The 13-time Country Music Association Awards-winner and two-time Grammy-winner still welcomes risks. ‘I like to push myself,’ she says
When it comes to winning streaks, Miranda Lambert has a track record worth boasting about.
Each of the seven albums she has released since her 2005 breakthrough, “Kerosene,” entered the Billboard Top Country Album Charts at No. 1, and one of them, 2014’s “Platinum,” earned her the second of her two Grammy Awards. Named the Recording Industry Association of America’s 2019 Artist of the Year, Lambert has also won 13 Country Music Association awards and nine Academy of Country Music Female Vocalist of the Year awards.
But years of stardom and growing success don’t make an artist immune from the same everyday pressures and maladies as their fans or anyone else, especially when it comes to getting ill. The key difference is that when Lambert recently came down with a very bad cold — midway through her ongoing 2020 “Wildcard” winter tour — it adversely impacted her band, her road crew, her bank balance and thousands of fans.
“I recently had to cancel a few shows, which is rare and absolutely breaks my heart,” said the veteran vocal dynamo and songwriter, who conducted this interview via email after her doctor instructed her to cancel her phone interviews.
“When your voice goes, there is no backup,” Lambert continued. “It just stops the train from rolling. I take pretty good care of myself, especially while on tour, because a lot rides on being healthy. Sometimes the crowd brings (me) to another level when they are having fun. The more energy they have, the more we have, and it creates a really great room!”
But no amount of enthusiasm from her fans can convince her to do a substandard show, as the Texas-bred Lambert is quick to acknowledge.
“If I can’t be great, I would rather wait and come back when I can be,” she said. “People spend hard-earned money to come see us play, and I owe it to everyone — including my band, crew and myself — to show up and be 100 percent. Not every night is perfect. And those shows where I don’t feel like I delivered properly really push me to try harder. The good news is we play a lot, so there is always room for improvement.”
Pushing against the grain
Lambert was just 17 when she launched her professional music career in 2000 as the singer (and youngest member) in Texas Pride, a band in her hometown of Lindale (she was born 43 miles away in Longview). She released a self-produced album the next year and played numerous gigs in honky-tonk bars and clubs. She honed her performing and songwriting skills, and — in 2003 — was a runner-up on the TV talent competition show, “Nashville Star.” That led to Lambert signing a record deal with Sony Nashville, although it would be another two years before her debut album for the label was released.
She wrote or co-wrote all of the songs on her first album, including “Kerosene’s” charged title track. That is unusual for any new artist in Nashville, where music-industry conventions usually dictate that you will record songs by other writers that have been chosen by your record label, end-of-story.
But Lambert seemed to thrive by pushing against the grain. And she struck a resounding chord with from-the-heart songs, whose titles — from “White Trash” and “Famous in a Small Town” to “Sin for a Sin” and “It All Comes Out in the Wash” — resonate almost as strongly as the songs themselves.
In a 2010 Union-Tribune interview, Lambert said: “I’m a gambling girl. I like to take risks.”
Ten years later, is it easier or harder for her to takes risks? And is she more inclined to take them, or less?
“I still take risks. That is how you grow,” replied Lambert, who was divorced from her first husband, Blake Shelton, in 2015 and married New York City police officer Brendan McLoughlin in early 2019. “Seems like when I get too comfortable, that’s when I get complacent. I like to push myself. But at the same time, I don’t like change that much. So, sometimes it’s a battle with myself.
“I guess I just never changed that much. I’m still the same exact person, just a little calmer than I was at 21. It’s easier to be settled in who you are when you get a little success under your belt. You stop trying to prove as much.”
That said, Lambert still has something to prove.
“I want to keep growing as a songwriter. And a woman,” she said. “I guess it’s not really proving anything to anyone but me, at this point in my career.”
Yet, despite her proven track record, Lambert finds herself facing at least one major recurring obstacle.
Namely, the reluctance — make that, outright refusal — of country-music radio stations to regard women artists as equals to men, at least when it comes to airplay.
A 2019 study by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative found that only 16 percent of country artists are female, while only 12 percent of country songwriters are women. Equally dismaying, the study determined that the average age of top female artists in country music is 29 years old, 13 years younger than the average age of 42 for male country music artists.
The Annenberg study came less than half a year after Billboard magazine reported in 2018 that, for the first time in memory, its Top 20 Country Airplay chart included no female artists whatsoever.
Lambert, 36, has experienced that exclusion firsthand. Her critically acclaimed 2016 double-album, “The Weight of These Wings,” sold more than a million copies and earned Album of the Year honors from the Academy of Country Music. Even so, “Wings” did not yield a single Top 10 hit, which is doubly notable since Lambert had three chart-topping singles between 2010 and 2012.
Walking the walk
Lambert has been outspoken on behalf of her fellow female country-music artists. And she has walked the walk, be it with the 2011 formation of the trio Pistol Annies — which teams her with Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley — or her 2019 “Roadside Bars & Pink Guitars Tour,” which featured Lambert, Pistol Annies, Maren Morris, Elle King, Ashley McBryde, Tenille Townes and Caylee Hammack.
“There are problems in the way they research (for radio),” Lambert said. “It’s not broad. It’s very specific. And they base their decision on that. Hits are hits, though, no matter what chart position (an artist has). If it was about a number on the chart, I wouldn’t have a career. The fans don’t know or care if it was top 5 or dies at (No.) 50. They just like it or don’t, and I like that better. Cut and dry ...
“As far as the airplay thing, I’m honestly over talking about it. I’m just gonna keep making records and playing shows, with or without it. I’ve done my part for change. Nothing else to worry about at this point.”
Asked if listeners can do anything to make radio be more responsive and well-balanced, Lambert suggested bypassing radio altogether.
“The listeners can stream and buy music. That helps a ton,” she said. “Then it won’t matter. All I want is to be heard and keep doing what I love. I know what my fans expect from me, and I just want to keep delivering for them. However they hear the music makes me happy.”
And what makes Lambert happy when she has some down time?
“I chill out,” she said. “It’s people I love, and animals. If I’m in Tennessee, I go to my farm and ride horses and hang in the barn. If I’m on the (tour) bus, I just read and watch movies so I won’t talk too much. My husband is fine with me being on vocal rest. What husband wouldn’t be? Just kidding!”
In her 2010 Union-Tribune interview, Lambert said she hoped to equal the career longevity and quality of Loretta Lynn, who in 2019 returned to the stage to perform at her 87th birthday concert.
Does Lambert still hope to match Lynn?
“I do!” she replied. “I love what I do so much, even when it’s hard and exhausting. The only thing that would make me stop is if I physically couldn’t do it anymore. That being said, I have learned to better balance family, friends and have a life outside of the music business. It’s very important to me to have that. I think that the key to longevity is giving yourself a breath to be re-inspired.”
Writing songs and covering them
Writing songs is an art. So is performing songs written by other artists.
We asked Miranda Lambert to discuss her songwriting and her criteria for choosing songs by other artists. Here’s what she told us about:
Cover songs: “I look for something I can say: ‘Man, I’d wish I’d written that’ about. Something that I wouldn’t think of, both melodically and lyrically.”
Baring her heart in her lyrics: “I don’t hold much back when it comes to writing songs. I am usually brutally honest and it does hurt sometimes. But my favorite songs and artist are very vulnerable so I just stick with that. I love sad songs. But I do know that it’s also fun to write happy songs!”
Using humor to make a more serious point: “I like to make girls feel their best through my music. And doing it sometimes in a joking way makes light of something a little heavier.”
Favorite topics: ” I think most of my favorite country songs are about beer and love. Those two things are pretty universal and make people be honest with themselves.”
Miranda Lambert, with LANCO and Cody Johnson
When: 7 p.m. Friday
Where: Viejas Arena at Aztec Bowl, 5500 Canyon Crest Drive, San Diego State University
Tickets: $25 to $94.75, plus service fees