Miranda Lambert sees victory in failure to win

Jeffrey B. Remz, March 2005

Failure to win Nashville Star when you've come oh so close ought to be a huge disappointment and ego blow, right?

Not if your name is Miranda Lambert, who views her third place finish in the inaugural American Idol event for the country crowd in 2003 as a blessing in disguise.

And she is not the only one who feels that way.

In fact, the emergence of Buddy Jewell as the winner may have done more to boost Lambert's career than if she had won.

The proof may come when her major label debut, "Kerosene," is released by Sony Nashville March 15.

"Not at all," says Lambert in a telephone interview from her home in tiny Lindale, Texas when asked about any disappointment with her third place finish. "I really didn't want to win honestly. I guess because Buddy Jewell had to make a record in a month. Here I was 19 years old, and I had no clue what to do in the studio really. I didn't have all my songs finished. I knew the producer I wanted to use even though Clint Black is a well-known artist. (Black was guaranteed to produce the winner's album) I just didn't think we could get that together with him. Third place is perfect. I got the same exposure as Buddy Jewell."

The deal with Nashville Star and Sony was that the label had first dibs on any artist in the competition besides the winner. The only other singer Sony inked was Lambert. She started recording her album in about September 2003.

Lambert, a very pretty blonde-haired singer, may be young and friendly, but she also indicates she knew exactly what she wanted to do with "Kerosene."

"I was trying to make an album I wanted to make whether anyone else thought it was good or not. I wrote my own songs. I knew who I wanted to produce it right away - I knew that three years ago - Frank Liddell. (Liddell, Lee Ann Womack's husband, has played a key role in her career and produced Chris Knight and Jack Ingram. Mike Wrucke also produced.) I accomplished the only goal I had for that record."

"I try not to set too many goals because this business is so unpredictable. Some other blonde girl could come out with an album much better than mine."

But Lambert is confident with the final product. "I believe in it so much," she says.

Originally slated for release last fall, the album was delayed because of the Christmas buying rush when shoppers tend to focus on the huge, well-known artists putting out new albums instead of a rookie.

"I was fine with that," says Lambert. "It didn't bother me at all."

"I had time to get my band together," she says. "We had to do some regrouping with members. We got out there a little bit. I'm not in a hurry. I'm 21. Some people wait three years for an album just to come out. I'm thankful for just a year. It takes time."

What type of country music does Lambert play on the 12 songs, all except 1 she had a hand in writing? Some honky tonk ("I Can't Be Bothered"), bluesy swampy sounds ("I Wanna Die," "Love Is Looking for You"), ballads ("There's a Wall") and a Sheryl Crow-type vibe ("Love is Looking For You Now") are at the core of her music with a voice that recalls Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks and Crow.

Lambert comes out blazing with the lead-off title track with a big, authoritative voice and steely guitars.

"I wrote that in the car on the way to judging a Nashville Star competition in Houston. My mom was driving, and I wrote that song in about 20 minutes."

"I think I was mad. That's what it sounds like to me. I don't even remember what triggered that. I just was in a bad mood."

The first single is "Me and Charlie Talking," which Lambert considers the most different sounding song on the album. The song, penned with her father and now next-door neighbor, Heather Little, is about a girlhood friend and growing up.

Father Rick Lambert, who spends most of his time as a private detective, says the song was "a true story of a kid (Little) had remembered from childhood. She started writing it, and she wrote the first verse and chorus. Miranda was writing another verse, and she was sitting in my study. A lot of these songs get written on the way to the bathroom. I walked through there, and she said, 'Daddy, I'm hung up on this song'. She calls me the bridge to troubled water because I wrote the bridge to so many of her songs. She tells me the story, so I more or less wrote the third verse."

Lambert says she "wasn't sure honestly that 'Charlie' was right until I heard it on the radio. It's not like anything else on the record. It's upbeat, and it has a story. The first time I heard it on the radio, I thought, 'wow that really sounds good'. I feel confident singing it, and I can sing it for the next 20 years. That's one thing you think about."

Lambert also wrote the sad "Greyhound Bound for Nowhere" with her father. The ballad tells the story of a woman on a bus thinking about her lover and his girlfriend.

"My dad was in the den one day playing the melody of the song. I said, 'that's pretty. What are you working on?' I sang the first line ("Rain on the window makes me lonely"). It took about three hours. It was a rainy night. It was real late at night. It was (written) line by line. I'd write a line, and he'd write a line. He just had that pretty melody going. To me, it sounded like rain on a window."

Rick Lambert says, "I had in mind a girl that we knew very well. She had a habit of dating married men. It was a dead end."

Miranda Lambert was born in Longview, Texas and moved to Lindale, about 80 miles east of Dallas in time for first grade. "I got into singing," says Lambert. "My dad plays guitar and writes, and I'd always grown up with that."

Rick Lambert had a band called Contraband, which fit right in with being an undercover narcotics cop for the Dallas police at the time.

"We'd have parties with anywhere from 30 to 150 people," he says. "We lived out in the country. We had a flatbed trailer and a bunch of pickers out here. As the evening wore on, she'd crawl up on my lap and fall asleep. I'd continue playing until the morning."

By the age of 10, she sang Holly Dunn's "Daddy's Hands' in a talent show for third through fifth graders. Her father accompanied her on guitar.

Her dad bought her a guitar when she was 14. "She just didn't seem interested," he says. "If a daddy tries to push, they're going to rebel at that stage."

"I didn't really have an interest (in a music career)," says Lambert. "I did the teenage high school thing. I was in choir and all that, but when I was 16 I really got into that."

Miranda says, "I've loved music, but I didn't want to do that with my life necessarily. I was just really worried about regular kid stuff like what I was going to have for lunch."

"I listened to everything, mostly country. I grew up with that, and that's what I liked. When I was in junior high school, it was cool to listen to pop. I really liked Mariah Carey when I was young. I loved the way she interacted with her audience. I was not pop in any way."

Lambert blames Tru-Value for what would become her career. She entered a Tru-Valu Talent Search in April 2000. Lambert won two rounds of the contest. "That's where it all really started,' she says.

"I don't even know what possessed me," she says. "I loved singing, and I was good at singing, and I heard an ad on radio that there was the Tru-Value Country Showdown. I thought I could win."

"I had no idea what was going to happen. I was 16. (I thought) okay, I'll try this. I thought maybe I could win the first round...I didn't know what to expect, and I loved it."

Lambert started playing guitar right before turning 17 and wrote her first song the very first day. "It wasn't good," she says. "From that point on, my family and I went to Nashville. Not to get a record deal. I'd been to Fan Fair a few times before, and I just wanted to go and hang out."

The Lamberts attended a songwriter's seminar about getting into the business. "We all wanted to learn as as quick possible what to expect because we had no idea, and I'd taken an interest so fast."

Must have because Rick Lambert says, "I taught her 5 chords, and she wrote 10 songs."

For some reason, Miranda Lambert recorded a pop country demo. "That was a good learning experience for me," she says. "That's when I (knew) that's not at all what I'm interested in."

She soon recorded an independent record for $2,000 in 1 1/2 days and played throughout Texas with her band, Texas Pride.

"It was going to be a demo thing," Rick Lambert says. "Some DJ got a hold of it. They wanted the record, and we said we don't have a record. We put a record together."

Miranda Lambert graduated high school early to pursue music. After a month of senior year, she participated in Operation Graduation, working at one's own pace to get the sheepskin.Lambert's pace must have been super, ultra fast. "I finished in 10 days. I passed all my classes, barely, but I did."

Lambert admits she wasn't much of a student and was glad to be out of school. "Once I figured out how interesting life was outside of high school, school wasn't my thing any more."

"It just pretty much went smoothly from there on out."

Lambert did pretty well with the music, getting two songs on the Texas music charts. "It was a tough go because it was a boy's world," says Rick Lambert. "She wrestled her way in at 17."

"For a short while, two weeks, she worked at a department store," says Rick Lambert, saying she made $120. "She said, 'Dad, I can make more than this (singing) in one night. She was making $300, $500 a night. I said, 'no kidding'."

Lambert also was heavily involved in writing songs. "Writing came very easily to me. It took me awhile to get the art of it down. I was writing heavy. Every single day. Three songs a week. I was writing a lot."

"Basically after I started writing, I knew I was going to make it a career. I was going to make it happen however I had to. Luckily, Nashville Star came along."

A family friend called Lambert's mom, telling her about the competition, but Miranda Lambert wasn't interested. "No I'm not doing to that," she says. "I'm not doing that at all. I didn't want to be a part of a reality show."

Of course, Lambert did participate, twice. She first competed in Dallas, but didn't make the top 30 out of 250 participants. Lambert sang Shania Twain's "Still the One," not exactly the kind of song one would expect out of her pipes.

"I don't know what I was thinking," she says. "That's totally not my style. That wasn't for me."

Next stop was Houston. She won. "It was a better atmosphere, and I had a better attitude about it."

"I came to my senses and tried 'Crazy.' That's more my style, and I nailed it." She also sang a few songs she wrote from her indie album, "Lyin' Here" and "Somebody Else."

Lambert eventually went to Nashville with the show, of course, and came in third.

Lambert is thankful for the exposure. "It definitely gave me a huge career (boost). It might have been three more years (without it). Especially with all the new females. Right now, I wouldn't have had a chance in hell. It basically gave me a nine-week audition for every record company person."

"I thought even if I don't win this, I'm going to capitalize on the exposure I've gotten. Luckily I didn't have to do that."

Tracy Gershon, a Nashville Star judge for two seasons and senior director of A&R at Sony Nashville (the talent scout for the company), says she clearly remembers Lambert from the get go.

"It's so funny because I saw her with so many people, but she's the one I remember hands down. I really do. Me and (fellow judges writer) Robert (Oermann) and (singer) Charlie (Robison) looked at each other and said, 'wow.' You can't explain it. She just came out, and she had a great look, great sparkle and a great voice. She was so confident. She just had this little sass to her. I was calling back (to Sony) and reporting back about what I was finding, and I remember thinking I'm going to sign this girl no matter what."

And like Lambert, Gershon says she was ultimately glad Lambert didn't win from a professional standpoint.

"We always joke about it - we're glad she didn't win," says Gershon. "She wouldn't have time to make the record she would have made. She wouldn't have been able to write the songs she wrote and the time she needed even though she had a handful of good songs. Sometimes when you get a record deal, that's a good incentive to write some more songs."

In contrast, Gershon says she considered Jewell, already in his early 40s, to be ready for what would occur.

Although Sony was interested in signing Lambert, that wasn't a done deal. Lambert's parents interviewed Sony officials, according to Gershon.

"The great thing is we talked about music and our influences and making record like that. It was a reverse interview. It was 'what are you (Sony) all about? How do you see me?'"

A regime change occurred at Sony at about the time talks were heating up, and when that occurs, who knows if the new powers that be would be interested? Label head John Grady and top executive Mark Wright had never seen Lambert.

"So, I took her to Texas," Gershon says. "That was the first time I'd seen her live also. She even whispered to me 'you're going to see something different that you've never seen on the show'. That was a done deal the minute they saw her."

Another benefit of Nashville Star was that Lambert gained a friend in fellow contestant Travis Howard, who now lives in Los Angeles, and is more into the Dwight Yoakam edgy type of country. "We just hit it off in some strange way...out of all the people that there were," says Howard from LA. "There were Nashville people (there). "Nobody understands life the way that Miranda did. We seemed to bond on that basis. We had a little bit of cynicism about life. We stood back and saw things for what they were compared to what the starry eyed singers did."

"I thought she was the best thing on the whole show," says Howard, who acknowledged, "we hated each other when we first met each other. She thought I was an asshole man." That all changed when they sat around playing each other's songs.

In fact, Lambert wrote the twangy "What About Georgia" about Howard, a response song to Howard's "Train Wreck," a not too complimentary song written about Lambert.

They apparently clicked because Howard wrote "Bring Me Down" and "Mama, I'm Alright" with Lambert for the album.

Lambert admits that the long wait in releasing an album has not been so easy. "I've been a little antsy, but I know it takes time. I want to do it right. I'm only 21. It's not like I'm on my last leg."

"I'm a little of everything," concludes Lambert in talking about her album. "I'm nervous, excited, apprehensive...Charlie's not as high on the charts as I'd like it to be. Hopefully it'll be a little higher. I don't have to sell 20,000 albums the first week. It's okay if it takes time. I realize that doesn't happen overnight."

© Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher • countrystandardtime@gmail.com