It’s four years since Miranda “Ran” Lambert placed third in the debut season of Nashville Star, and two years since Kerosene, her first major-label album, debuted at the very top of country charts. Yet the 23-year-old Texan singer-songwriter has just been presented with the 2007 Academy of Country Music Award for Best New Female Vocalist, beating out former American Idol contestant Kellie Pickler and teenage country star Taylor Swift, who clearly should have won. Obviously, Nashville has always occupied a different place in the time-space continuum, and it’s abundantly clear that Sony is trying to write Ran’s eponymous pre-Nashville Star debut album out of history, but did the Academy really not notice the million selling Kerosene?
The weirdness was made complete by the fact that it was Carrie Underwood who presented Ran’s award. The same Carrie Underwood who released her own debut album three years after Lambert.
Miranda Lambert (2002) was a perfectly servicable little record full of variety, promise and a handful of very fine tunes, including “Somebody Else” and “Wichita Falls”. At 18, Ran was already as comfortable with traditional country two steps and waltzes as she was with southern rock forms. And despite the sardonic send-up of “Texas Pride”, it was immediately obvious that she was indeed “Texas As Hell”, all twang, talent, and attitude.
Mama I’m OK out here
I’ve seen how hard the world can be
My step is sure and I know my name
I’m strong just like you prayed I’d be
— “Mama I’m Alright”
Kerosene (2005) showed all the progression and polish you might expect. The title track blended country tones with pop punk fire. “Me And Charlie Talking” offered a quirky relection on first love and lost youth. And songs such as “What About Georgia”, “Greyhound Bound for Nowhere”, and “Mama I’m Alright” reaffirmed that while Lambert can do both kinds of music (rock and ballad), she’s never better when singing about those staples of country music — small towns, travel, broken-hearts, and a search for self. Indeed, Ran is fast becoming country music’s small-town poster-child, perpetually leaving, yet always returning conceptually to her roots.
He slapped my face and he shook me like a rag doll
Don’t that sound like a real man?
I’m going to show him what a little girl’s made of
Gunpowder and lead
— “Gunpower And Lead”
In “Kerosene”, the broken-hearted singer turned to arson to resolve her issues with a cheating boyfriend. Some readers may consider this excessive. The opening song of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend sees her opt for “Gunpowder and Lead”, load up her shotgun and lie in wait for an abusive boyfriend who’s just made bail.
Clearly, Lambert likes to open her albums with a statement.
Unfortunately, the statement she makes with “Gunpowder and Lead” isn’t close to the one Martina McBride made with “Independence Day”. Where Martina told a tragic story and told it well, Lambert is all about celebrating her own rebel-country-grrl strength and glamourising her own violence. And just as her story pales in comparison with Martina’s, so her spirit of look-at-me jubilation can’t establish even a distant relationship with the Dixie Chicks’ “Goodbye Earl”.
Again, in “Kerosene”, Lambert proclaimed that there “ain’t a rule that ain’t worth breakin'”. On the title track and first single from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Ran hunts her ex and his new girlfriend all the way across town. Tracking them down in the fifth bar she tries, she gets all up in their face, and starts the mother of all bar fights. Continuing the lawless bravado of “Kerosene”, this “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” doesn’t give “a second thought to being thrown in jail”, and doesn’t care that she scared everyone in the bar “half to death”, because “to a hammer everything looks like a nail”. Much though I like Lambert, it seems to me she’s trying far too hard. That, or she’s really trying to tell boyfriend Blake Shelton something.
In “Mama I’m Alright”, when Ran reassured her mother back home in Smallville TX that she was strong. sure of step, and fully aware of her own worth, she was utterly convincing. Despite its excesses, “Kerosene” worked because of the conviction in her delivery and the thrilling riff that underpinned her wild angst. On Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Lambert’s attempts to become an uber-rebel role model fall flat. The title track is simply a mistake: clumsy and ill-fitting, too frantic for her usually excellent vocals. And while “Gunpowder And Lead” is better, this fierce southern rocker flexes its six-string muscles too early, too often, and too long, and yet still recalls Dierks Bentley’s superior “What Was I Thinking?” to its own disadvantage.
While Lambert obviously sees herself as the headstrong country rock rebel that all the little girls will understand, the true joys of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend are to be found elsewhere. And though Ran is very talented song-writer, two of the best moments come from her accomplished performances of other people’s songs. The languid ballad “Easy From Now On”, for example, dates from Emmylou Harris’s 1978 album Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town, and brings Crazy Ex-Girlfriend to a beautifully considered and perenially ambiguous ending. Meanwhile, over on the other side of town…
He said it sounds like your transmission
You need Bob, but he’s gone fishin’
On his day off, he gets a long way from here
Cause it’s a dry town
— “Dry Town”
Following hot on the heels of “Gunpowder and Lead”, all rock bombast and shotgun blast overkill, the simple picked introduction to Gillian Welch and David Rawlings’ “Dry Town” is a breath of cool, fresh air. And the way Miranda Lambert delivers Welch’s conversational and witty lines is indeed a joy and a reaffirmation of her talent. Precise, deftly comic, and utterly felt, this version of Ran stands halfway, perhaps, between Tammy Wynette and Dolly Parton. Which, as someone once said, ain’t a bad place to be.
Lambert’s own “Love Letters” was written in something approaching that traditional style. It’s a fine song, sung well, but the more contemporary styling of the beautifully yearning “Desperation” and the related ballad “More Like Her” are still more impressive. Curiously, it’s on her rockier moments that Best New Female Vocalist Ran continues to under-achieve. “Getting Ready” tries to burn, but barely fizzles, offers an embarrassing call-and-response chorus, and comes across like nothing so much as a pale retread of the already inferior title track. Similarly, “Down” may have oodles of Deadwood atmospherics going on, and may sit more comfortably on her shoulders than “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend”, but it’s still sub-standard fare, possiblly revealing that Ran just doesn’t do dark themes all that well.
“Guilty in Here” is much better, though lyrically confusing, but the indisputable uptempo highlight on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is “Famous in a Small Town”. Elsewhere, Lambert has been busy selling ersatz rebellion to the sort of marks who genuinely believe that a burly bass-player with a purple mohican is like. Totally. Punk. In the presumably well-founded belief that there’s a place for rebel rock in the hearts of little southern girls and in the minds of Nashville’s accountants, she’s been positioning herself as the Ashlee Simpson of Country. But here in a rampant celebration of the mythology of the small town, she achieves an effortless and perfect country pop that mocks her rebel pretensions.
Baby, who needs their faces in a magazine?
Me and you, we’ve been stars of the town since we were 17
So let’s go on down to the QuickStop
Wear your yellow shades and I’ll put on my tight jeans
And we’ll just spend the weekend burnin’ rubber
And we’ll let ’em point and stare in disbelief
— “Famous in a Small Town”
She may not be anyone’s idea of a newcomer outside of Nashville, but Miranda Lambert is a fine performer and a talented song-writer with an innate sense of pop. Much like, for example, Gretchen Wilson, who Lambert has credited with opening career doors for girls with ‘tude. Ten years older and either wiser or better advised, Wilson has successfully toned down her original balls-to-the-wall trailer persona on her largely excellent third album, One of the Boys. Ran, I think, needs to take stock too. Otherwise, her next album may see her removing Blake Shelton’s testicles with a tactical nuke because she caught him watching America’s Next Top Model.