Miranda Lambert: Always Wandering, Never Lost

Last year’s The Marfa Tapes was a radical departure for Miranda Lambert. Abandoning the radio-ready studio albums that made her a country-music star, she joined her comrades Jack Ingram and Jon Randall to record an album with three voices, two mics and two acoustic guitars on a mountain ridge near Marfa, Texas. The repertoire was 15 songs that the three had co-written over the previous six years during several visits to a nearby ranch. The one-take recordings left in the crackling fire, whistling wind, mistakes and chatter to create a rare sense of intimacy and spontaneity.

In its own way, though, Lambert’s new album, Palomino, is just as much of a bold move. True, it was recorded with a band in a Nashville studio and superficially sounds like her earlier work, but the tone and substance are different from anything she’s ever done. Country radio likes its songs either very upbeat or very sad—and Lambert has written and sung both kinds better than almost anyone. But now she’s mixing exhilaration and regret within the same song, creating a tension between them that might be confusing to those who crave the simplicities of young love or fantasy love. But that tension will be satisfying to those who crave the paradoxes of adult relationships.

“I put out The Marfa Tapes because I’d earned it,” Lambert says in a Zoom call from her Tennessee farm an hour from Nashville. Sitting under a chandelier, she has twin blonde braids sticking out from under a tan baseball cap. “And I took more chances with Palomino. This album has a little bit of that Flying Burrito thing, a little bit of Dwight Yoakam, that California-country thing. It reminds me of those records Rosanne Cash made with Rodney Crowell in the ’80s; those are some of my favorite albums. I wasn’t chasing that sound, but the music I love will inevitably seep into my own music. If I can take anything from Rosanne, Merle Haggard, Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, it can only help.”

It does help. Those writers specialized in the bittersweet ironies of adulthood: the loneliness inherent in footloose freedom, the compromises necessary for long-term relationships, the tensions between romantic devotion and self-reliant independence, the price of ambition, the danger of desire. Now Lambert is exploring those same contradictions—not only in her lyrics but also in music that’s moodier in its harmonies and rougher and twangier in its guitars.

“When I started writing as a younger person,” she explains, “I just wrote about myself and what happened to me. Now I want to write like the artists and writers I’m drawn to, people like John Prine and Guy Clark. Those songs, like ‘Angel from Montgomery’ and ‘Desperadoes Waiting for a Train,’ had such depth. I wondered, ‘How did they get there? How did John Prine convince me that he was an old woman in Alabama, or that Guy was that old man in Texas?’ I wasn’t ready to do it before, but now I am. I finally got there by growing up a little bit.” She pauses and adds, “But not too much.”

Just as The Marfa Tapes resulted from three-person songwriting sessions at a Texas ranch, Palomino resulted from three-person songwriting sessions at Lambert’s farm in Tennessee, where she was joined by two of her longtime collaborators: Luke Dick and Natalie Hemby. They gathered in the fall of 2020, when the pandemic was still going strong, to see what might happen.

“It’s not like we start writing as soon as we get there,” Lambert explains. “We bring our axes and our song ideas, but we also bring drinks and smokes. We get on the paddle boards in my pond, tear around the property on ATVs and just relax into a writing mood. We were sitting around, and Luke started playing my guitar that Merle signed, obviously that’s a special guitar for me. Luke came up with that line, ‘There’s always been a stranger in my soul,’ because of Merle’s band, The Strangers. We started talking about situations where you feel like a stranger, an outsider, a tourist, and that led to that song ‘Tourist.’”

At first, it sounds like yet another tribute to the freedom of life on the road. “Swap a story, share a beer,” Lambert chirps over an easy-rolling guitar figure, “Feel the itch that makes me wanna move.” But soon a darker undercurrent slips in. An eerie pedal steel bends the harmony and a vibrato-heavy guitar stutters while Lambert sings, “I don’t know where I belong / It might sound foolish, yeah, but nowhere feels like home.” But it’s not like this uneasy chorus overwhelms the happy-go-lucky verses; it’s more that these contradictory moods are pressed together like two sides of the same coin.

“I’ve been traveling since I was 17,” Lambert confesses, “and I’ve always had the itch to roam. I’m so into it that I’ve because a collector of vintage trailers—Fleetwood and Airstream. The road is my safe haven; roaming around is where we singer/songwriters feel at home because that’s how we make our living, so that’s how we spend most of our time. A lot of it is great: You meet these strangers and have these experiences, things you would never have done if you weren’t on the road.

“And yet there’s sadness in some of these songs. There’s a tradeoff in travel, and I didn’t understand that till I was forced by Covid to stay home. There’s a beauty to staying home and not having to miss the birthdays, the graduations, the anniversaries.”

The second song the three collaborators wrote was “Scenes,” another song about life on the road, a twangy description of a trip through the Southwest to leave a lover behind. There’s skinny-dipping in Havasu Lake and gambling at the Gold Casino. But all this “moving along to the next scene” seems as much about avoidance as about liberation.

“I was drinking some wine,” Lambert remembers, “and I said, ‘Hey, maybe we’re on to something here.’ It wasn’t so much a concept album as a thread that might run through these songs and connect them. Once you have a direction like that, it’s easier to write the next song. We just went with what was working. When there’s a vibe, I want to chase it rather than starting each song from scratch. We started to create these characters who were taking these trips and having these experiences. We brought in those three songs from The Marfa Tapes that fit the theme.”

Those three songs were “In His Arms,” “Waxahachie” and “Geraldene.” The latter song, says Randall, was written “because we wanted it to rock, and it needed a band.” The others are two of Lambert’s most exquisite ballads, and they deserved a studio treatment, some subtle keyboards and echo to reinforce the tension of longing for a lover you haven’t met yet or for a small hometown you thought you’d left behind.

Those songs weren’t the only things that carried over from The Marfa Tapes to Palomino. Lambert retained the same spirit of risk-taking, the themes and sound that create a unified album rather than a collection of tracks. And she retained Randall, who co-produced the new record with her and Dick.

“On the plane home from Marfa,” Lambert says, “I asked Jon if he would co-produce my next album with me and Luke. They were already friends, so it was easy. Luke is this magical man from Oklahoma who helps me spread my wings into a sound I’ve never had before. Jon is my folk and bluegrass guy. He grew up on exactly the same music I did, so he understands my country roots. It was so easy making this record that we thought something must be wrong. I thought, ‘Shouldn’t we be fighting?’”

“When she asked me,” Randall says over the phone from a cabin on the Tennessee River, “I told her what I tell all my friends: ‘I’m all in; let’s go in and cut a few tracks, and if it doesn’t work, we’ll stop. I need buddies more than I need gigs.’ We went in to cut two songs and ended up cutting five; the flow was that good. This was near the end of the first pandemic [lockdown].”

Randall was the one who lured Lambert to Marfa in the first place. He’d been going there since 2002, mesmerized by its “mountains and people, its prehistoric vastness.” In 2015, when she was besieged by the tabloid frenzy of her breakup with country star-turned-TV star Blake Shelton, Lambert sought shelter in Marfa.

“I was going through a rough time,” Lambert recalls, “and I needed a change of scenery. Jon was always telling me how great Marfa was, so I told him, ‘Jack’s playing in West Texas; we could fly out, see the show and then drive all night to Marfa.’ That’s what we did, and we pulled into this bunkhouse at 4 a.m. I looked up and overhead was a sheet of stars, so close that it seemed you could touch them, so bright it was almost like daylight.”

“The three of us went out to the desert and hung out as friends,” adds Randall. “There was no agenda, no goals, no worry about getting a song on Miranda’s record. We threw the rules out—just grab some tequila and a guitar. Every song on that first trip was a sad, heartbreak song. Up there under the stars, someone was talking about how hard relationships are, how someone should have warned the Tin Man that having a heart can lead to a lot of hurt.”

That song, “Tin Man,” appeared on Lambert’s The Weight of These Wings album and became a #15 single. But a lot more terrific songs were written on that first trip, and on subsequent visits.

“We wound up with these wonderful songs with no obvious way to get them out to the world,” Lambert says. “So we decided to get it out all at once. We were originally going to put out the original versions on our phones, but we had recorded them at a cattle ranch, where the babies were weaning and you couldn’t hear half the songs for the calves crying. So I said, ‘Let’s set up the microphone on this ridge on the tailgate of a truck.’ We found a program to turn down the cows and the wind, but there were no fixes, no take twos.”

When The Marfa Tapes was nominated for a Grammy and got more attention than expected, it raised the profile of Ingram and Randall. Lambert told Randall that this was the time to release the solo recordings he’d been tinkering with. And so Jon Randall, his first solo album in 15 years, came out last fall. It included a duet with Ingram on “Girls from Texas,” and several songs about the uneasy restlessness of life on the road that fit the theme and mood of Palomino.

Also released last year was The Pistol Annies’ fourth album, Hell of a Holiday, an example of what can happen when artists use a holiday album to take some chances, rather than just go through the motions. This album—another Lambert project with two songwriting collaborators, in this case Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley—features 10 originals co-written by the trio and only three older seasonal songs.

The title track, an echo of the trio’s 2011 debut single, “Hell on Heels,” is similarly feisty and witty. But this record also has a more melancholy side, a willingness to wrestle with adult disappointments. The now-older Pistol Annies not only have their tongues in their cheeks, but also their hearts on their sleeves.

“The last two Annies albums are different from the first two,” explains Lambert, “because we’re in a different place now. We have three husbands, two ex-husbands, a bunch of children and animals. That’s a lot to deal with. We’re more serious sometimes, and it’s OK to go there because that’s what we’re supposed to do as artists.”

Hell of a Holiday was produced by Frank Lidell, the husband of country star Lee Ann Womack. He also handled the three previous Pistol Annies albums—including 2018’s unfairly overlooked Interstate Gospel—plus Lambert’s first six albums for Sony.

“I adore Frank, and his role in my career,” Lambert says. “I would not be where I am without those records. I met him when I was 17, and I feel like Frank and I will make music together forever. We will always be in each other’s lives. When The Annies and I were talking about making a Christmas album, we knew Frank needed to produce it. It’s not easy making a record with three women who all have strong opinions, but Frank gets it, maybe because he’s married to an artist.”

Randall, who co-produced Palomino with Lambert and Dick, got his first big break in 1990 as a 21-year-old when Emmylou Harris hired him to join her newly formed band, The Nash Ramblers, featuring Sam Bush and Al Perkins. Randall was in the Rodney Crowell/Ricky Skaggs role of acoustic guitarist/harmony singer for Harris. Randall released four solo albums after that, registering one top-20 country single, before finding his niche as an in-demand songwriter, sideman and producer in Nashville.

“I toured with Emmy for years,” says Randall, “and like Emmy, Miranda’s really supportive of her friends and the music they make. She’s obviously a Hall of Fame artist, but she’s so generous. She did it for Ashley and Angaleena; she did it for Jack and me. She’s confident enough to share the spotlight.

“Miranda also reminds me of Emmy in that she has no fear. She’s willing to rip something out and start all over again. She’s willing to say, ‘This has run its course, so I’m going to try something else.’ Both of them have that fearlessness about making decisions and sticking with them. That’s what it takes to blend high art and radio airplay the way they have.”

is out now via Vanner Records/RCA Nashville.