Miranda Lambert staked out her musical turf early. Beginning with "Kerosene," her 2005 major-label debut album, the Texas native projected a distinctive blend of in-your face attitude, acerbic humor and heart wrapped in an edgy, proudly twangy sound.
Ms. Lambert, who appears with Jason Aldean and others at PNC Park Saturday, has perfected that style on every subsequent album. "Platinum," released in June, is No. 1 on Billboard's country album charts. It has yielded two successful singles, "Automatic" and "Somethin' Bad." The latter, a duet with Carrie Underwood, also reached No. 1.
Pistol Annies, her acclaimed vocal trio with singer-songwriters Angeleena Presley and Ashley Monroe, projects a similar mixture of gritty blue-collar consciousness, filled with wit, tales of hardscrabble living, and amusements legal and otherwise.
At the moment, Ms. Lambert and other female singers enjoy greater freedom than most of their male counterparts. Many of the guys, even top stars, are creatively hogtied by the current bro-country fad, centered on an incessant flow of ill-written, doltish songs celebrating beach parties, beer-swilling, hot girls in tight jeans and pickup trucks. Ironically, Blake Shelton, Ms. Lambert's husband, seems to endorse such formulaic fare on the song "Country on the Radio" on his most recent album.
Growing up in Lindale, Texas, Ms. Lambert was surrounded by traditional country. Her dad, Rick Lambert, was an aspiring singer-songwriter before shifting to a law enforcement career. She heard the artists he loved, among them Bakersfield honky-tonker Merle Haggard and Austin denizen Jerry Jeff Walker. He gave her a guitar when she turned 13, but she wasn't eager to sing until her mid-teens.
She developed her own heroes, among them Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris as well as Steve Earle, Pat Green, Jack Ingram and other alt-country iconoclasts. Singing with the band at Reo Palm Isle gave her more experience because that iconic Longview, Texas, dancehall had showcased generations of country greats. After making some Nashville contacts, her first national exposure came as one of the few shining lights on the lackluster USA network music competition "Nashville Star."
When Sony Nashville signed her in 2005, Ms. Lambert took time to create "Kerosene," developing her signature style of mainstream fare incorporating edgy, unorthodox traditionalism. Her ability to project heart and vulnerability sets her apart from female singers who see attitude as an end in itself. She also shows exceptional taste in choosing non-original tunes. Her five albums include material from Carlene Carter, Kacey Musgraves, Fred Eaglesmith, Patty Griffin, Allison Moorer and Country Music Hall of Famer Tom T. Hall.
Having the same producer from the start hasn't hurt things. Frank Liddell, known for his work with his wife, singer Lee Ann Womack, the Eli Young Band, David Nail and Kellie Pickler, shares Ms. Lambert's affinity for mainstream fare with a few twists. The result: modern arrangements with a retro edge that consistently complement her voice, including departures such as "Platinum's" "All That's Left," teaming her with the Nashville western swing band the Time Jumpers.
Twenty-first-century Nashville is a world unto itself, complete with its own weekly TV soap opera. It remains, as always, a magnet for aspiring talent. Sadly, too many current acts find stardom only after allowing their individuality to be assimilated and packaged by Music Row, not to focus their talents but to fit current demographic trends. In this new order, individual voices and styles seem almost passe. Miranda Lambert's ability to deliver commercially successful, high quality music her way, on her terms, proves fortune can still favor the bold.
Rich Kienzle blogs about music at http://communityvoices.post-gazette.com/arts-entertainemnt-living/getrhythm.