Forget that she's just 21 and looks even younger. For an artist of any age, Miranda Lambert's debut album on Epic Records, Kerosene, is an astoundingly strong and well-balanced collection.
And judging by the album's initial sales, Lambert is on the way to becoming one of the year's country music success stories. With sales of almost 40,000 copies during the seven-day period following its official release date on March 15, Kerosene will debut at the top of Billboard's country albums chart.
Lambert wrote six and co-wrote another five of the album's 12 songs, every one of which is wise, lyrically intricate, rich in images or otherwise thought provoking. Her voice bears the wounded, if plucky, sound of someone who's hit a few walls and still keeps going. There's no fluff here, no trading on cuteness.
Although Lambert had already been performing for years, the Lindale, Texas, native first achieved national prominence in 2003 as a contestant on the Nashville Star talent contest. She ultimately placed third in it.
"Nashville Star bumped my career up and made it go a lot faster than it would have," she says. "I was just doing an independent thing in Texas and playing clubs. I think [Star] was basically my audition for everyone in the record industry. ... It was a blast."
She still keeps in touch with some of the people she competed with. Buddy Jewell, who won the contest, records for Lambert's sister label, and fellow contestant Travis Howard wrote or co-wrote three songs for Kerosene.
Lambert says Epic gave her carte blanche to do the album, including choosing producers. Her picks were Frank Liddell, whom she admired for his work with Chris Knight and Jack Ingram, and Mike Wrucke.
"I knew a long time ago that's who I wanted to produce my record," she explains. "So basically when I signed, I called them up and said, 'OK, it's time.'" By the time she struck her record deal, she had written all the songs for her first album.
Many of the songs on Kerosene have to do with separation from home and family, an understandable concern for someone as young as Lambert. After living in Nashville for two years, she's moved back to her hometown and says she plans to stay there.
"I'm really strong in my roots, in where I grew up," she explains. "I think everybody should remember their foundation. I think it's really important. I feel like [when you leave home], you can forget who you are and leave yourself. ... My home and my friends at home and family keep me levelheaded when I tend to drift off."
Love gone wrong is a prominent theme in the album. So have Lambert's own relationships been that rocky?
"Not really," she says. "I've loved a lot, and I'm one of those people who love very deeply when I do. I get hurt more easily because I do love so deeply. But all of these songs aren't from experience."
As Lambert prepares to take her own show on the road this summer, she can measure herself against the first and perhaps best concert she ever attended. It starred Garth Brooks. "He was just so wild and so involved with the audience," she recalls. "Even though I was just 10 years old, that stayed with me for a long time."
Attractive though she is, Lambert says she's determined to make her name as a serious artist. In her press material, she's quoted as telling her record label, "I'll never dance around the stage in a halter top." That's a point she's sticking to.
"I definitely think image is important," she says, "but I don't necessarily think you need to use your body. I'm a fan of staying trim and looking good. That's part of being in the public eye. But I really don't want to be known as a sex symbol or anything like that. I want to be accepted for my music and my talent. I know it's important to look good, and beauty is a big part of it, the whole thing. It's kind of sad that we've gotten that way."
To date, though, everything has gone her way, including her album's debut at the top of the country chart.
"I don't think I've made any compromises," she reflects. "I've been really fortunate to sign with Epic. I've been able to pick all the songs I wanted and be just me. I've been lucky."