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Texan Miranda Lambert: country music's new queen?

Miranda Lambert

10:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday

Billy Bob's Texas

Sold out

1-800-745-3000; www.ticketmaster.com

Out of her four noms, Miranda Lambert scored one Grammy. Did she deserve more?
Posted 11:09am on Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2011

Enter our contest to score tickets to one of Miranda Lambert's sold-out Billy Bob's show this weekend.

Miranda Lambert is not a lot of things.

She's not putting diary entries to music, à la Taylor Swift.

But she is writing and recording songs that convey tremendous emotion.

She's not taking a Louisville Slugger to anyone's car, à la Carrie Underwood.

But anyone who listens to Kerosene or Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and still decides to mess with her has more guts than most.

She's aware of her looks, not unlike Kellie Pickler. But rather than trade on them (Pickler's specialty seems to be songs spiting ex-boyfriends), she uses them for satiric effect. Just check out Only Prettier, off her most recent CD, Revolution.

At a time when so many country artists are more worried about crossing over than honoring Music City's lineage, the Lindale-raised Lambert has found a way to strike the perfect balance between homage and hot commodity.

She has charted a course with an unorthodox origin (competing on a now-defunct reality-TV singing contest) and, lately, staggering highs (multiple industry awards, including Grammys, to her credit).

Through it all, the spunky, easygoing, animal-loving blonde from East Texas hasn't shortchanged her craft simply because she's easy on the eyes.

"I've learned that you have to follow your heart and your art," the 27-year-old singer-songwriter says, via e-mail.

In short, Miranda Lambert is Nashville's Great Blonde Hope, a Texas-born and -bred talent on the verge of becoming a one-name superstar, joining the likes of Reba, Garth or Faith.

The scary part?

Miranda Lambert is just getting warmed up.

Emotional honesty

Like so many young musicians before her, Lambert effectively grew up before our eyes.

Look at any of the clips from Lambert's 2003 stint on Nashville Star -- the now-defunct country cousin of American Idol that aired on the USA Network and NBC for six seasons -- and you'll see that, even at age of 19, her talent was plainly evident.

Her body language during these performances screams "nerves," even as the voice pouring out of her -- confident, sassy and infused with that distinctive Texan twang -- sounds like it's coming from a veteran of long tours and late nights. The Longview native eventually finished third (out of 8,000 contestants), but did not lapse into reality-TV anonymity.

If anything, her career exploded: Two years after Nashville Star, Lambert's 2005 debut, Kerosene, set the country charts ablaze with three hit singles, including the stomping title track, and went platinum. Her follow-up, 2007's Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, catapulted her into the stratosphere, with four more hit singles and a No. 1 spot on Billboard's Top Country Albums chart.

2009's Revolution has proven to be another game-changer; thus far, it's earned her album of the year honors from both the Academy of Country Music (ACM) and the Country Music Association (CMA). She's competing for seven ACM awards in April, including the coveted entertainer of the year prize.

At the 53rd annual Grammys last week, Lambert performed and went home with a Grammy for best female country vocal performance.

"I think a lot of [Miranda's success] can be credited to her uncompromising approach to songwriting and song selection," says KSCS/96.3 FM DJ Mark "Hawkeye" Louis. "She once told me that she doesn't like to write the standard mushy love songs that often seem to dominate radio. Her songs are often from a darker place that few songwriters seem to go anymore."

You can find numerous examples of that "darker place" throughout her catalog, including Dead Flowers, the down-tempo track that was the first single off Revolution.

It's a grim tune about the finality of a declining relationship -- those "dead flowers" are Lambert's elegant metaphor for the withered, failed love -- but she stares sadness in its face, refusing the easy way out.

"I feel like this long string of lights/They lit up our whole house on Christmas Day/But now it's January and the bulbs are all burned out/But still they hang like dead flowers," sings Lambert. Her plaintive voice suggests a woman resigned to a very bleak future. Indeed, it's rare to find a song on any of her albums that indulges in easy sentimentality; More Like Her, from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, excoriates a cheating lover, but does so obliquely, almost tenderly, without stooping to pity.

By doing so, Lambert has amassed a loyal, growing fan base weary of the country-pop tropes (girls, cars, drinking) and ready for music that doesn't sacrifice style for substance.

It's not as easy as it looks (honestly, the only other active country musician who comes close is male: Jamey Johnson) and, against conventional wisdom, Lambert has been handsomely rewarded for her efforts. She's landed high-profile opening slots with big names like Toby Keith and Keith Urban, as well as props from legends like Loretta Lynn, who presented Lambert with the 2010 CMA for female vocalist of the year.

With characteristic modesty, Lambert says she needs none of the endless accolades for motivation.

"My career is very satisfying, with or without all those nominations," says Lambert. "I love performing, and I love writing and recording music. I sure hope I get to do it for a long time."

Beginning Friday, she'll cross another major accomplishment off her professional bucket list: Headlining a two-night, sold-out stand at Billy Bob's Texas, one of country music's most iconic stages.

According to Billy Bob's marketing director Pam Minick, Lambert's back-to-back sellout is a feat only two other artists -- both male -- have accomplished in the venue's 30-year history: Pat Green and Willie Nelson.

Post-'Revolution' work

As Lambert has evolved from a fresh-faced Texas teen into country-music powerhouse, she has remained refreshingly down to earth, even as she's used each record to reveal a little more of herself (see: Revolution's heartbreaking centerpiece, The House That Built Me). She's become part of one of Music City's higher-profile power couples with fiance Blake Shelton, whom she'll wed later this year. And she seems next in line to be Nashville's pre-eminent single-name superstar.

But where "Miranda" goes from here depends on several key factors. For one thing, she needs to maintain her relentless work ethic; whether it's Garth, Reba or George, Nashville's true titans have long displayed a laserlike focus and discipline. She also needs to cling to the great artistic taste she's shown thus far. Too many rising country stars have a tendency to team up with blatantly poppy artists -- witness Don't You Wanna Stay, Jason Aldean's duet with Kelly Clarkson -- as a shortcut to superstardom. In the process, they wind up losing credibility with country audiences and rarely win over the pop fans they're chasing after.

Perhaps Lambert's biggest challenge: She needs a gargantuan hit record -- the kind that permeates nearly every level of the culture, the way Lady Antebellum's Need You Now did last year. Granted, it's impossible to engineer that kind of giant crossover hit, but Lambert is certainly capable of producing such a song and needs to keep thinking in those mainstream yet still artistic terms.

What is certain, though, is that Lambert shows no signs of stopping.

She has rarely taken a break of any sustained length. Lambert says she is already working on songs for the follow-up to Revolution, which she may begin recording midyear, with a possible album in stores by the end of 2011.

The young woman from Lindale with the no-nonsense attitude and tender heart is a superstar on the cusp.

"As long as folks are interested in hearing my music, I will continue to perform and record," says Lambert. "It's the only thing I know how to do."

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