strongest sign yet of a more maturing sound from Lambert, one that eases off ever so slightly from the gun-toting imagery in favor of a more moderately traditional country feel.
That brings us to 2012, which already has seen two milestones: Lambert's first headlining concert at Rupp Arena, a sellout that originally was scheduled for January but was postponed until Sunday after her father-in-law died, and a guest appearance with The Pistol Annies on a T Bone Burnett- produced album by the iconic Irish music ensemble The Chieftains (see review, Page 29). (She also received considerable press earlier this month when she and R&B singer Chris Brown, who assaulted his then-girlfriend Rihanna in 2009, engaged in a Twitter feud over his presence at the Grammy Awards.)
In an interview in January before her original Rupp date, Lambert, via email, touched on her musical evolution since Revolution, getting her Irish up with The Chieftains and bouncing songwriting ideas around with her husband.
Question: While Four the Record is a new album for your audience, you have obviously been living with this project for awhile. With a little bit of time elapsed since its release, how do you feel the recording came out?
Answer: Four the Record is exactly what I wanted it to be: a collection of songs which inspire me at this moment in my life. I wanted the audience to know I am still the feisty girl I was on my first album, Kerosene, but that I have grown up a bit since then and am settled and happy.
Also, Four the Record made a lot of my dreams come true with all of the artists that took part in it. Some of my longtime heroes, (Eastern Kentucky native) Patty Loveless and Allison Moorer, contributed to the album, as well as new friends like Brandi Carlile. I hope everyone can find a song that speaks to them on this album.
Q: Four the Record has the sound of a confident and content artist. Were there any undue commercial pressures on you when making the album, or were you able to work at a somewhat comfortable pace?
A: My last album, Revolution, came out in 2009, so it was time to make a new album and have a new tour. I did feel pressure with this album because everyone was wondering how it could possibly top the success of my last one.
Revolution was a big milestone for my career, and I am so grateful for how the fans and my peers in the industry embraced it. So with Four the Record, I decided that there was really only one way I could make sure I loved it as much as Revolution, and that was by letting the music lead me.
Now that I feel that I did that, I know I will always be proud of this album no matter what comes next.
Q: You feature songs by several other extraordinary songwriters on the new album: Look at Miss Ohio by Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, and Oklahoma Sky by Moorer. What, in particular, drew you to these songs?
A: I have been a huge fan of both Gillian Welch and Allison Moorer for a long time because of their beautifully honest songwriting. I wanted to put a Gillian Welch song on Revolution, but I was too afraid to try it. I hope I did her justice with this version of Look at Miss Ohio.
Allison Moorer wrote Oklahoma Sky for me. We tried to work out our schedules (to) write together but couldn't find an opportunity to make it work, so I was thrilled when she wrote this song for me, as you can imagine.
Q: Did immersing yourself in a collaborative project like the Pistol Annies help freshen your artistic perspective when it came time to work on Four the Record? Did the two projects creatively inspire each other?
A: Working with Pistol Annies kept me excited about songwriting right after Revolution was released. A lot of the time, artists will be burned out on writing once they finish an album, but I was so inspired by my friends Angaleena Presley and Ashley Monroe and our collaborations that I just couldn't stop. I think their creativity and the idea to put out a trio project with Hell on Heels definitely inspired me to write more and find great material for Four the Record.
Q: The Pistol Annies guest on the (new) Chieftains album Voice of Ages, with a collaborative version of Come All Ye Fair and Tender Ladies. Would you describe the experience of working with them and producer T Bone Burnett on this tune? Also, did the Annies get to record with the Chieftains in the same session, or was your work cut separately?
A: Getting the chance to work with the Chieftains and producer T Bone Burnett was an honor for Ash and Ang and me. It was recorded in separate sessions with T Bone's incredible guidance, and the track was shipped to Ireland for the Chieftains to add their wonderful magic. We are very happy with how the track turned out, and we hope everyone checks out the Chieftains when they come to the U.S. to promote this album. It's so amazing that it's for their 50th anniversary as a band.
Q: You maintain a high-profile marriage with Blake Shelton. But as the two of you maintain separate careers, despite having performed together frequently, do you bounce musical ideas, influences or even criticisms off each other for your recordings?
A: Blake and I talk shop all the time. Music is one of our biggest passions, and we couldn't help talking about it even if we tried. It's awesome to have a husband who totally understands the challenges of my career.