The hullabaloo around this year’s 50th annual 2016 Country Music Association Awards, held a week before the presidential election, was all about the joint performance of Beyoncé and the Dixie Chicks. The CMAs’ racially and politically charged summit of disobedient Texas daughters dared to demonstrate country’s true cross-cultural sources. But their stupendous performance and the ensuing online storm overshadowed other moments, ones that might have shown some of the Beyhive fans incensed by country conservatives’ bigoted tweets that Nashville is by no means a homogeneous barrel of Trump-buttered crackers.
There were implicit pleas for tolerance in Eric Church’s “Kill a Word” (sung with the great black roots-music performer Rhiannon Giddens) and Tim McGraw’s “Humble and Kind.” In particular, though, there was Miranda Lambert, one of the genre’s few female radio-vanquishing superstars in a period that’s been dominated by macho tailgating anthems. She stepped out alone to sing the first verse of her slinky summer hit “Vice” a capella, with an intensity and presence no one but Beyoncé that night could equal, before the band behind her burst into the full arrangement. If not for the evening’s landmark genre-crossing event, it would have been the clip everyone was watching the next day.
Much of the magic of Lambert’s voice comes from the casual confidence of her self-assertion and self-invention. “Vice,” like so many of her songs, is about being a rule-breaking woman, conscious and internally conflicted about the boundaries she’s crossing but by damn doing it anyway. And she mounts that campaign from the center of commercial country, with its legacy of storytelling, wordplay, and sad-but-witty realism, rather than from outside.
It’s been a running theme since she emerged at barely 20 as a contestant on Nashville Star in 2003, from early hits such as “Kerosene” and “Gunpowder and Lead” through 2014’s Thelma and Louise–ish No. 1 country duet with Carrie Underwood, “Somethin’ Bad.” It has been heightened by her recent plight as part of a scandal sheet–wrapped triangle with ex-husband and fellow country star Blake Shelton and pop’s Gwen Stefani (who found each other while serving as judges on another televised music competition, The Voice). Tabloid accounts fixed blame for the divorce on Lambert, which lends venom to uncoiling “Vice” lines such as “If you need me, I’ll be/ Where my reputation don’t precede me” (at which a small cheer went up in the CMAs hall).
Lambert ceded the Female Vocalist CMA this year to Underwood, after a record-setting six straight wins, but her new album The Weight of These Wings, released this week, seems assured to garner her a seventh. Audaciously, she made it a 24-track double album, in a genre where, unlike in rock or hip-hop (think of this summer’s 81-minute Views by Drake), such a presumptuous demand on listeners’ time has been mostly off limits since the country-rock crossovers of the 1970s. She’s trusting that her fans are with her all the way. I could argue that deleting four or five songs would make it more powerful, but listeners would differ about what to cut. Reportedly it was already edited down from 60 candidates.
Lambert co-wrote almost all of the tracks with her two dozen collaborators, a more expansive group than her usual clutch of female and gay songwriters (including Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley from her supergroup Pistol Annies, as well as Nashville’s secret weapon, Shane McAnally). The two pure covers here—of Shake Russell’s “You Wouldn’t Know Me” and Danny O’Keefe’s “Covered Wagon”—connect Lambert to the countercultural Texas singer-songwriter tradition of her home state. So does the line in “Highway Vagabond” about “Roamin’ town to town just like Willie did/ When he was just a kid,” and so do the punning internal rhymes of the Guy Clark– or Lyle Lovett–like “For the Birds”—though the party-style backup vocals there may be a cuteness too far.
The Weight of These Wings (which might have been more charmingly titled after a line on the closing track: “These wings get a little heavy”) is not exactly Tales From Topographic Oceans. But it does have a loose conceptual overlay. The first disc is titled Nerve, and it’s mostly about restless traveling and acting out. It makes it clear that “Vice” (“Another vice, another call/ Another bed I shouldn’t crawl out of/ At 7 a.m. with shoes in my hand/ Said I wouldn’t do it but I did it again”) was not a one-off. It has “Ugly Lights,” a drawling honky-tonk raver about being “the girl bartenders hate,” who hangs around drinking alone until closing time while “the Romeos and Juliets/ who bummed all my cigarettes” pair off in the parking lot and split. And it has the torchy blues “Smoking Jacket,” in which Lambert (for whom cigarettes are so often a totem) fantasizes about an elegantly bespoke and tragic-hearted gentleman who “makes a habit of lovin’ me till it hurts” and “lights his matches with kerosene” (surely a wink back to her first success).
It also has the terrific second single “We Should Be Friends,” a bumptious country-rock soul-sister answer to bro-country, about spotting potential BFFs by their rough-and-tumble ways, from stained T-shirts to copious consumption of Miller Lites. It includes maybe the funniest country lines of the year, “If you use alcohol as a sedative/ And ‘bless your heart’ as a negative/ Well then, we should be friends,” but also the arched eyebrow of “I don’t know you well, but I know that look/ I can judge the cover ’cause I wrote the book.”
This is the zone in which Lambert rebukes the mentality of Dierks Bentley’s hit from earlier this year, “Different for Girls,” in which he well-meaningly claims that women, unlike men, never work out heartbreak by running off, getting plastered, and sleeping around. Lambert insists that, nope, that’s exactly how some women do it. The surprise near the end of the cycle is that she meets someone she cares for—her current boyfriend, country singer Anderson East, who duets with her on “Pushin’ Time,” an unflinching assessment of the risks of a rebound relationship.
The second half of the album is called Heart, and it is about confronting all the soul-searching feelings that remain after the go-wild phase of heartbreak. It’s a more subdued set than the first, naturally, but perhaps the one that will stick. It includes one of the record’s best songs, the Western-swing noir “Things That Break,” in which she sings in rising and falling cadences that “I leave it all in ruins/ ’Cause I don’t know what I’m doin’/ I’m hard on things that matter/ Hold the heart so tight it shatters” and finally admits, “Somebody once broke me.” It also has the countrypolitan, George Jones–and–Tammy Wynette–style ballad “To Learn Her,” which at first suggests a description of an ideal marriage and then becomes a tombstone for an unavoidable divorce.
The songs “Bad Boy” and “Tomboy” are each a little rote, but between them they sketch the gender traps Lambert so keenly tracks. I’m especially compelled by “Good Ol’ Days,” a doubter’s existential prayer disguised as the kind of nostalgic Southern pastoral Lambert indulged a bit too much on 2014’s Platinum. Here, though, she sings to the Southern winds, “The religious and the rest/ They’ve all tried their best/ Well, I guess some things you just don’t understand.”
Miranda Lambert matters because amid the cultural gaps that have distressed a nation so much in this electoral season, she caters to no one’s pieties. If you have any curiosity about what Trump-voting white women in Midwestern and Southern suburbs and small towns might cope with, how they become jaded day by day, Lambert can tell you. But if they, in turn, wonder what it might like to be out in unknown territories, to encounter unfamiliar challenges and disappointments, to be alienated from one’s roots and uncomfortably adjust expectations—well, Lambert sings about that, too.
She allows, all at once, pedal steel and chamber strings and dirty-rock leads and shuffling drums and chicken-fried funk to testify. There’s a bravery in her no demographic simplifications can trace. No wonder her wings are heavy. But when they give out, she doesn’t crash. She rolls on.