Miranda Lambert Walked Us Through The Writing Process For Five Of Her Finest Songs
Later this year Miranda Lambert will roll out Velvet Rodeo, her first Las Vegas residency. At 38, she might seem young for a career-spanning set. But Lambert’s been building out a back catalog full of tough-talk broken-hearted singalongs since the early 2000s. That continues with today’s release of Palomino, her eighth solo album, which includes reworked tracks from last year’s acoustic album The Marfa Tapes, a collaboration with Jack Ingram and Jack Randall. Hearing a song like “In His Arms” or “Waxahachie” hit in both stripped-down and pumped-up form is a great way to remind yourself that Miranda Lambert is one of our greatest working songwriters.
On a recent phone call from her tour bus, Lambert recalled her early days in country music, when “there was a phase of bubblegum-sweet love songs that just didn’t feel like me. From this moment that I started this path, I wanted to stay true and to really say something, and not just do a bunch of fluffy stuff. I’ve stuck to my guns on that these whole last two decades.” As proof, here are five tracks from Lambert’s career — two old ones, three newbies — and her memories of making them.
“White Liar” (Revolution, 2009)
MIRANDA LAMBERT: I wrote that one with my friend Natalie Hemby. She had the title, and I just started playing some bluegrassy country feel. Just off the top came the whole melody. It was one of those songs that wrote itself. Just me and Natalie writing about a cheating SOB. It’s a [simple] three-chord country song but that album, Revolution, we had taken up a notch sonically from the first two albums. I’ve always made full records. As far as knowing what a hit is before it is one, I’ve never been able to figure that out. But this definitely had a special sauce to it.
I was a slow roll at radio. I was a little bit of a different sound than they’re used to. I’ve always been a little left of center of what the trends are, no matter what they are. That’s not on purpose. That’s just who I am as an artist. At the time this song came out, I needed to [laughs] improve my relationship with country radio. I wanted to move up a level, and really make an impact. Radio is such a big part of that for our genre.
You were really young, but you already felt like you were running out of time?
LAMBERT: It was my third record, and I had never had a song even in the top five. I just thought, if I could get in the door, if I could start to play, maybe I can fit in somewhere. I’d been fighting that uphill battle for about five years. I needed to get on that radar. I needed “White Liar” to do its thing. It was go time. And it was my first number one.
“Dead Flowers” (Revolution, 2009)
LAMBERT: It’s really one of my favorites. I wrote it by myself. It was one of those songs where it felt big in the studio, like this power ballad. We put it out as a single and it didn’t move quickly, and the label pulled it within three or four weeks. It’s still like one of the ones that got away, when I look at my career. It felt like me. It was what I was supposed to be doing. I’m still heartbroken about them pulling it.
It’s a lot more fun to write with your friends and to celebrate success together when they’re attached to a song. But I try to put one song that’s a solo write on every record. It doesn’t always happen. I’ve always had some huge songs that were outside cuts. I got a lot of friends that write really great songs! I wouldn’t have moments like “Little Red Wagon” or “The House That Built Me” if I was gonna write everything myself. My whole purpose for wanting to co-write is because it’s more fun. You get in the room with people better than you, you learn and you grow. When you’re in a room with people, you have that nervousness, and that gives you an edge.
It’s a little bit of a challenge, on an off day, just to go pick up my guitar and feel inspired to write, especially in the middle of a tour or an album release. If Natalie or [regular co-writer] Luke [Dick] are saying, “Hey, we’re writing on Wednesday, you wanna come?” it’s just fun and it’s a different way to create. But I do hold near and dear those solo moments. All songwriters should. It’s easy to slip away from that.
“They’ve Closed Down The Honky Tonks” (The Marfa Tapes B-Side, 2021)
LAMBERT: I didn’t write for like the first four months of shutdown. I gave myself a break. There was a forced break anyway. I thought, I’m not gonna panic about not creating. This might have been the first real one that I wrote after not writing for a bit. I spent my 2020 in my farm outside of Nashville, listening to a bunch of Texas country stuff, and it made me miss home, and Gruene Hall and Billy Bob’s. My favorite place is a honky tonk. It’s one of the places that I feel most at home. And my first show after being off the road for 380 days was Billy Bob’s. I was thinking to myself, where would I go if I could go anywhere? When you can’t go anywhere, that’s what you think! And I thought, Gruene Hall.
And I went in my cabin, where I’ve got a little fireplace and a chair, a one-bed one-bath little cabin where my husband and I spent pretty much a year and a half. And I came out and he was cooking dinner and I said, “I wrote a song.” And he was like, “Oh, good, sing it for me.” And I did, and he said — “That’s really sad.” And I’m like — “I know, it’s supposed to be!” And I sent it to Wade [Bowen] and he said, “I couldn’t have said it better myself.”
At that stage, do you usually just send a phone voice note?
LAMBERT: It’s all on my freaking phone. All my voice notes. I’m a hoarder. Somebody texted me the other day and asked for a song that we wrote in 2013 and I found it. This is why I don’t delete anything!
I actually got locked out of my Dropbox a couple of months ago. When you lock your own self out, there’s too much security. [Pretends to guess a safety question:] What’s your favorite kind of music? Country! We had to get a hold of [Dropbox] headquarters or whatever because that’s where I keep my whole life. Being a musician, my voice notes, my Dropbox, that’s my daily filing cabinet.
I love this song. It reminds me of that early era of the pandemic, where all I mostly remember my friends saying is “I miss bars.”
LAMBERT: That time, it united me with people, because it showed me the people that I really missed every single day. And it showed me that I miss music. I’ve never had an opportunity to miss it before. Having that break — there were so many blessings hidden in there. I thought, “Will I ever be here again, on my bus, headed to my shows?” It’s good to love it and to miss it.
We were one of the lucky ones: we toured right up until March . And I was one of the first people to go back. When we went to Billy Bob’s [in 2021, playing a residency marking the venue’s 40th anniversary], it was a year and a month to the day [of the last pre-pandemic show]. It was really cool. The nerves were there more than never. My whole family was there, and when I sang “The House That Built Me,” I cried.
This is an aside, but you sing really well about drinking. When you’re writing drinking songs, do you —
LAMBERT: [Cuts me off] I’m way better at all of it when I’m drinking. Or so I think! I mean people in the room [laughs] might disagree.
“Actin’ Up” (Palomino, 2022)
LAMBERT: We wrote this right after I played Billy Bob’s. We were on the path for writing for Palomino, and we had a specific thing that we were doing for that record. It’s not a theme record or a concept record, but there’s a road trip [element]. This record is definitely a map. Natalie, Luke Dick and I had been on this path of writing during shutdown. They were like, “We’re being safe, you’ve got a farm, let’s get together.” We just used that as our outlet. Then Jon Randall came out and he had this real cool track going. This song is so much fun, and I was probably going off of that energy that I had gotten to experience at Billy Bob’s. Jumping around and getting sweaty in a honky tonk.
I feel like the “Call me Ricky, call me Bobby” line is going to be stuck in my head for a while.
LAMBERT: When Luke said, “Tiger Woods couldn’t swing it this good,” me and Jon both about passed out, we were laughing so much.
“Carousel” (Palomino, 2022)
LAMBERT: Natalie and Luke and I were sitting on our balcony. I got this loft apartment at my farm, and that’s where Luke sets up his rig. That’s our base camp. He just had a guitar in his hand, and he started playing that really pretty riff. Maybe it’s because I’m redneck, but I leave the Christmas lights hanging on the porch all year round. And there was this light breeze, and the crickets were out, and you could hear the frogs, and we started thinking about this lady who had this whole other life when she was young.
Not every song feels that way — but there are moments where you go, “This feels like a bigger story.” And we’re just the vehicle for this. It’s coming out of the air. And I’ll chase that forever because If I don’t, then I should probably quit.
Palomino is out now on Vanner/RCA Nashville.