Music

Country Music Needs a Perfectly Imperfect Diva Like Miranda Lambert

NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE - APRIL 11: Miranda Lambert performs at the 2022 CMT Music Awards at Nashville Municipal Auditorium on April 11, 2022 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Erika Goldring/Getty Images for CMT)
Erika Goldring/Getty Images

Mainstream country music has felt some spurs grind into its haunches in recent years. It’s experienced the same hurt that the pandemic put on the whole music industry, yes, but the genre’s also undergone an overdue reckoning with its special brew of sexism and racism, from the dire stats on equity in country-radio play to the 2019 backlash against Lil Nas X, the 2021 Morgan Wallen N-word incident, and more. Scads of musicians, organizations, journalists, documentarians, and other activists have put their shoulders into budging country’s dug-in wagon wheels. But how long can those reformers, including long-sidelined artists such as Mickey Guyton, for example, remain stuck in country’s decades-deep muck before they say to hell with it?

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Whenever I’m tempted to wash my hands of Nashville’s dirt, though, the faces of the great country divas flash before my eyes. Like last weekend, when the news came that the ever-wounded Naomi Judd had died on the eve of her family’s induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Or the week before that, when Harry Styles continued his string of duets with legendary older ladies by singing “Man! I Feel Like a Woman” at Coachella with Shania Twain. Or seemingly every 15 minutes, when the internet’s (oft-overdone) Dolly Parton mania gushes up like Old Faithful, while the 76 year old faithfully cranks out albums, movies, charitable works, and even airport-bookstore thrillers.

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Those figures mostly belong to country’s past, though. The best-established contemporary Nashville diva still doing Music City prouder than it deserves is Miranda Lambert, who is back with her eighth studio album, Palomino. She’s coming off a rare win for a woman as Entertainer of the Year at the Association of Country Music awards, adding to her already-crammed shelves of hardware. Her icon status will be affirmed later this year with that definitive diva rite of passage: a Las Vegas residency, which she’s calling the Velvet Rodeo. And though Palomino puts a foot wrong here and there, that hardly dings an artist who country critic Jewly Hight has rightly called “the 21st century’s advocate of imperfection.”

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Like their pop sistren, from Judy to Aretha to Barbra to Cher to Whitney to Britney, country divas incarnate a larger-than-life indomitability that’s feminist in spirit, if not always in name. Lambert has been a lot more explicit when calling out industry sexism than her predecessors, and she brings other women to the front, whether it’s cowriter Natalie Hemby on this album or her bandmates in side gig the Pistol Annies. Lambert represents the small-town, working-class roots of country as well as its rhinestone-flashing ambitions. But she doesn’t carry the legacy of childhood deprivation of a Parton or Loretta Lynn, or the perpetual woman-done-wrong suffering that defined Tammy Wynette. Nor, unlike her friendly rival Carrie Underwood, is Lambert obliged to undertake so much of the labor of glamor, commanding stages in jeans and boots more often than in gowns and heels. She wears her womanhood more lightly, as an occasion for boozy celebration more than a cause to drown her sorrows—though she has plenty of tunes like that, too.

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Granted, the Texas-born singer-songwriter first made an impression in the mid-2000s by joining in the period’s trend of female-revenge-fantasy rockers with “Kerosene” and “Gunpowder and Lead.” She also struggled against tabloid gossip following her 2015 divorce from fellow country star Blake Shelton, a breakup documented on her 2016 double album The Weight of These Wings. (That album is still the best showcase of her musical and emotional range.) But now at 38, Lambert’s maxim is, as she told The Los Angeles Times recently, “You got one year, then no more wallowing. Let’s cry these tears and move on.” (She remarried in 2019, to a former New York City cop she met on tour.)

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Above all, Lambert’s name has stood for frank, unapologetic self-possession— reveling in the trappings of femininity without allowing them to confine her. She steers through heartbreak when necessary, but always while en route to a damn good time. She represents, as Hight wrote, “a restless desire to keep growing alongside a complete disinterest in striving for respectability.”

The millennial country diva even has more than half-a-dozen tattoos, a fashion choice that would have been verboten in Gen X-er Shania Twain’s day—“Daddy cried when he saw my tattoo/ But said he loved me anyway,” Lambert sang on her 2011 number-one country hit, “A Heart Like Mine.” But Lambert also absorbed the same lesson as her peers, especially the women, from the Iraq War-era ouster of the Chicks (née Dixie Chicks): Never talk politics in public. The taboo and resulting skill deficit partly accounts for why much of the country community has dealt so poorly with recent racial debates—including Lambert, who has continued to work with Morgan Wallen, for instance, without seeming to demand of him a greater self-awareness.

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On the other hand, like any good 21st-century diva, Lambert has begun to ally herself more clearly with her substantial LBGTQ listenership. More stars, songwriters, and other country-adjacent players are opening up about their sexuality, like T.J. Osborne of the popular Brothers Osborne, who came out last year. Just as mainstream country radio often sounds like the pop and rock of a decade-plus earlier, Nashville now looks to be recapitulating the progress on sexual identity that most of American showbiz made nearly 20 years ago. Lambert contributed a song called “Y’All Means All” to the Queer Eye season set in Texas last year—the title was suggested by her younger brother Luke, who’s married to a man—in which she sings among other things, “If you’re torn between the Y’s and X’s/ You ain’t gotta play with the hand you’re dealt.” And Palomino’s lead single “If I Was a Cowboy” not only nods thematically to Beyoncé’s “If I Was a Boy” (with a tumbleweed twist), but it also includes a sidelong wink at Willie and Waylon when Lambert sings, “So mamas, if your daughters grow up to be cowboys, so what?”

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Plus, if you’d told me five years ago that a Miranda Lambert album would include a duet with the B-52s, I’m not sure I’d have believed you. Yet here the band is on Palomino, joining Lambert on “Music City Queen.” Part of her audience will recognize Cindy Wilson’s and Kate Pierson’s unmistakable harmonies only from the durable party/karaoke anthem “Love Shack.” Another portion, however, will remember the 1980s avant-kitsch new-wavers from Athens, Georgia, for the revolutionary way they brought Southern queer eccentricity out into pop culture’s neon light.

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Lambert clearly recognized that the “flashy and trashy” characters she was writing about on “Music City Queen,” the showbiz misfits who perform on a cheesy tourist showboat on Nashville’s Cumberland River, were very much the B-52s’ kinds of people. Consider Tina, who “never quite had a Hollywood body,” but “makes a damn good lookalike Dolly”—at which point the B-52s’ lead carnival barker Fred Schneider pitches in with his unique nasal hoot, “Whoa, Dolly!” Schneider’s presence grows as the track goes on, and by the final verse, he’s trading lines in a call-and-response with Lambert. It’s a delightful climax, although not quite at the level I dreamed of. That may come down to the fact that the band wasn’t actually with Lambert in the studio—they Zoomed their parts in, and Lambert wasn’t even there at the time. I can’t help feeling that Schneider’s energy bouncing off hers in-person would have produced a wilder, richer result.

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That sense of missed chances applies to Palomino overall. While never truly letting down Lambert’s high standards, it’s less satisfying than her last several albums. Some of that may be due to the conditions of recording during a pandemic. Lambert produced the album with frequent co-writer/musicians Jon Randall and Luke Dick, the first time she’s worked without an outside producer. While I want to cheer on that autonomy, some of the sound here feels like a rough draft. The music on 2019’s Wildcard fire-crackered out of the speakers, but when the smoke and sweat starts to build on Palomino, it often sounds like it’s behind a safety shield.

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The theme of the album, a focus on road songs—imaginary travels to sate the pandemic-period longing for real ones—may also be to blame for lending it a certain sameness. Not as lusty and snarky as Wildcard nor as wistful as The Weight of These Wings, Palomino seems to land in a middling place even as its songs keep moving on, namechecking town after town. It could use a few more dirty, messy, tighter-focused tunes, and few less that restate the I’m-a-restless-rambler thesis the way “Actin’ Up,” “Scenes,” “Tourist,” and “Pursuit of Happiness” do. Each of those is fine on its own; the problem is the pileup.

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Place names in a song add atmosphere and texture, but they’re also opportunities for tour audiences to cheer when they hear a shoutout to a local landmark. They help build the parasocial bond with the artist, humanizing them as someone who could be, if not a neighbor, at least someone who knows the lay of your land. When that trick’s played so much on one album, though, the set starts to sound more like a vehicle for that anticipated tour than a destination of its own. Sometimes the concept seems to be driving Lambert instead of the other way around. It’s a relief, for example, when an out-of-left-field, gospel-blues cover of a 1992 Mick Jagger solo song, “Wandering Spirit,” adds some hippie-mystic grandeur to the travelogue theme: “Trod the pyramids and ruins of Angkor/ And I kissed the Mona Lisa and had breakfast with the King.” A country album can always use a reminder that, vast as America is, it ain’t the world entire.

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But there are all-time classics on Palomino too. Along with “If I Was a Cowboy,” there’s “Strange,” which extrapolates from the time-out-of-joint feelings of the pandemic to a more universal sense of alienation; “That’s What Makes the Jukebox Play,” a fit addition both to the treasure trove of country songs-about-songs and to Lambert’s own stock of closely observed tunes about bars; and “Carousel,” a gorgeous closer worthy of Lambert’s songwriting-storytelling heroes Guy Clark and John Prine, a tale of a retired trapeze artist that doubles as Lambert’s bittersweet meditation on the inevitable point in life when the spotlight may fade for good: “Every show must end, every circus leaves town.”

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Perhaps most impressive here, however, are the three dynamic reworkings of songs from last year’s underheard, acoustic trio album The Marfa Tapes, recorded under the West Texas stars with Jon Randall and Jack Ingram. The studio augmentation of the beautiful “In His Arms” is a welcome reprise. The rocked-up version of “Geraldene,” Lambert’s update and answer song to Parton’s “Jolene,” meanwhile, was an absolute necessity. And I’m slayed above all by the expansion here of the yearning, Lucinda Williams-like “Waxahachie,” a Lambert masterpiece about wanting to retrace some of life’s wrong turns. “Nobody ever left New Orleans as mad as I was,” she begins—a hell of a claim when you think about it. But by the middle, Lambert’s pleading to a lost love (personified by the titular Dallas suburb), “I’ve got enough gasoline, memories, and nicotine/ Freedom’s overrated, guess I underestimated the truth/ And you.”

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Alongside Palomino’s own myriad virtues, I’m grateful to it for bringing me back to The Marfa Tapes, which I now realize was one of the best records of 2021. There’s a moment in the enchantingly laid-back documentary about its making (also highly recommended) where Lambert messes up “They’ve Closed Down the Honky Tonks,” admitting that she’s never been able to get the words down because the pandemic-themed song just hit “too close to home.” I think that’s how I felt last year about the whole album—the last thing I wanted was another stripped-down artifact of isolation. But now, with the world barreling incautiously forward once more, its exquisite understatement feels like an intimate oasis.

More than that, Marfa offers a precious glimpse of a world-class diva creating her art off the clock, even off the calendar—or at least creating the illusion of doing so. It’s like getting to sit around a campfire with Maria Callas. Lambert can be equally captivating in a stadium, a Vegas thee-ay-ter, an awards show, or sipping a Corona on a dusty desert porch. For all Nashville’s drawbacks, that’s a type of diva they don’t make in many other towns.

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