Dallas The ticket stub read simply "Miranda Lambert: On Fire."
As marketing hooks go, it's difficult to think of one more appropriate for the woman from Lindale. Rather than one large explosion catapulting her to fame, the flames responsible for her sustained success have been steadily stoked over the last decade.
The last time she performed in North Texas, she sold out two nights, back-to-back, at country music landmark Billy Bob's Texas. Saturday night, she came extraordinarily close to selling out the Gexa Energy Pavilion, which holds about 20,000 bodies (or, to provide a sense of scale for Lambert's life and career, four times as many people as are found in her East Texas hometown). The energy in the venue was palpable before a single note was struck, providing an electrifying backdrop for what proved to be an outsized evening, albeit one underpinned by intimate, raw emotions.
Lambert, fresh off her latest album, Four the Record, spent much of 2011 collecting music industry hardware: four Academy of Country Music awards; a Country Music Association trophy; a CMT Music award and a Grammy. She wed her long-time beau Blake Shelton and became one of just a handful of single-monikered superstars (a fact indirectly acknowledged in the brief pre-show video, set to Beyonce's Run the World (Girls) and placing Lambert alongside giants like Oprah, Reba and Loretta). She is, by nearly any metric you choose, firmly fixed in Nashville's glittering firmament, alongside Carrie, Faith and the rest.
And yet, despite the trappings of modern country superstardom -- a riot of video screens, blinding light displays and fans situated to blow her tousled blonde hair about just so -- the 28-year-old singer-songwriter remains an identifiable figure, discernible amid the increasing amounts of flash. "There are a crapload of people here tonight," Lambert observed halfway through. "I remember opening lots of shows here, but I never got to play in the dark."
With an innate confidence that's born, and could never be taught, Lambert and her five-piece band (anchored by Fort Worth's Aden Bubeck and Greenville's Scotty Wray) delivered a scorching 105-minute set showcasing why she has generated so much heat. Pulling from all phases of her career to date, Lambert also treated the audience to a mini-set from her terrific side project, Pistol Annies (a trio she formed with Angaleena Presley and Ashley Monroe).
The vivacious women, outfitted with mic stands designed as an homage to the Grand Ol' Opry, ran through tracks from last year's debut Hell on Heels and punched out a gleeful take on Loretta Lynn's Fist City (which is fast becoming women of a certain age's default Lynn cover).
But as confident and polished as the night's first half was, it was after the Pistol Annies left the stage that Lambert took the evening from entertaining to truly memorable. Memories came spilling out of her; the spotlight became a confessional. On the eve of Mother's Day, she recalled her own mother, Bev, booking her first show at the now-defunct Gypsy Tea Room in Deep Ellum. She boasted about her husband's success on the NBC vocal competition series The Voice. She shared an amusing anecdote about being seated next to Lady Gaga at the Grammys, before delivering a muscular rendition of Gaga's You and I.
Just as it was at Billy Bob's Texas, the show-stopping centerpiece was The House That Built Me. The circumstances were slightly different this time -- she had recently lost her grandmother in the days before the Fort Worth show -- yet the sentiment was almost more overwhelming in its poignancy. "It's not just about where you grow up, but the things along the way" that help make you who you are, said Lambert before she began. Her eyes, ringed with black eyeliner, were brimming with tears as the song began.
By the final verses, she was so overcome that she could not sing or stop herself from choking back sobs, leaving the crowd to sing the lyrics back to her.
It was a singularly moving experience, and one suggesting House is destined to be a signature song for Lambert. Much as George Strait or Willie Nelson have their own, indelible moments in concert -- the songs that make those shows must-see events, inextricably linking the tune with its best interpreter -- so too does Lambert have The House That Built Me. To see her singing it, in the throes of the clearly deeply personal feelings it evokes, just 86 miles from where she grew up, is the kind of extraordinary moment that inspires fierce pride, even as it triggers reminisces of one's own. It made the night one of 2012's most gripping.
Uncowed by the mammoth stages upon which she now finds herself, Lambert needs only to conquer Cowboys Stadium (which, honestly, can't be too far away) to secure her place in the pantheon of legendary Texas country artists. That ticket stub is onto something. The fires, having fueled her rise from reality TV also-ran to gold-plated Nashville force of nature, burn unabated. While you can't anticipate where or how a conflagration will spread, Lambert's trajectory is much more easily discerned: endlessly, thrillingly up.