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How Miranda Lambert became country's queen without ever kissing the ring

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When Miranda Lambert was preparing to open her Casa Rosa Tex-Mex Cantina here last year — it sits across a busy stretch of Lower Broadway from Jason Aldean's Kitchen + Rooftop Bar and just a few doors down from the joint owned by Lambert's ex-husband Blake Shelton — someone on the country singer's team tried to convince her to make a prominent space for the oversize birdcage she occupies in the music video for her 2019 hit " Bluebird."

Lambert had misgivings.

Jammed with memorabilia from her nearly two-decade career, the black-and-pink-bathed Casa Rosa is the first of Nashville's many celebrity saloons to be branded by a female country star; as such, she was after a certain vibe.

"It had to be, like, girly," she said. "Nashville is No. 1 for bachelorette parties" — the city not long ago surpassed Las Vegas for that title, according to Lambert — "so I want them to have somewhere they can feel comfortable because it's a female-driven bar." She laughed.

"I'm not having girls dancing in cages here."

Lambert settled on putting the prop in a corner of the VIP balcony, mostly out of sight of any potential leering dudes, above Casa Rosa's main stage, which is where she was rehearsing on a recent evening ahead of a launch party for her excellent new album, "Palomino," and an upcoming Vegas residency.

Wearing jeans and a faded Judds T-shirt, her blond hair in a high ponytail, Lambert, 38, took a sip of her Tito's-and-soda as her band eased into the loping groove of the LP's slyly gender-bending lead single, "If I Was a Cowboy." It's about a woman imagining herself with the freedom of an old-timey gunslinger — and with "a little lady on the front porch wishing my heart would start settling."

"You thought the West was wild, but you ain't saddled up with me," she sang, grinning out at the empty room, "If I was a cowboy, I'd be the queen."

In truth, Lambert might be the freest member, male or female, of Nashville's ruling A-list; certainly, she's making more interesting use of her country stardom than any of the other nominees she beat out last month, Luke Combs and Carrie Underwood among them, for the Academy of Country Music's entertainer of the year award. "Palomino," out now, follows 2021's Grammy-nominated "The Marfa Tapes," a seriously stripped-down collection of love songs and drinking tunes she and a pair of fellow singer-songwriters, Jack Ingram and Jon Randall, recorded around a campfire in the Texas desert with two microphones and two acoustic guitars.

With its full-band arrangements and glossy production by Lambert, Randall and Luke Dick, the new album isn't as radical as "Marfa." But it's still full of daring and idiosyncratic touches: an opener, "Actin' Up," built on a low-slung psychedelic-soul riff; a funky party song, "Music City Queen," featuring the B-52's; the gutting "That's What Makes the Jukebox Play," about an "old dive bar with the hand-drawn heart hanging lonely on the bathroom door"; a rowdy cover of Mick Jagger's "Wandering Spirit" with background vocals by gospel's McCrary Sisters. The music is steeped in country-rock tradition — think Loretta Lynn meets Tom Petty — yet alert to the thrill of disruption.

"People are afraid to try (expletive)," said Natalie Hemby, who co-wrote half the tunes on "Palomino" and who plays in the Highwomen with Brandi Carlile, Maren Morris and Amanda Shires. "But Miranda's attitude has always been: Hold my beer — watch this."

Taken in tandem with "The Marfa Tapes" — and with "Drunk (And I Don't Wanna Go Home)," Lambert's bachelorette-bait duet with Elle King that just became the first track by two women to top Billboard's Country Airplay chart since 1993 — "Palomino" posits that Lambert has reached a point where she's more or less doing whatever she wants even as she's come to a kind of fruitful understanding with the hidebound country-radio establishment that hasn't always valued her work.

"Basically, I don't expect too much, and they don't either," she said of a format that routinely marginalizes women in favor of cookie-cutter male acts.

Unlike the similarly adventurous Kacey Musgraves, who grew up about 20 minutes from Lambert in small-town East Texas, Lambert hasn't abandoned the Nashville industry; she's still got a foot planted firmly in the biz here, as she demonstrated when she fielded a series of softball questions from a chipper iHeartRadio host during that party at Casa Rosa. But she's clearly playing the game by her own rules, and in doing so she's found huge success — including being named the Country Music Assn.'s female vocalist of the year a record seven times — and become a key influence on the generation of country singers behind her.

"Miranda was already making it when I was just getting revved, and I remember thinking, How cool is this person?" said Ashley Monroe, one of Lambert's bandmates (along with Angaleena Presley) in the Pistol Annies, with whom the singer has released four albums. "She's beautiful. She's feisty. She doesn't care what anybody thinks. It's like she made everyone realize you don't have to be so prim and proper and delicate."

Lambert broke out in 2005 with " Kerosene," the revenge-minded title track from her major-label debut, after she appeared on the first season of "Nashville Star" (a.k.a. the country "American Idol"). That TV gig is what got her signed at age 19, but by then she'd already been writing songs and performing for years in honky tonks in Texas, where she'd seen the likes of Ingram and Pat Green and Robert Earl Keen build audiences before her.

"Knowing that I'd been doing pretty good at home gave me the confidence to say, I'll always have a place to sing and play my music," she said. "I didn't have to change my appearance or lose 80 pounds — whatever Nashville was gonna ask me to do to make it — because all my heroes made careers out of playing Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Louisiana."

Having taken the baton from the Dixie Chicks and Gretchen Wilson, Lambert ran with the tough-talking act for 2007's "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend," which spun off her first top 10 single in "Gunpowder and Lead"; soon, though, she was showcasing her flexible singing voice — dreamy and yearning, yet shot through with an essential Lone Star State honesty — in all kinds of songs.

In 2011 Lambert married Shelton, then becoming a household figure thanks to his role as a coach on "The Voice," which brought a new degree of tabloid scrutiny that registered as "a shock to my system," Lambert said. "I'm a Scorpio, so I'm already very private and protective. And choosing the job I chose — I mean, I get onstage, I'm in front of people. But I didn't choose random photos of moments when I wasn't at work."

The couple divorced in 2015, an experience she described as "horrible — like the death of something"; the next year Lambert released an introspective double LP, "The Weight of These Wings," which earned rave reviews and won album of the year at the ACM Awards. (Lambert remarried in 2019 to Brendan McLoughlin, a former New York City police officer she met when he provided security for a Pistol Annies performance on "Good Morning America.")

Work on "Palomino," Lambert's eighth solo studio disc, began in 2020 when the singer convened a series of songwriting weekends with Hemby and Dick at her farm outside Nashville; this was peak pandemic, so they channeled their pent-up wanderlust into creating "a travel record while we can't travel," as Lambert put it, full of made-up characters in different settings around the United States.

"I met a trucker named Dwayne south of the 10," she sings in the slow-rolling "Scenes," which goes on to imagine "skinny-dipping in Havasu Lake" and a night of "fun money at the Gold Casino." "Actin' Up" ventures to Colorado and California in search of a "sunset ride" and a "velvet rodeo," the latter of which she's using as the name of her Vegas show set to open at Planet Hollywood in September. Before that she'll tour sheds and amphitheaters this summer with Little Big Town.

The ability to write from imagined perspectives was something Lambert had long admired about Guy Clark and John Prine; developing those muscles herself was both artistically and emotionally gratifying. "I kind of learned after 'Weight of These Wings' that I don't want to live everything I write about," she said. "That's too much life — and too much heartbreak too."

"Palomino" is more up than down. Lambert said she's "learned how to care for myself and to be cautious" since her divorce. "But I'm also one of those people that loves love, and I love big. So if I believe in it, I go for it."

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