In her hit single “Baggage Claim,” Miranda Lambert sings about the kind of luggage you wish would get lost. “I have been dragging around your sensitive ego,” she tells an ex-friend or lover -- soon concluding, with characteristic swagger, that she’ll “drop your troubles off at the conveyor belt/I hand you a ticket to go get it yourself.” Mr. Needy is left doing loops on the suitcase carousel while Lambert’s rocking out in the unloading zone.
With the release of Four the Record, Miranda comes bearing some baggage of her own – the precious kind, well-earned over the course of three highly loved (and unanimously platinum) prior albums. Her accolades could fill a whole set of trunks.
To point out just one carry-on case’s worth of kudos: She is country’s reigning female vocalist of the year, as bestowed by both the Country Music Association and the Academy of Country Music. She’s won the prized album of the year trophy from both organizations, as well – from the ACMs for her second record, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and from the CMAs and ACMs for her third, Revolution. She received the top country female vocal performance honor at the most recent Grammy Awards for “The House That Built Me.” And, lest all her honorifics be so high-minded, she’s been named one of People magazine’s Most Beautiful People and one of Maxim’s Hottest Women of Country. Frequent flyers can hardly rack up more awards points than that.
So when “Baggage Claim” was released to country radio stations in August, Lambert realized she was something she’d never expected to become: an automatic add.
She’s thrilled with her own radio success because, prior to Revolution, she’d never even had a top 5 single. Two years ago, as that make-or-break effort was prepared for takeoff, you didn’t have to listen far to hear whispers that maybe those same cutting-edge qualities that made her an award-show queen and press darling would be the kiss of death when the commercial rubber hit the road. But in 2010, she finally earned the triple crown – love from industry orgs, critics, and radio – when she bagged her first three No. 1 singles with “White Liar”, “The House That Built Me” and “Heart Like Mine.”
Naturally, with “Baggage Claim” burning a kerosene-fueled trail up the chart in advance of Four the Record, she approached the impending release of this album with a good deal more certainty. Not that anyone would have called her unconfident before now, mind you. But…
“I’ve never had an album release coincide with a hit, ever,” she points out, in the midst of her enthusiasm about the success of “Baggage Claim” as a teaser for the new album. “Revolution came out on a single that died in the 30s.” (For the record, that would be “Dead Flowers,” which marked the very last time that programmers were unsure whether to take a chance on Lambert.) “So I’m excited and so thankful. Because I don’t blame the program directors and DJs who used to have to put my songs on and have the listeners go, ‘What the hell is this?’ I am different, and I am a little edgy. But I’ve played so many tours and been on the road so much, I feel like people get me now. Or else they think, ‘She’s not going away, so we might as well just start liking it’,” she laughs.
Of course, merely being worn down has nothing to do with what made America fall in love with ‘Ran, as she’s known to her fans.
The fascination began in earnest when she was a humble yet feisty runner-up on Nashville Star in 2003, standing out as the most independent and least likely of all reality-show contestants. Sony Nashville quickly signed her with the understanding that, even though she was still a teen, she had the moxie and know-how to write many of her own songs and pick her own team, like co-producer and fellow Texan Frank Liddell. Reflective singles like “Famous in a Small Town” proved her wise beyond her tender years, and rowdy ones like “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” proved her bold beyond all expectations of just how fresh a country freshman should be.
Her recent nuptials to fellow country star Blake Shelton only heightened fans’ natural curiosity: Is she really a raging, red-hot rock & roll mama or blushing country bride?
The answer, of course, as heard in Four the Record, is all of the above and then some. The new 14-song set is epic in its range of musical styles and even the varied expressiveness in Lambert’s unmistakable voice. She’s clearly in a class with the slim handful of superstar “album artists” whose every full-length release is anxiously anticipated as an event that’s much more than just the sum of its singles.
“My sole mission with the Revolution album was to go ‘Hey, get me out of this corner you’re pushing me in. I’m not just ‘Kerosene’ and ‘Gunpowder and Lead’ and all that.’ I mean, that’s part of me, but I have so much more to say, and I definitely think I’ve been able to do that.” The sense of “mission accomplished” was cemented when, against all odds, it was two of the last album’s most subdued and sensitive songs, “The House That Built Me” and “Heart Like Mine,” that were the ones to take her to the top of the country chart (for four solid weeks, in the case of “House”).
When it came time to record Four the Record, the methodology wasn’t much different. As before, Lambert did a lot of the writing herself or in tandem with friends, while also picking selections from Music Row’s favorite tunesmiths (including Chris Stapleton and Lady Antebellum’s Charles Kelley) and the leading lights of alt-country (this time, Gillian Welch and Allison Moorer).
But while Revolution was recorded in two sessions of a week or less, the recording of Four the Record was even more compact, taking a mere five days from start to finish. Needless to say, getting things done in such a hurry represents an artistic choice, not an economic one.
“If everybody can get in one vibe and stay there the whole week, it makes it sound like an album, instead of chopped up,” Lambert maintains. “I’m a creature of habit, so I feel that, if this is working, let’s do it the same way. We started at 10 a.m. and went to midnight every night, and after the first night, everybody got so comfortable.” It didn’t hurt that the vast majority of musicians had worked on her previous three albums, too, as had trusted co-producer Liddell.
Even after recording Four the Record all day Monday through Friday, most of the same team reconvened on Saturday to record the four songs that were needed to wrap up the Pistol Annies’ previously-in-progress album.
As most country fans know by now, the Annies are the all-gal trio that Lambert formed with friends Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley, and their frisky debut came out in August… released by Sony as a digital-only album. Expectations were modest. So when Hell On Heels debuted at No.1 on the country sales chart and in the pop top 10, the pressing plants got to work trying to meet the demand from retail stores who wanted to carry the disc, too.
What’s nearly comical is how the recording of Four the Record, not to mention the Annies’ Hell on Heels, came right on the heels of Lambert’s short honeymoon. She went into the studio just a week after her wedding. For most mortals, recording a solo album or finishing up a group album or exchanging vows with the love of your life would be pressure enough, without combining those three things into a potentially lethal cocktail.
But, as most of the watching world has figured out by now, Lambert is not the type to easily buckle just because she’s squeezed three major life events into the middle of her tour schedule. “My goal was to have everything lined up and have the songs picked out before the wedding,” she says. (It came down to the wire: At her rehearsal dinner, Miranda was still doing some business, as she took songwriter/friend Kasey Musgraves outside to beg for permission to cut “Mama’s Broken Heart,” a song without which she felt she couldn’t make the album.) Remarkably, anyway, everything went according to plan, and Lambert wasn’t putting pen to paper or dialing up publishers during her newlywed week off. “It was great, because I got to clear my head a little bit before going in,” she says.
So if you hear some tranquility in the album -- from, you know, a woman whose popular image hasn’t always shouted softness -- that’s not an illusion. You might sense that peace most in the closing “Oklahoma Sky,” which Allison Moorer wrote specifically for Lambert.
There are other guests on Four the Record that meant a lot to Miranda, including guest vocalists from Patty Loveless to the women of Little Big Town. But Moorer’s “Oklahoma Sky” was the ultimate wedding present: a country benediction for the bride’s new beginning.
“I’m from Texas,” Lambert says -- perhaps you’ve heard? -- “and we’re Texas-proud and annoying and all that. I will always be from Texas. But now with this new life, I’ve moved away from my family and started my own and married an Okie. I feel like it’s my ode to my beautiful new home state. Just as much as I love Texas, I now love Oklahoma, and it’s my song for my life there now.”
Whatever sky she’s under, fans in all 50 states (and beyond) will want to share the vista with her. And they’ll surely let Lambert bring all the bags.
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