(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
In past weeks, Miranda Lambert has become quite the national media darling. A lot of the focus has been on her supposed role as new country outlaw. I have a read a lot of stories that dwell on her being licensed to carry a concealed handgun — which she apparently does. Well, what the hell. She’s from Texas and lives there now, and sometimes you need a concealed handgun in Texas. I’m from Texas, although I’m not packing heat … not right now, at least.
A lot of the stories talk about her father being a cop and both her parents being PIs and having investigated Bill Clinton for Paula Jones in that whole mess. And I’ve read reviews calling her “crazy” and a psycho chick. Well, I’m buying none of that. Her songs tap into those extreme threads, but that’s an artist’s shrewdness. If she is crazy, she is crazy in the same way that Dolly Parton is crazy: She knows how to play up her strong points, how to sell herself and how to become a public character. And how to be a successful songwriter. Lambert is obviously one very smart woman.
I like Miranda Lambert. Quite a lot. I think she’s very good for country music right now. She’s shaking things up a bit, and country music always needs shaking up a bit. She’s an exciting artist. She makes news. And she sells CDs. She hasn’t gotten great radio airplay yet, because her songs don’t necessarily fit the formula that country radio favors. But neither did Gretchen Wilson’s “Redneck Woman.” But it broke through. As did Loretta Lynn’s radical — for country — songs.
Lambert is also a very quick learner. Although she’s obviously an independent spirit, she has also learned much about performing from opening for Dierks Bentley. Her songwriting chops spring from within, but she has listened closely to the likes of Buddy Miller and Emmylou Harris and Jack Ingram and the Dixie Chicks.
She learned a valuable lesson in songwriting with her first album. The title song, “Kerosene” — which really put her on the musical map — sounded very much like Steve Earle’s “I Feel Alright.” Very much like it. After that was brought to her attention, she added Earle’s name as her co-writer on the copyright. And on the royalties. She told Barry Mazor in a No Depression interview, “I didn’t purposefully plagiarize his song — but unconsciously I copied it almost exactly. I guess I’d listened to it so much that I just kind of had it in there.” Well, hell, outlaws rip each other off now and then. But then they usually own up about it — as she did — very quickly.
She is also very smart about the people she’s surrounding herself with. Simon Renshaw is her manager. He is famous — or infamous — as the Dixie Chicks’ manager. Non-Lambert original songs on the new CD Crazy Ex-Girlfriend are Patty Griffin’s exquisite “Getting Ready,” the Carlene Carter/Susanna Clark composition “Easy from Now On” (that Emmylou Harris sang so famously) and the very-Texas-small-town David Rawlings/Gillian Welch song “Dry Town.” Her musical collaborators on this CD are top-of-the-line, including Buddy Miller, Randy Scruggs, Chuck Leavell, Waddy Wachtel, Glenn Worf and Richard Bennett. Her producers are Frank Liddell and Mike Wrucke. So this is sort of a subversive-but-legitimate effort at changing mainstream country music. Good for her and all concerned.
You know, the really interesting thing is that five years ago Lambert would have been labeled an alt-country artist. She would have been regarded as a rocker chick singing songs about taboo topics like shooting an ex-boyfriend or going on an arson spree. Violent revenge has not been the subject du jour of mainstream country music, not since “Goodbye, Earl,” probably. But fantasy about violent revenge — or getting due justice at the least — has obviously kindled a spark of interest in a lot of female listeners.
That’s not all that Lambert is about, although it tends to be what the media fixate upon. Although I love the explosive ferocity of a song like “Gunpowder & Lead” (which reminds me a little of someone very near and dear to me), Lambert excels with more introspective songs such as “Love Letters” and “More Like Her.”
One single line in “Guilty in Here” stopped me completely in my tracks. Listen to Lambert caress the words: “And I don’t think I have any more room underneath my thumb.” This rocker chick is giving life some serious thought.