I was only a few short miles (Google Maps says 11) from New York City on Friday at around 9 P.M. when sassy country-pop good-girl-gone-bad Miranda Lambert walked onstage at the Izod Center in New Jersey. But I felt much, much farther away (like, say, in Sarah Palin’s Wasilla, Alaska), when the following exchange took place a few minutes into her
“Oh, wow,” I said, standing up to get a better look at the stage, which was about 10 feet from my seat (thanks publicist!). “Her mic stand. It’s… it’s a shotgun?!?!”
“Yeah,” coolly replied the guy sitting next to me, on the left. “Looks like a…”—he stood, squinted and angled for a clearer view—“looks like an old Parker Brothers side-by-side. Or even a Remington 88 semi-automatic.”
I turned and looked at him with a blank stare, blinking. “It’s a… what?”
Random knowledge of hunting rifles, within this vicinity of New York City—of 5th Avenue!—perplexes me (unless, of course, you’re Omar from The Wire on vacation, and the shotgun is sawed off). But for tonight, this was Miranda Lambert country, dammit, and it was but one country-tinged revelation in a night packed full of ‘em.
First thing’s first: I’m not a country music fan. I’m a rock’n’roll guy raised on 1950s and ‘60s classics, from the Big Bopper and Elvis to the Beatles and Dave Clark 5, who grew into a hardcore punk and indie rock fan obsessed with ‘90s mainstays like Pavement and Spiritualized current groups like Girls and Real Estate. I have my country moments, though. I love the Rolling Stones’ foray into country on Exile in Main Street (and others)—“Sweet Virginia” is one of my all-time favorite songs. I also love and own albums by Patsy Cline, Hank Williams, The Carter Family, Johnny Cash, Gram Parsons and many more. But that’s old country and Miranda Lambert is what I’d categorized (I’d say fairly) as new country, and that’s an important distinction. Because new country mostly sucks. Mostly. I’m much more interested in a singer who croons about the trail of their tears than any Ass-Kickin’ Ford F150 (with a f**kin’ Hemi, thanks for asking), if you know what I mean.
But thanks to my pal Ryan, the driving motivation behind my presence at a Miranda Lambert concert on a Friday night, in New Jersey (he’s a big fan and convinced me to tag along), I’ve been coming around (albeit slightly) to new country—the Miranda Lambert song “Look at Miss Ohio” is my jam. So I reluctantly agreed to check out Lambert’s gig. I was promised there’d tons of drunken girls. So I was in. At worst, I figured, it’d be like an anthropological experiment—the hipster (hey, I’m not hiding anything) writer from Williamsburg, Brooklyn, immersing himself with real American people and music. Or something like that.
The experience began in proper when we bought our roundtrip tickets from Port Authority Terminal on 42nd Street in Manhattan, and boarded the bus bound for Izod Center. We were two of only four guys on a bus full of young women in cowboy (ahem, cowgirl) hats and boots, some drinking straight from pints of whiskey. At the venue, the ‘What-are-these-guys-doing-here?’ looks abounded—we stood out in an arena full of what appeared to be displaced Wal-Mart moms who happened to find a sitter for the night.
Miranda Lambert’s concert was worth the 11-mile trek and cultural displacement. However, her opener Chris Young’s was not. He opened with “Save Water, Drink Beer,” which had me wondering, aloud at times, just how much water is in each beer (a lot). The next song, “Beer or Gasoline,” inspired two girls no older than 10, seated in front of us, to steal their father’s Budweiser and each take a drink (they almost got away with it). Future fans in training! Young bounded around the stage, perhaps more daringly than those tight Wrangler jeans would allow him, and—swear to god—I feel asleep with my head comfortably resting on a steel bar. Do the math.
It was a clear case of what makes new country so reviled in the circles I run in. But Lambert isn’t that at all. Her music is honest and a clear representation of who is she is as a person. While her guns-and-cigarettes-and-broken-hearts image certainly doesn’t hurt album sales, it doesn’t seem formulated to that end. She writes her own material, which comes across as both natural and authentic, and her tunes are catchy and not over-produced country-as-shtick B.S. She played 22 songs, including super-fun covers of Creedence Clear Water’s “Up Around the Bend,” Tom Petty’s “Free Girl Now,” and Aretha Franklin’s “Do Right Woman,” and never once did my interest wane.
She was all sass and smiles, and full of Southern charm. Before “Baggage Claim,” her new single, she warned, “This song is meant to blow off some steam.” The crowd hollered and she seemed all riled up, too. Later she dedicated a song to her step-father (she’s married to fellow country star Blake Shelton), who recently passed away. Throughout she certainly proved to be a stand-up role model for the women in attendance. Unlike Chris Young, she skipped her overtly boozy songs for the youngsters, like her whiskey-as-romance hoot “Jack Daniels,” and her smoking-and-heartbreak “Me and Your Cigarettes” (which is a personal favorite, FYI).
Later, she addressed her followers with some sloganeering: “We’re nice, right? But we’ll kick your ass.” True. Lambert is a likeable artist with an admirable authenticity and edge. I’d much prefer my future daughters nagging me to buy their album than, say, the next Ke$ha or Miley album.
“Hey, if you like us, great,” Lambert preached at one point, referring to her and her fans as one. “If not, then we don’t give a f**k.” When I left Izod Center, heading to the bus which would take me back to New York from my two-and-half-hour dive into a country wormhole, I gave a f**k about Miranda Lambert.