Some combination of pathological nosiness and deepening anxiety about how right-wing conspiracy-poisoned many of my loved ones have become compels me to continue periodically logging in to Facebook, even though I know better. And — partially attributable to Dolly Parton’s resurgent and expanding popularity, I’m sure — over the past several months, I’ve seen a screenshot of a certain tweet pop up in my feed numerous times:
Why is male country music like “hot girls in teeny tiny shorts I will make you my wife, bear my children, front porch, family values, casseroles” and female country music is like “oops I killed my husband”— Lucy Huber (@clhubes) June 8, 2021
Pithy, timeless and true. Country music certainly doesn’t have a monopoly on “Make That Dumpster Fire of a Man Pay” songs, but because female singer-songwriters have almost always had a place and a voice in this genre, its archive of domestic revenge fantasies is especially extensive. From Kitty Wells to Kelly Clarkson, women have used country music to write the just outcomes the world refused to grant them: different, better, happier endings to stories they’d witnessed or experienced firsthand. This is a fire that has burned for generations — and in the mid-aughts, Miranda Lambert shot a stream of kerosene directly into its hottest, bluest flames.
For someone who has lived life in the public eye since she was 19 years old, placing third on the 2003 season of Nashville Star (CMT’s answer to American Idol), Miranda Lambert is refreshingly down-to-earth and endearingly candid. She’s a woman who started her rocket-shot career not taking anyone’s shit — in her very first meeting with Sony Nashville as a teenager, she issued an artistic my-way-or-the-highway ultimatum: “I told everybody, ‘I’d rather spend another decade in honky-tonks and do it my way than be the pretty girl for you.’” And ain’t shit changed where that’s concerned.
Even today — after becoming the most ACM-awarded musician in country music history, semi-regularly gracing the covers of gossip mags and the pages of lifestyle-brand websites, owning a boutique called The Pink Pistol and a winery called Red 55 (after her beloved Chevy truck, and there is, naturally, a red blend called Kerosene) and coping with intense public scrutiny of her love life — Lambert has miraculously neither lost her mind, nor her edge. In all of the best ways, she still projects the image of a very particular kind of Cool Girl: antagonistic but still charming (is there a more endearing, wholesome “Celebs Gone Wild!!!!!” moment than Miranda dumping a hater’s salad onto said hater’s head?), kind but not always nice. You’re careful to stay on her good side because you’ve seen what happens to people who get on the bad side; you’re a little scared of her but would still do anything to be her friend.
Lambert also possesses this specific Cool Girl archetype’s enviable quality of being able to be open, honest and vulnerable, while never revealing anything that might give someone leverage over her. This is an attribute that, I think, contributes to how many people perceive her as an exercise in contradictions, or at least someone who’s difficult to pin down. She is an artist with a distinctive voice, wholly herself — but also the consummate collaborator, someone who has always used her power and platform to uplift her fellow artists, as well as the subjects of her songs. She is prickly and sweet, cool and commercial, writes songs that are exceptional and accessible. She’s a songwriter and an entertainer, a country star and a rock star. She isn’t as pop as many of her contemporaries, but she’s not whittling-and-loom-weaving Americana, either. These are tightropes she’s always walked, and still walks. Revolution is the moment she found her balance.
“Evolution” would have been an equally apt title for this album, if a little less on-brand for Ms. Gunpowder & Lead. By her own admission, in the years immediately preceding Revolution’s 2009 release, Lambert had begun to feel as though she’d painted herself into a Crazy Ex-Girlfriend/Queen Cut-A-Bitch corner. In truth, she’d never been a one-dimensional songwriter, but one dimension — defeating shitty men by acting like a shitty man — was so irresistibly juicy. For reasons that likely have more to do with how we’ve been conditioned to respond to women who don’t swallow their anger like a dry pill, how eager we are to categorize and caricature celebrities to serve our own narrative and our embarrassing collective horniness for angry hot ladies (instead of genuine delight at seeing a woman claim power), we, at some point, decided all she could be is a mouthy bitch toting a gun she isn’t afraid to use.
And don’t get it twisted: from “Time to Get a Gun” to “Sin for a Sin,” a number of tracks on Revolution enthusiastically hoist the torch passed to them by the likes of “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” “Kerosene” and “Gunpowder & Lead.” But, Lambert also used this album to stretch her wings through well-chosen covers, path-breaking collaborations and songs about different ways to claim power: not just through raw, brutal anger — the sort that might make a woman impulsively put a bullet in her radio — but through the courage it takes to open up. These songs aren’t just about causing trouble; they’re about how you cope with it.
In a 2019 feature for NPR, critic Jewly Hight points out that one of the great themes in Lambert’s body of work is “what a turn-off middle-class propriety is” to her. This is a quality she shares deeply with the late, great John Prine (along with impeccable attention to detail and an ability to extend empathy to anyone), whom she covers on Revolution. Lambert has great instincts for covers, and her cowpunk version of Prine’s “That’s The Way That The World Goes ’Round” is no exception. The song is well-aligned with her own strengths and point of view as a songwriter: keenly observant of human behavior; wry and darkly funny; a heightened appreciation of life’s ironies and absurdities, and the ways we are all very much simultaneously in control of and at the complete mercy of the world. (Worth noting: Lambert changes the sex of the abusive partner in the first verse. In Prine’s original, it’s a man beating his wife with a garden hose; in Lambert’s cover, it’s a woman beating her man with her pantyhose). For similar reasons, standout tracks “Only Prettier” and “Heart Like Mine” both seem like songs Prine would have appreciated. The former is Bring It On by way of “bless your heart,” a witty, withering “peace” offering to the prim, prissy and rich. The latter is a kind heart, set jaw and sassy mouth. It’s a woman who refuses to apologize for or justify her love of drinking and smoking so long as she acts right, correctly pointing out that the same people who are judging her would likely have judged Jesus back in his days on earth.
“Goodness Comes in All Forms” and “Who Are You to Judge This Woman?” are thematic wells that never run dry for Lambert. I have always loved that the scorned women in her songs are granted the gifts of context, empathy and personhood. They aren’t a laundry list of stereotypes but, instead, fully articulated people (or at least with an added layer of complexity not usually afforded to them by their authors) in fully explained situations. Poverty, abuse and neglect are shown for what they are: forces that shape women, and are just as often used to shame them. It’s hard to imagine that this mindset isn’t rooted in her formative experiences as the daughter of two private investigators who often opened their home to the women and children whose domestic violence cases they took. Her father, Rick Lambert, recalled: “Miranda's been moved out of her room several times to make room for a mother and her teenage daughter … She saw these women break down and talk about how they were mentally and physically abused … We didn't hide anything from the kids. So the content of her songs doesn't surprise me.” She grew up around the unheard, dismissed, ignored and mistreated and emerged without a superiority complex: people are just people, everyone deserves grace.
And justice. There’s a pervasive “eye-for-an-eye” mentality in her work and on this album (also not surprising; her father also recalled: “She's heard me tell those wives, ‘If he comes over here, he might get shot ’cause we're not going to take [guff] from anybody.’”) Revolution’s opening track — and one of its best — “White Liar'' is Hammurabi with a smokey eye, pressing a stubborn wrinkle into the “Cheating Guy and His Long-Suffering Girlfriend” trope: She’s been cheating, too. It’s a twist of the knife and a taste of his own medicine — a bit of revenge before she leaves him in the dust for good. “Sin for a Sin” is ideologically of a piece with “White Liar.” This time, it’s not just Lambert meting out justice to an unfaithful man, but resting easy knowing that the karmic wheel (or the Judeo-Christian God himself) will dish up a steaming hot bowl of consequences to him in time.
Lambert’s perspective, especially on Revolution, reminds me why I reliably find women’s anger to be a far more dynamic and interesting subject than men’s anger. When men get angry, they frequently externalize blame, lash out and justify it, wallow in self-pity: the end game of a generations-long con that teaches men to use anger as a Trojan Horse for sadness, fear, loneliness and the many other emotions they’re told to hide. As a result, many of the songs men write about anger lack context and consequences. They are firmly and wholly rooted in the present moment and immediate future (i.e., some ill-advised, impulsively planned revenge). But by virtue of being taught from birth to interrogate and understand their emotions and to consider how their actions will affect others, when women write about anger, we reliably get more complete, contextualized stories. Even if the character is about to do something reckless or violent or dumb, there’s an explanation of why, a retracing of steps that led to this moment of action. Lambert always gives anger a backstory: was it the time you caught him cheating that made you light that match — or was it really the years of miscommunication, emotional withdrawal and lost sleep over suspected infidelity? Album highlight “Dead Flowers” ends before its protagonist gets mad enough to hammer the final nail in the relationship coffin, but stands out because it explores the way doomed relationships begin ending long before they end for good: the way it starts with little misunderstandings, moments of care left unreciprocated, benign neglect that leads first to boredom, then resentment. Although the subject matter and tone is completely different, “The House That Built Me” makes a similar point: It’s the little things, the seemingly insignificant or mundane moments that make us who we are (and maybe, predict what we’ll do next).
One of the reasons Lambert is so popular is that she writes simple songs about complex people. And most often, they’re about the sort of complex people most of us are eager to simplify because we don’t respect them. She has a gift for recognizing and illuminating our inconsistencies: the ways we don’t practice what we preach, don’t live up to our own expectations, act impulsively in ways incongruent with how (or who) we claim to be. In “Makin’ Plans,” she sings, “I’m not easy to understand.” If you’re looking for the distillation of her ethos — right down to her personal logo, crossed firearms over a pair of angel wings — you could do worse. She’s equal parts reckless and restless. On “Airstream Song,” kissing cousin to The Chicks’ “The Long Way Around,” she sings, “Unbridled, or tethered and tied / The safety of the fence / Or the danger of the ride / I'll always be unsatisfied,” throwing a middle-finger to categorization.
Lambert, and so many other female Millennial country stars, sing about fight and flight with equal reverence. There are advantages to — and a sense of pride in — both, and the end goal is the same: to carve out agency for yourself, to live life on your own terms, to break out of stifling narratives or correct for a bad situation. What can you endure until you can’t? Mike Tyson famously quipped, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth,” and Lambert has a gift for writing about what happens after knuckles meet jaw. She knows pressure, hurt and anger make people do funny things — and knows that no one really knows how they’ll respond when they’re pushed to the edge until their own toes are hanging over, sending dirt and pebbles deep into the canyon.
Susannah Young is a self-employed communications strategist, writer and editor living in Chicago. Since 2009, she has also worked as a music critic. Her writing has appeared in the book Vinyl Me, Please: 100 Albums You Need in Your Collection (Abrams Image, 2017) as well as on VMP’s Magazine, Pitchfork and KCRW, among other publications.