Miranda Lambert's 'Americana' obstacle
By Gabe Meline
Attention all you mandolin-lovin', Strawberry Festival–goin', Todd Snider–worshippin', No Depression–readin', banjo-celebratin', nasally whinin', North Carolina–movin', lap-steel covetin', microbrew-gluggin', Hardly Strictly Bluegrass–pilgrimagin' hee-haws—I know what you've been saying behind Miranda Lambert's back, because it's the same thing every twangier-than-thou "y'allternative" jackass who discovers the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack and suddenly turns into some straw-hat, battered-guitar Broke-ahontas always says:
"New country sucks."
Of course, if people stopped believing increasingly meaningless music labels, they'd hear Miranda Lambert's latest album Revolution as the Americana masterpiece it simply hasn't received recognition for. Case in point: the Americana Music Association, with 73 radio stations around the country reporting, released a "100 Best Albums of the Year" list in 2009. While some crossover picks like the Pretenders, Charlie Haden and Bruce Springsteen got plenty of spins, Miranda Lambert's nowhere to be seen. In the eyes of Americana radio, she's 26, blonde and on top of the CMT charts. Branded: pop-country.
Lambert, who grew up in Lindale, Texas, population 5,024, writes her own songs, is on the road constantly, digs deep into the human experience and covers Julie Miller, John Prine and Fred Eaglesmith. If that doesn't give her Americana cred, then listen to her music, which sounds a lot more like Lucinda Williams than Carrie Underwood. Her No. 1 Billboard single "The House That Built Me," about returning to a childhood home and pleading with the current residents to have a look inside, has all the pensive, delicately acoustic traits of Carrie Rodriguez or Emmylou Harris.
I emailed Lambert recently to ask if she felt drawn more to the rugged Americana scene than the polished pop of the new Nashville. "I feel drawn to authenticity," she replied, "to a message that I feel like I can sing and deliver to my fans and connect with them. I am not a fan of 'labeling' music. For me, it's either good or not."
That's why alongside self-penned hits "Dead Flowers" and "White Liar," Revolution contains Prine's "That's the Way the World Goes 'Round" and Miller's "Somewhere Trouble Don't Go."
"I have been a fan of John Prine and Julie Miller for a while now and love the way they seem to put words in a song that fits my sensibility," Lambert writes. "Then my producer Frank Liddell played me a song by Fred Eaglesmith in the studio, and I started digging into Fred's work and found this jewel of a song."
That song, "Time to Get a Gun," might just be the ultimate bridge between the two mindsets. Written by Eaglesmith, an Americana darling who plays for small crowds and has a general delivery address for a record label, the song champions the redneck staple of firearms. Lambert delivers it with all the rough-and-tumble rhythm of a pickup bouncing along pocked dirt roads.
But by far the highlight on Revolution is "Only Prettier," a scathing, sarcastic jab at anorexic, social-climbing frenemies who "only weigh 100 pounds and stand five-foot-three." Over a mid-tempo swagger, Lambert spits, "I got a mouth like a sailor and yours is more like a Hallmark card . . . I'll keep drinkin', and you'll keep getting' skinnier / I'm just like you, only prettier."
The song's parallels to Taylor Swift, to whom Lambert was incessantly compared when the two young songwriters burst on the scene in 2006, are uncanny. I mention this, but Lambert doesn't own up to it. "Honestly, there is no real-life Skinny Minnie that inspired the song," she claims of the collaboration with songwriter Natalie Hemby. "We try to write about life and things we know and feel like other people can relate to, and the subject matter of 'Only Prettier' is just too fun to write about."
Swift, of course, isn't much threat to Lambert's career anymore—and certainly not after Lambert swept the 2010 Academy of Country Music Awards, taking Album of the Year and Female Vocalist of the Year honors—but what does affect her fanbase are labels like "new country" and "Americana" that leave a lot of would-be fans unaware of her vast talent. "I am actually very lucky for some reason that the songs for my records seem to come together organically," she notes.
Here's hoping a wider, more open-minded Americana fanbase follows.
Miranda Lambert performs on Monday, Aug. 2, at the Sonoma County Fair. 1350 Bennett Valley Road, Santa Rosa. 7:30pm. $25–$40; separate fair admission required. 707.545.4200.
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