Crazy Talk

Miranda Lambert is a lot like any other girl with a soft spot for guns and setting exes on fire.

Miranda Lambert country Carrie Underwood 7 p.m. Thursday, February 21, at House of Blues, 308 Euclid Avenue, $32 and $45, 216-523-2583.
Sure, she's smiling now. Just don't piss her off.
Sure, she's smiling now. Just don't piss her off.

Miranda Lambert doesn't really look like a psychopath. The Texas country singer sports long, blond hair, an aw-shucks smile, and girl-next-door good looks. But "Kerosene," her breakthrough single from three years ago, was all about catching her cheating boyfriend in the act . . . and then setting him and his gal pal on fire. "Light 'em up, and watch them burn/Teach them what they need to learn," she sang in a twang as smoking as her charred ex.

Two years later, Lambert, now 24, cut to the chase and titled her second CD Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. She heard the phrase over and over again as her debut album, also called Kerosene, climbed to the top of the country music charts. So she wrote more songs about bad boys getting blown away — like the title cut ("Didn't give a second thought to being thrown in jail/'Cause, baby, to a hammer, everything looks like a nail") and "Gunpowder & Lead" ("His fist is big, but my gun's bigger/He'll find out when I pull the trigger"). And even though guys are pretty forgiving — especially when girls look like Lambert — she's pretty much guaranteed that she'll never have another date.

"As long as I don't scare off the [guy] I have, that's OK," she laughs, referring to her boyfriend, country singer Blake Shelton. "That's just a side of who I am. I grew up around those scenarios. My parents would take in battered women, and it had a real effect on me. It taught me to be strong and stand up for what's right."

Lambert was raised in Lindale — the real-life burg at the center of her biggest and best song, "Famous in a Small Town." Both of her parents were private investigators, and she learned early on that lots of folks have cheatin' on their minds. Many of Kerosene's songs were based on stories Mom and Dad discussed at the dinner table. Likewise, most of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend's tunes — the majority of which Lambert wrote or co-wrote — are about people she knows. "But the names have been changed to protect the guilty," she laughs.

Like Kelly Clarkson, Lambert got her start on a new TV show for fledgling singers. But unlike American Idol's first champ, Lambert lost the inaugural season of Nashville Star in 2003 to Buddy Jewell — actually, she came in third. "I've said before I'm glad I didn't win, because I wasn't ready for what it entailed at that point," she says. "I got to spend time writing."

Lambert doesn't really look or sound like anyone else playing country music. On Nashville Star, she didn't wear a big-ass cowboy hat. She didn't sweetly croon her way through super-sappy cover songs. And she sure as shit wasn't someone you wanted to bring home to Mom — despite the girl-next-door looks. She comes off as someone who not only enjoys hunting down and killing her dinner; she'd also skin it and eat it raw in front of you.

Her voice is rougher and tougher than other country-radio sweethearts like, say, Carrie Underwood (who had her own song about dealing with a two-timing boyfriend). While Lambert is a picture of down-home cuteness on the cover of Kerosene, on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, she looks like she's about a second away from kicking the crap out of someone. For better or worse, this may be one of the reasons she isn't a radio- and iTunes-conquering superstar like Underwood.

While both of her albums reached No. 1 on the country chart, Lambert has yet to score a Top 10 country song — "Famous in a Small Town" stalled at No. 14. "That's who I am," she shrugs. "And I think that's why a lot of people identify with me. I'm not bubblegum, happy stuff all the time. I grew up hunting and fishing — all of that is a part of who I am. I'm not going to be someone else just to sell records. If you do that, you compromise your integrity."

Lambert says she isn't bothered by the stats. "What matters to me is making good records," she says. Indeed — she's one of the few country artists that rock critics champion as enthusiastically as they do Arcade Fire and LCD Soundsystem. And for good reason. Lots of musicians — from rappers to indie-rockers — play "dangerous" for cred. Lambert is a genuine hard-ass. And at one time, she was most definitely the "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend" she sings about.

But she's older now and hopefully a little more in control of her emotions. Most of Kerosene's songs were written when Lambert was still a teenager. She says she went into Crazy Ex-Girlfriend with an "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" mindset. But the new batch of songs — from the reflective "More Like Her" to the sighing resignation of "Desperation" — can't help but be informed by the years when Lambert went from carefree teen to responsible adult.

Most of all, she says, "I wanted to show how I'd changed as a songwriter. I think the [new] songs reflect that of a 22-year-old girl's life, as opposed to that of a 19-year-old on Kerosene. You grow up a lot in three years."

For one thing, she's become a better live performer, dedicated to giving "110 percent" at every single concert — even if she's feeling only 75 percent committed. Lambert says she uses tricks she picked up during her Nashville Star run. "With shows like that, you can't have an off night, or you're gone. It teaches you that you have to bring it every night. That's something I've never forgotten."

Lambert is still touring Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which came out last May. As soon as she's off the road, she plans to start working on her third album. She's not really sure if she's still going to play the role of Girlfriend You Never, Ever Want to Piss Off. But she is certain that you, your neighbor, or that co-worker who boozes it up just a little too much on weekends will figure into the mix.

"Writing about real life is what people can identify with," she says. "That's what country music is about. Merle [Haggard], Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, and Loretta Lynn all wrote about real life. I try to do the same. Some of it — like the drinking, cheating, and fighting — may not be pretty. But it's still life, and it happens."

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