Ellen von Unwerth

Miranda Lambert on her new album, new attitude, and a throwback to her old sound

October 30, 2019 at 03:22 PM EDT

Sense memory is powerful. Miranda Lambert just got a big whiff of her acoustic guitar and now finds herself waxing nostalgic. “My guitar tech just brought it to me on my bus,” says the Texas native, nestled in the greenroom of the famed Exit/In nightclub in Nashville, where she’ll soon perform an intimate industry showcase for her new album, Wildcard. Since graduating to arenas years ago, the winningest artist in ACM awards history relishes the idea of playing the small-cap room with her six-string. “It smelled like smoke and beer,” she says with the beatific smile of someone recalling her early days playing rowdy honky-tonks. “It smelled like a bar. I got so excited. I was like, ‘God, this is awesome!'”

Following a rare break from the road, Lambert has roared back for her Roadside Bars & Pink Guitars tour — featuring an array of female opening acts, including Maren Morris and Ashley McBryde — and can’t wait for fans to hear the expansive, and decidedly rocking, Wildcard, out this Friday.

“I wasn’t touring for eight months,” she says, still sounding slightly bewildered by the notion. “Since I was 17 — I’m 35 — I’ve never had more than three months off tour. I think my management tricked me into it. But I needed a break.” Particularly since she’d worked steadily in the wake of her divorce from Blake Shelton, right through the promotional cycle for her acclaimed 2016 double album, The Weight of These Wings. “I came out of that whole phase of life — having to work through it publicly, literally work through it emotionally, and work through it by playing shows — and I felt like I was in a pretty good spot, but [I realized], ‘You need to give yourself a minute.'” She also subscribes to the theory that you can’t be missed if you won’t go away. “I’ve been playing music in all the towns for all the years. Sometimes you have to give people a break from you and you give yourself a break from the people and miss each other a little bit.”

It’s worth noting that “break” clearly has a different definition for Lambert — who, during some of her time “off,” released the stellar 2018 album Interstate Gospel with her supergroup Pistol Annies, performed several shows, worked her two side hustles (the charity MuttNation Foundation and fashion business Idllywind), wrote and recorded Wildcard, and, oh yeah, got married to New York City police officer Brendan McLoughlin. “I don’t think they’re going to give me eight months off again,” she says with a devilish grin. “Because I got married, they’re like, ‘Nope, she does crazy s—.'” But the nuttiest thing Lambert may have done was actually relax. “I had time to be a person,” she says of mundane life stuff. “I had weekends and could go to dinners.”

That ability to Netflix-and-chill gave her time to stretch out creatively, which informed Wildcard‘s 14 tracks, recorded with producer Jay Joyce (Eric Church, Little Big Town). She began writing a year and a half ago and the album is all fresh material from fresh inspiration. “Some of it was written as I was phasing into a new head space. Some of it was written after I met my husband. I think it’s all just a snapshot of that time.”

Like all Lambert albums, it is a dynamic affair that can travel from icy heartbreak to scorching rage in the time it takes to fix your lipstick and strike a match. Odes to true love, both sensual (“Fire Escape”) and roof-rattling (“Locomotive”), share space with a gorgeous ballad about the warring desires to roam and to nest (“Settling Down”), a brassy bop that manages to embrace all that is good in her life while laughing off the trolls (“Pretty Bitchin'”), and a rocker that’s as close to new wave as Lambert has ever come (“Mess With My Head”). A winkingly murderous duet with Morris called “Way Too Pretty for Prison” — a spiritual cousin to songs like the Dixie Chicks'”Goodbye Earl” and Brandy Clark’s “Stripes” — is a highlight. (“We already killed him in [2007’s] ‘Gunpowder & Lead’; this is the second husband,” Lambert quips.)

The song, co-written with Lori McKenna, Liz Rose and Hillary Lindsey — a.k.a. the Love Junkies — stemmed from a night of drinking with a fellow country star.

“The Love Junkies, it’s always interesting because it always feels like a boozy brunch every time we write,” says Miranda of the trio, who have penned huge hits like “Girl Crush” for Little Big Town. “It’s just like catching up with ladies doing their life. We just put it on paper. They’re always so open. If I walk in with an emotion or an energy or a title or just a whole feel, they’re always so ready to go there with you. That feels really good, when you show up and you’re having a chicken salad —  because we write at Liz Rose’s house and her husband always goes and gets us chicken salad.”

So as they ladies were enjoying lunch she said to them, “‘I told Karen Fairchild [of Little Big Town] last night she was too pretty for prison. She couldn’t drive after drinking wine.’ It was that simple.”

It was an equal no-brainer to call on Morris, of whom Lambert’s been a fan since before her Grammy-winning first album Hero was even released.

“I’ve known about her forever because we’re from the same neck of the woods [in Texas]. Me and her and Kacey [Musgraves] and Lee Ann Womack… there’s something in the water,” she says with a laugh of the four women who all have distinct styles but share a flinty determination.

“I texted her before we were even done with the song,”  Lambert recalls of her excitement about “Way Too Pretty For Prison.” “I’m just a big fan of collaborating within our genre. It’s comfortable for me. I enjoy doing a duet with the girls that are kicking ass out here in this country music crazy world.”

(Indeed, Lambert recently collaborated with Morris again for a remake of Elvin Bishop’s “Fooled Around and Fell in Love” featuring the other Roadside Bars & Pink Guitars openers McBryde, Caylee Hammack, Tenille Townes and Elle King.)

Listening to Wildcard — brawnier and more radio-friendly than Weight of These Wings — you’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll wake up from a blackout-drunk evening next to your two best girlfriends and a freshly dug grave that none of you will speak of again. In short: It rocks.

It also, Lambert realized after the fact, hearkens back to those early days she was recalling after smelling her guitar. “Because he’s supportive, my husband had ‘Mess With My Head’ on in his car the day it came out,” she says. They were listening to a “Miranda Lambert Radio” station on a streaming service and the new tune was followed by her 2005 hit “Kerosene.” “I was like, ‘This isn’t really that different at all.’ It’s still the same rock vibe with my country ass on top of it.” Which makes sense since Lambert says, “I went after this record with the same excitement and hunger and openness as I did my first record.”

Jeff Kravitz/ACMA2019/FilmMagic

That refreshed enthusiasm stemmed from a mixture of factors, including her newlywed status, her seasoning as a live performer, and her simply wanting to rock again following the reflective singer-songwriter tone of Weight of These Wings. “A lot of it came from what I was missing live, thinking about ‘What do I want to do up there?'” she says. “A lot of that early stuff, I was so young and so fiery. I wanted to go back to that energy.”

What she has no interest in returning to is the celebrity-industrial gossip machine — which placed Lambert in its crosshairs during her marriage to, and divorce from, Shelton — and the time-rich slaves to said machine who enjoy trolling her social media feeds.

She has fun with them, the tabloids, and her own foibles in the zippy new ditty “Pretty Bitchin'”: “Well, I’m a pretty hot mess/But hell, I guess/I’m pretty sure it’s a family tradition/I got a pretty good time in the checkout line/With all the free press I’ve been gettin’.” That bit about family tradition prompts the question as to whether either of her parents may have ever dumped a salad on someone — as Lambert got ink for doing recently — to which Lambert responds with a hearty laugh and says, “My mom was a Golden Gloves boxer, pretty sure. She was there when I dumped the salad.” And mom’s part in the kerfuffle? “She was getting my hamburger to go, because she knew we were about to have to leave.”

The occasional overturned-vegetable incident aside, Lambert is happy. But she doesn’t want that to worry her fans. “People say, ‘Oh no, you got married. Are you going to write all happy songs?’ I can’t write all happy songs because the fiery me is the part that built this whole thing. I’ve got to keep that close.” You could say, it’s the sound that built her.

The album title, and an accompanying tattoo that Lambert got on her arm, comes from a line in the melancholy, yet hopeful ballad “Bluebird,” about having a wild card up your sleeve. “Your wild card can be any card you choose, not just the queen of hearts,” she says. “I got that tattoo because I realized that I need to be the queen of my own heart. When that lyric came out in ‘Bluebird,’ I realized that’s what this whole record is about, just being who you are, owning it, and pulling out all the stops when you need to rotate in your life.”

Ultimately, though, Lambert is learning, as many people do, that the older you get, the less what other people think matters to you. She puts it succinctly: “I wouldn’t go back to the days where I did give a f— to save my life.”

Courtesy Miranda Lambert

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