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Of Texas and Tennessee

Miranda Lambert straddles country’s alternative/mainstream divide.

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In the fall of 2008, more than a year after a sophomore disc that ended up being the decade's finest country album and exactly a year before a third album that cemented her as a career artist, Miranda Lambert graced the cover of Garden & Gun magazine. An eastern answer to The Oxford American — only both more high-toned and less academic — Garden & Gun takes as its subtitle subject "The Soul of the New South," and Lambert was the chosen cover girl for its "Best of the New South" issue.

Not all readers were impressed. The next issue featured a letter complaining that the magazine had lowered itself by putting "a blonde bimbo in a short skirt" on the cover. "She is no Loretta Lynn," the writer concluded in a huff, citing the magazine's purist-baiting cover text, which needlessly proclaimed Lambert "The Next Loretta Lynn."

Lambert isn't that — and neither is anyone else — simply because the world that produced Lynn and other country titans of her generation has changed too much. But Lambert is one of the most compelling and curious figures pop music has produced over the past decade.

A pin-up-worthy blonde from tiny Lindale, Texas, Lambert got her big break as the third-place finisher on the short-lived Nashville Star, a third-rate knock-off of American Idol. And yet, from those showbiz origins arose mainstream country's truest artist.

After three albums in five years, Lambert finds herself occupying the lonely place within the country cosmos that the pre-cataclysm Dixie Chicks once enjoyed, straddling the alt/mainstream divide. Lambert is in heavy rotation on CMT and performs at all the big industry events, but despite pairing up with fellow neo-trad Blake Shelton on- and off-stage, she doesn't quite seem part of the club.

Lambert's been halfway embraced by the country establishment, and she's halfway embraced them back. Her brand of country frequently strays into rock sans the usual air quotes, and though she writes or co-writes most of the songs across her three albums, when she goes looking for outside material, it's much more likely to be from indie/alt artists such as John Prine, Gillian Welch, Fred Eaglesmith, and Patty Griffin than from any Music Row pro. In her Garden & Gun interview, she pays lip service to mainstream country, but she cites the Texas singer-songwriter tradition as her primary source of inspiration.

Lambert's 2005 debut, Kerosene, was keyed to its title track, a blazing break-up song disguised as class-rage anthem that rather cheekily borrowed from Steve Earle's "I Feel Alright" (all the way down to the "Ha!" vocal interjection in the same spot). But Kerosene obscured a raft of sharp, personal songs from a young performer with one foot in her hometown and another on the road out.

The follow-up, 2007's Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, was a sneaky formal triumph, its spitfire early singles playing up the rough-and-tumble good-girl-gone-bad imagery Gretchen Wilson had taken to the bank. But what distinguished Lambert's outlaw bid was a depth that pushed beyond Wilson's fetching cartoon.

Across all three albums, Lambert's written enough heartfelt songs about an affair with a married man and other sticky romantic travails that it's hard to believe she's just playing with a trope. And Crazy Ex-Girlfriend blooms on the backstretch with less showy songs ("Guilty in Here," "More Like Her," the latter as complicated a break-up ballad as you'll ever hear) that are piercingly ambivalent about the emotional risks of walking on the wild side.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend was hard to follow up, but Lambert nailed it with last year's Revolution, and the journey from rollicking girlishness to outlaw-country breakthrough to Revolution's expansive self-assuredness feels perfect. The album is Lambert's longest — 15 songs in over 50 minutes — and perhaps her most relaxed.

Most impressive is that the album's ambition isn't built on bloated or grandiose individual songs. The longest track (lead single "Dead Flowers") is four minutes even, and many of the best songs clock in at under three minutes, with Lambert hitting her target and moving on: the clever, sexy metaphor of "Me & Your Cigarettes," which finds a novel use in familiar imagery ("Gives you something you can do with your hands/Makes you look cool and feel like a man"); the Christian-on-her-own-terms "Heart Like Mine," which opens with a confessional — "I ain't the kind you take home to Mama/I ain't the kind to wear no ring/Somehow I always get stronger when I'm on my second drink" — before citing a father's tears over a new tattoo visible on the album cover and declaring that she and Jesus would make good drinking buddies; the ramblin' woman daydream "Airstream Song," which nods to Kerosene in its conflicting attraction to both home and road.

The Texas-bred songwriter has taken over the half-in/half-out approach to mainstream country that Steve Earle and Lyle Lovett inhabited 20 years ago. The difference is that the very thing that makes her more commercially viable (she's a pretty, young, blond woman) also makes it harder for their (stuffy white dude) fans — not to mention Garden & Gun letter writers — to take her seriously.

Miranda Lambert, with the Randy Rogers Band Snowden Grove Amphitheatre Thursday, September 2nd 8 p.m.; $39/$49

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