Miranda Lambert's set opens by proclamation: A warning siren roars from the loudspeakers as the house lights fall. A hip-hop track booms, its billowing bass and percussive clicks rattling the 20,000 or so fans who fill the Raleigh, North Carolina, Time Warner Cable Music Pavilion for Kenny Chesney's annual tour.
Lambert, second on a three-act bill, rushes onto the stage as the band cranks up, her smile beaming nearly as brightly as the sequined silver tank-top she sports over mildly tattered, wildly tight blue jeans. How ya doing, Raleigh? she asks, emphasizing the last syllable playfully.
She launches quickly into Kerosene, her first major single, holding the microphone like Mick Jagger, jumping a bit and stomping a lot.
Lambert gives a dynamic, smart performance that mixes rock's certitude and country's sensitivity. It's a fitting representation of her third album, Revolution, due Tuesday (September 29) on Columbia Nashville and itself a seductive mix of spirited rock and heartfelt country.
The singer-songwriter first broke onto the scene after finishing third place on the first season of reality TV show Nashville Star. Her first two albums, 2005's Kerosene and 2007's Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, were successful commercially and critically.
But while those two albums were defined by in-your-face songs like Kerosene and Gunpowder & Lead, Revolution reveals -- like Lambert's new campaign as the face of Cotton Inc. -- a softer side. It's a musically adventurous album that sets Lambert up for success in one arena she hasn't yet conquered: radio. And that's still the main channel where country fans get their music.
Lambert has released 10 singles to radio. Four have reached the top 20 on Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart: the incendiary Kerosene peaked at No. 15 in 2006, Famous in a Small Town hit No. 14 in 2007, and the vulnerable More Like Her reached No. 17 earlier this year. Her biggest chart hit was Gunpowder & Lead, which peaked at No. 7 last year. The first single off Revolution, Dead Flowers, reached No. 37.
But Lambert doesn't sound overly concerned that a major radio hit still eludes her.
I would absolutely love to have a top five (hit), she says, but I've had a great career, and so I'd rather keep it the same than try to do something different and not have it work at all.
'MORE OUT THERE'
Lambert didn't draw the title of her third album from a song or a lyric; instead, the country-rocker is a bit more philosophical about her new work. To me, that's an exciting word, that something new is happening. I sort of reinvented myself musically on this record, Lambert says. It feels like there's change, that country music is more open-minded.
She says Revolution expands on her songwriting because there's more story to tell, adding that sonically, I think this record is a bit more out there in some parts than anything I've ever done ... I was ready to come up with some new sounds.
Those sounds include the punkish drum and raw guitar-driven That's the Way the World Goes Round, the hillbilly hybrid White Liar and Maintain the Pain, which owes less to Johnny Cash than to the Clash. Time to Get a Gun is a throwback to '70s country-rock with more than a dash of B-3 organ.
Lambert shares credit for her sound with producers Frank Liddell and Mike Wrucke, who have been with her from the start. Those guys are unbelievable, she says. I knew before I even got a record deal who I wanted to produce my first record. I did the politically correct thing and met with a lot of producers, but I knew in my heart who I wanted. I've always been about no rules in the studio, and they keep innovating my sound. They get me.
Lambert's recording process starts when she plays her songs for Liddell and Wrucke. I don't have work tapes or fancy demos, she says. They build this amazing music around my lyrics.
Liddell says the system works. Once you hear something presented in a certain way, your mind is set. If it's just a guitar-vocal (setup), there are fewer preconceived notions about how it can sound at the end. You can take it wherever you want it.
Unlike her second album, which was rushed because of her success after the first, Lambert set aside time to write songs for Revolution. I took some time over the Christmas holidays and in January to really focus on songwriting, she says. I can write on the road, but the best place is my farm. That farm is in Oklahoma, a few miles from that of beau Blake Shelton, a fellow country star with whom she co-wrote three songs on the new album.
I like the sad, cheating, mad, killing-people songs, and that's what I'm drawn to, whether I'm singing them or not, Lambert says. This time around I was OK with having a few songs that were love songs. (Blake) had so much to do with that.
Revolution also includes covers of songs by John Prine, Julie Miller and Canadian alt-country artist Fred Eaglesmith.
ON THE ROAD
Lambert will headline a handful of dates in late 2009 and tour to support a headliner in January. In March she'll head out on her own again, playing 3,000- to 5,000-seat arenas and theaters.
Lambert says she's learned from Chesney during their recent tour. He's got it down for sure, she says. I really needed to be in front of as many people as I could, and what better way to do it than be on the biggest tour in country.
Back in Raleigh, Lambert struts her stuff onstage, shaking her blue-jeaned rear at the crowd while singing in front of four cloth banners covered with sketches of ivory-handled pistols. She's doing what she loves, and the audience is feeding on the energy.
In 20 years I hope I'm talking to you about my new album and tour, she says with a laugh. Music is what I do; I can't do anything else. I don't have any other skills.