THE MORNING NEWS WILL RESUME PUBLISHING ON MONDAY  |   For there will be turkey first

Ads via The Deck

Profiles

Happiness Is a Pink Gun

Mainstream country music is dominated by bros singing about girls in cutoffs and drinking tequila. But some female country artists are ready to exchange fire.

Henry Horenstein, Dolly Parton, 1972. Courtesy the artist and ClampArt, New York City. © Henry Horenstein.

In 2007, on the release of her second album, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the Washington Post ran a long feature about 23-year-old Miranda Lambert, then an up-and-coming country music star. Like most articles on her then and now, the Post mostly emphasized her badass backwater persona, focusing on her childhood in Texas with parents who were private investigators. Disturbing details from her parents’ divorce cases later made their way into the woman-scorned songs like “Kerosene” and “Gunpowder & Lead” from her first two albums, fully realized fantasias about abuse, revenge, and strength. “People say: Where’d she get that anger?” her dad told the Post. “But it’s not necessarily anger. It’s a lifestyle.” The paper even went so far as to ask Lambert if she had a gun on her. “Can’t tell you,” she responded. “That’s why it’s called a concealed weapon.”

This interview was Lambert on the cusp: after she had a no. 1 album and before she had a major hit single. Today she is one of the most beloved and bankable women in country music—she is the only female country star on Billboard’s 2014 Money Makers List other than Taylor Swift—and she’s made her fortune as a platinum-haired, foul-mouthed, angel-voiced, sensitive outlaw rock star, whose five albums (with representative song titles: “I Wanna Die,” “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” “Time to Get a Gun,” “Fastest Girl in Town,” “Hard Staying Sober”) have all gone to no. 1. Lambert’s newest release, Platinum, released in June, is diverse and playful, catering to every taste in country: mainstream and alternative, pop and rock, modern and retro. It’s got driving guitars and the slow burn of the synthesizer; she channels Bonnie Raitt on “Holding on to You” and Sheryl Crow on “Bathroom Sink.” The self-conscious throwback “Old Shit,” where Lambert proclaims her love for nostalgia including “splittin’ logs, smokin’ hogs / Feedin’ leftovers to a three-legged dog,” heralds in something of an Old Shit Suite—it is followed by the exuberant country swing track “All That’s Left” and the ragtime spoof “Gravity Is a Bitch.”

Some of the genius of Platinum’s grab-bag aesthetic is that its safe, conservative lead single, “Automatic,” hides in plain sight among the more interesting music on the album. “Automatic” is an ode to the good old days that pines for things no one misses, like pocket watches and waiting in line to pay for gas. (These attitudes are all the more confusing because Lambert is only 30.) This track is a fairly transparent overture to nostalgia-crazed country radio, even including a line about recording the Country Countdown on cassette. This isn’t the only nod to commercial country gatekeepers on Platinum—on “Another Sunday in the South,” she sings about spending an idyllic day drinking on the porch. She acknowledges in the lyrics that this isn’t something she gets to do often with her celebrity lifestyle. “It’s a far cry from our crazy lives,” she sings, “But all you gotta do is turn on the radio / It’ll take us back, it’ll take us home.”

This radio ass-kissing conceals an ambivalence that has plagued Lambert her whole career. She talked openly in the 2007 Post profile about her inability with her first two albums to gain a foothold in country radio or to get a single past no. 15 on the country charts. “I really don’t understand radio at all,” she said. “I don’t feel like I’m too edgy or out there. A million people don’t.” The Post praised Crazy Ex-Girlfriend by saying it “isn’t slick or safe or glitzy or designed for maximum mainstream appeal”—but what is more mainstream than a no. 1 album on the Billboard charts? Country radio success requires an appeal to something else.

The radio ass-kissing conceals an ambivalence that has plagued Lambert her whole career.

In March I drove out of Los Angeles on I-5 in my grandma’s Coca-Cola-colored Oldsmobile, heading to San Jose and then onward to Chico, in the northern Sacramento Valley. I listened to country radio the whole way, chasing stations whose signals stretch far across the Central Valley. I had been listening to a station from Bakersfield for over an hour when it hit me: I hadn’t heard a song by a female artist the entire time. Later in the week, I quizzed my aunt and uncle in Chico. How many songs by solo female artists did they think were in the top 20 of the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart that week? “Two?” my aunt said; my uncle, “One?” They guessed conservatively, but they were both wrong. The answer was zero.

This trend has held in recent months. A solo female artist didn’t have a no. 1 on the Country Airplay chart or the Hot Country Songs chart from January 2013 to July 2014. The country airwaves have been dominated by the auto-tuned party anthems of Florida Georgia Line and Luke Bryan, who both have hits about listening to mixtapes featuring both classic country and hip-hop. There are also more folky, ’90s-alternative bros like the Zac Brown Band and slick easy-listening pretty boys like Keith Urban. Blake Shelton has had 11 consecutive no. 1 singles with a string of steadfastly inoffensive ballads. Female voices aren’t totally absent from country radio—bands with both male and female members like The Band Perry, Little Big Town, and Lady Antebellum are huge stars, all with many Top 10 singles. But we are far from the atmosphere of the late ’90s that fostered crossover careers for Shania Twain, Faith Hill, Trisha Yearwood, the Dixie Chicks, LeAnn Rimes, and Lee Ann Womack. Listening to hours of country radio, I couldn’t help but wonder: Where have all the divas gone?

 

In the days since she warned the Washington Post that she might be packing heat, Lambert’s fortunes on the singles charts have changed: She’s had 10 Top 10 hits and five no. 1s. The reasons for this uptick are not mysterious. Lambert, like so many stars before her, has reaped commercial rewards from a high-profile relationship. Lambert started dating country star Blake Shelton in 2006 and married him five years later. Shelton already had three no. 1 singles when they met, and he was her entrée in the mainstream country establishment. And in 2011, when Shelton became one of the coaches on NBC’s no. 1 show, the musical reality competition The Voice, both his and Lambert’s stars rose dramatically. They are now country music’s most powerful couple, making a combined $19.2 million in 2013. “It put him on a whole new level,” Lambert told Rolling Stone in June about The Voice, “and I kind of got up there too, by marriage.”

Despite what a boon her marriage has been for her career, Lambert’s music is far from fairy-tale love songs. Unhappy marriages are maybe the most venerable country music theme, and she has been singing about no-good husbands since before she met Shelton. There are a number of breakup songs on Platinum, like “Two Rings Shy,” where Lambert tells her relationship’s metaphorical ringmaster, “Take this diamond back and you’ll be two rings shy of the big-top tent.” There’s also “All That’s Left,” which is as straightforward as it gets: “Tell your lawyer it’s all over,” Lambert sings, “Forget what he’s got up his sleeve / No more signing, no more whining / ’Cause all that’s left for you to do is leave.” But this song was written by another country couple, legendary songwriter Tom T. Hall and his wife of 45 years, Miss Dixie. It’s as if in contemporary country music, divorce is something you fantasize about, not something you really do. Tammy Wynette sang about “D-I-V-O-R-C-E,” but in the end she was resigned to stand by her man.

The hyperbole and narrative tradition in country has long allowed its good girls and Southern gentlemen to explore ignominious fantasies. For Lambert, it seems like the only safe space to discuss the problems of a celebrity marriage. On Platinum’s most interesting song, “Priscilla,” she directly addresses Mrs. Presley to ask how she dealt with being “queen of the King.” This song pulls no punches: Lambert complains about the pressure from “the whistle calls and the Southern dolls” and tells Priscilla, “You and me share a unique position / Married to a man who’s married to attention.”

Beyoncé said, “I love you and your husband.” Lambert responded, “No! Just me!”

This is really the only time she’s acknowledged that her and Shelton’s marriage is difficult or even unusual. After Kim Kardashian’s 72-day marriage to Kris Humphries in 2011, Lambert told CMT.com, “I think that it’s stressful enough to get married for regular people, like Blake and I, and I can’t imagine all that pressure on her.” I don’t need to emphasize that Lambert was a huge celebrity, married to the other biggest star in country music, when she said this—but I might add that she and Shelton have dodged National Enquirer rumors about his fidelity since they started dating. He was married when they met and supposedly fell in love at first sight in 2005. Nevertheless, Lambert told Entertainment Weekly in 2011, “My parents have been married 33 years. My mama always said this for as long as I can remember, and I said it to Blake before we got married: ‘Divorce is not an option.’”

Anyone can see the gulf between Lambert’s real marriage and the one she talks about in interviews, and the even larger one between her public-wedded bliss and the anger she expresses in her music. She and Shelton seem committed to their tooth-grittingly traditional country music marriage—and why wouldn’t they be, in a genre that hugely rewards power couples, from Johnny and June Carter Cash to Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood, and Tim McGraw and Faith Hill? But when it only serves Lambert’s career to be positive about her marriage, I’m interested in what all her denial and dissonance could say about her relationship to Shelton’s music. In the 2007 Washington Post interview, Lambert was not that enthusiastic about her then-boyfriend’s output. “I was never really into his type of music. It’s mainstream country, and I like singer-songwriters,” she told the paper. She then halfheartedly backtracked, saying, “I actually like his new album. As a 23-year-old girl, it’s something I’d actually listen to and go buy.”

She’s gotten a little more tactful since then, but she told Rolling Stone in April, “What are they calling it, ‘bro country’? I love those songs, but for a minute there, it felt like girls ran the show. We have to save this thing we’ve made—Carrie [Underwood] and Taylor [Swift] and me.” She’s probably talking more about acts like Florida Georgia Line than she is about her husband. But it’s bros like Shelton and his legion of imitators who are pushing women off the radio and off the charts.

In June’s Rolling Stone cover story about Lambert, she told the magazine that she had seen Beyoncé in concert five times and was in fact “a little bit of a stalker.” The two share major similarities: They are both nice girls from Texas who have been in the business since they were teenagers, and they are both married to other powerful recording artists. In the 12 years he’s been with Beyoncé, Jay Z, through his label Roc-A-Fella Records and his stint as president and CEO of Def Jam, has created an all-inclusive lifestyle brand, making him one of the most powerful moguls in the music industry; like he raps on Kanye West’s “Diamonds From Sierra Leone (Remix),” “I’m not a business man / I’m a business, man.” In that time, Beyoncé broke out from Destiny’s Child to become the world’s biggest pop star—and grew into a mature album artist.

On Beyoncé’s 2013 album Beyoncé, she sings a lot about love and the pleasures of marriage. She also sings about feminism and the cultural minefield of female ambition. “I took some time to live my life / But don’t think I’m just his little wife,” she sings on “***Flawless”; on his verse on “Drunk in Love,” Jay Z raps, “I’m Ike Turner, turn up, baby, no, I don’t play.” If his glibness is an indication, it is only Beyoncé who feels a conflict between being married and being a complex artist with a strong point of view. Well, not only Beyoncé. Lambert channels Beyoncé-like poise when talking to the press about her marriage—and trends in country music that have benefited Shelton and pushed her against a wall—but it’s still no surprise that when she met Beyoncé, as she recounted for Rolling Stone, and Beyoncé said, “I love you and your husband,” Lambert responded, “No! Just me!”

 

A month before the release of Platinum, Dolly Parton released her 42nd studio album in the US, Blue Smoke. Coming off a decade-and-a-half where Parton returned to her bluegrass roots on three critically acclaimed albums, released an album of patriotic music and one exclusively of cover songs, Blue Smoke places her squarely back in the “anything and everything” genre. It has bluegrass, like the title track and the ballad “If I Had Wings.” It’s got a gospel cover of “Lay Your Hands on Me” by Bon Jovi and a twangy bluegrass cover of Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice,” complete with fiddle-and-banjo breakdown. There’s a haunting rendition of the traditional murder ballad “Banks of the Ohio.” Blue Smoke also rehashes songs from Parton’s enormous catalog—“Home” is reminiscent of “Tennessee Mountain Home,” and “Miss You, Miss Me,” sung from the point of view of a child of divorce, retreads the themes of family drama that Parton sang about in “To Daddy” and “Starting Over Again.” She reunites with Kenny Rogers on “You Can’t Make Old Friends,” a self-conscious throwback to their 1980s days making hits like “Islands in the Stream” together. Blue Smoke seems to be compiled in the same spirit as Platinum: a commitment to having something for everyone.

Lambert has borrowed a lot from Parton’s career—in addition to her legendary decades as a singer, songwriter, and actress, in 1986 Parton started her theme park Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., which has grown into a massive resort compound, including an amusement park, water park, hotels, a museum, and a chain of dinner theaters. Lambert might be on her way to making her own Dollywood in Tishomingo, Okla., which is home to her Pink Pistol boutique and her soon-to-be bed and breakfast, Ladysmith. Both are named after the gun Lambert favors, the Smith & Wesson Ladysmith, a revolver with a hot pink grip. She is comfortable drawing on her Texas outlaw trademark; as Josh Eells wrote in Rolling Stone in June, “Lambert’s life can seem like an endless piece of cross promotion for her brand.” She even has her own logo, two interlocking pistols with angel wings, tattooed on her forearm, literally branding herself.

No one knows better than Dolly Parton that a consistent brand can help a musician branch into artistic places where her fans might not otherwise follow.

Before that sounds like too much 21st-century music-industrial-complex manipulation, remember Parton is a genius of personal branding, especially with her larger-than-life look, the bleach-blonde bombshell whose proportions have only gotten more cartoonish. Lambert plays up her glam side too, especially when it conflicts with her tough reputation. The title track on Platinum is a swaggering ode to artificial beauty, with Lambert singing in the chorus, “What doesn’t kill you / Only makes you blonder … Somethin’ ’bout platinum irrefutably / Looks as good on records / As it does on me.”

Their candor about loving the less-than-natural look is indicative of why people look to Lambert and Parton for realness, despite the many obviously, intentionally artificial aspects of their brands. The play between artificiality and authenticity is a part of their brands. Like Parton is fond of saying, “I may look fake, but I’m very real where it counts.” It’s a paradoxical way to conduct a career with integrity: by being real about being fake, being honest about what you do to get by and get ahead. Jewly Hight of NPR reported that before the release of Blue Smoke, Parton told “a pack of bluegrass journalists,” “You can’t make a livin’ doing bluegrass … You don’t want to give it up, but you know you’ve got to expand in order to really make a living at it. … [F]or me, I’ve always been in the music business.”

In July, Lambert broke the country men’s streak, hitting no. 1 on the Hot Country Songs chart with “Something Bad,” a bad-girl barn burner about “a real-life Thelma and Louise” that she collaborated on with Carrie Underwood. Her strategy for commercial success has included the explicit pandering to radio on Platinum, and also her growing commitment to getting by with a little help from her friends. Lambert started her career writing most of her music by herself, but the number of songs where she holds solo writing credit has steadily shrunk on each new album; on Platinum, there’s only one. But all of Platinum is executed so well that clearly its slick, mainstream country and its “old shit” are as much a part of Lambert as her wild early albums are, when she told the Washington Post, “We’re a rock band with a country singer.” And her strong public image—”a fighter with a centerfold face,” as she sings on Platinum’s “Girls”—has helped anchor her as her music has evolved for both commercial and artistic reasons. No one knows better than Parton that a consistent brand can help a musician branch into artistic places where her fans might not otherwise follow.

Lambert’s 2009 hit “Only Prettier” is a slyly bitchy message from rebel redneck girls to their goody-two-shoes counterpart: “We’re just like you, only prettier.” But the song’s video tells a slightly different version of the good girl versus bad girl story. It features Lambert and her fellow country stars Kellie Pickler, Laura Bell Bundy, and Lady Antebellum’s Hillary Scott dressed up for a 1950s-era school dance. They play both blonde debutantes in pastel princess gowns and their brunette, leather-wearing alter egos who chain-smoke and spike the punch. Throughout the video they are sneering at versions of themselves. The “Only Prettier” video is an excellent distillation of Lambert’s persona and of the challenges and contradictions that make her so much more compelling than all the bros, with their songs about girls in cutoffs and drinking tequila, who have dominated the country singles charts for going on three years. Lambert—and Parton and Beyoncé—have turned unrealistic expectations into opportunities, to be both the good girl and the bad girl, to be fake but real where it counts.

Alice Bolin is a writer living in Southern California. More by Alice Bolin