Jamey Johnson has the Waylon Jennings baritone and the David Allan Coe beard, but make no mistake: Miranda Lambert is, to date, the most successful exponent of outlaw country in the 21st century.
Every one of Lambert's five records has been a No. 1 country album, and her latest, Platinum, took the top spot on the pop charts, too. (It's her first to not go platinum, but it's been out for less than three months.) Now 30, she remains the iconoclastic, aggressive spitfire who spewed venom and lighter fluid on the title hit from her debut, Kerosene, when she could barely even drink. But a broad cross-section of American listeners has embraced her—in part, because her records manage their stock of songs in a delightfully rebellious fashion. She's unapologetic about reaching outside of the typical Nashville machinery to build a hit album. She's an outlaw with a different crusade.
That policy is a guiding principle for Platinum. She co-wrote half the album, including the hit "Automatic" and the instant-classic, breakup-and-booze lament "Hard Staying Sober."
Just as important, though, Lambert connected with other writers to help tell her story and galvanize her attitude. She reaches back to country classicism with a hidden Tom T. Hall gem, "All That's Left." Originally recorded by Big Country Bluegrass, she transforms it into a jazzed-up Western Swing tune.
And her co-writers are a motley crew of bright new Nashville lights. Natalie Hemby has been in the Lambert camp since 2009's Revolution. She's involved in nearly half of Platinum, from the aforementioned drinking tune to "Priscilla," a salute to Elvis Presley's wife backed by a groove that evokes George Michael's "Faith." The song plays off Lambert's own marriage to another musical heartthrob, Blake Shelton. Lambert also teamed with Ashley Monroe—her bandmate in the tempestuous country supergroup Pistol Annies and one of the most promising Nashville arrivals of the last few years—on the soulful, slow-burning "Holding on to You." She co-wrote "Two Rings Shy," an old-school kiss-off worthy of Loretta Lynn, with Brandy Clark, a singer whose 2013 debut album became a critical favorite.
Lambert has revealed just as much about herself through tunes by other artists, frequently cutting songs by acts who would otherwise never get close to the Nashville mainstream. On Four the Record, she hit an alt-country double by tackling Gillian Welch's moody "Look at Miss Ohio" and Allison Moorer's "Oklahoma Sky." Revolution tipped its hat to cult heroes both classic and current with her take on John Prine and "Time to Get a Gun," a Randy Newman-meets-Neil Young plaint by Canadian troubadour Fred Eaglesmith. She took on singer-songwriter Patty Griffin for Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, plus "Easy From Now On," a lambent 1990 ballad by Carlene Carter.
In concert, Lambert redoubles that effort, reflecting her stormy persona in unforeseen covers. She delivers a revved-up neo-rockabilly take on "Long White Cadillac," a haunting tune about the death of Hank Williams she presumably picked up through Dwight Yoakam's 1989 recording. She rips through Merle Haggard and ZZ Top favorites.
Lambert on stage tends to mix the hits and several cuts from whatever record she's just released with the unexpected—the covers and the songs from other writers alike. As much as Lambert's own leather-tough attitude, the songs she's picked—and by extension, the writers she values—help power her position as, stardom notwithstanding, her generation's foremost country outlaw.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Illicit curation."