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Miranda Lambert may know her guns and drink, but her softer side is powerful, too

Miranda Lambert will take the stage Saturday at Arrowhead stadium with Kenny Chesney. She performed at the 2016 iHeartCountry Festival in Austin, Texas.
Miranda Lambert will take the stage Saturday at Arrowhead stadium with Kenny Chesney. She performed at the 2016 iHeartCountry Festival in Austin, Texas. Getty Images for iHeartMedia

The most successful single off Miranda Lambert’s debut album was the title track, “Kerosene.”

It portrays a scorned and betrayed woman with revenge on her mind, either by means of a firearm or arson. Or both.

Lambert co-wrote the song with Steve Earle, and it’s more hard rock than the country music she cites in her lyrics: “Life ain’t hard but it’s too long / To live it like some country song.”

“Kerosene” was released in March 2005, two years after Lambert introduced herself to the music world on the reality/talent show “Nashville Star,” where she placed third. (Buddy Jewell placed first.)

Since then, Lambert has released four more full-length albums and evolved into one of country music’s biggest stars.

On Saturday she will co-headline Kenny Chesney’s Spread the Love Tour, a lofty status previously bestowed on heavyweights like Zac Brown, Tim McGraw, Eric Church and Jason Aldean. The show is at Arrowhead Stadium.

Lambert also has corralled a bevy of awards, including two Grammys, 23 Academy of Country Music Awards and 13 Country Music Association Awards.

And along the way she has developed a persona as a wild, steel-spined woman who takes no guff from anyone, especially a man, who knows how to use the many firearms she owns and can throw back shots and beers with the best of them.

In a recent review of a Lambert concert, Jon Pareles of The New York Times wrote: “The first song (she) performed was ‘Fastest Girl in Town,’ whose lyrics include nearly every keyword in her vocabulary (‘bullets,’ ‘bottle,’ ‘tattoo,’ ‘crazy’); the closer was ‘Gunpowder & Lead,’ about which the same could be said. Before she took the stage, there was a screening of the music video for ‘Somethin’ Bad,’ depicting … Lambert and Carrie Underwood as bank robbers in smoky mascara.”

“Somethin’ Bad” is a ‘Thelma & Louise” tale: two women with a pile of money hell-bent on having a wild, boozy time. It’s one of several songs Lambert has released that depict her as an untamed and uninhibited woman who acts on some of her wildest impulses without regrets. The video has been viewed more than 52 million times.

Her wild-side anthems might sell her records and get her on the charts, but it’s Lambert’s softer side that is most rewarding and underappreciated — the introspective side that examines mature themes, a side that she first exposed on her debut album.

Young soul, wise words

Lambert was 22 when she released “Kerosene.” She wrote five of its 12 songs and co-wrote six others. Many of those songs are well-crafted country ballads that share a vibe with Dixie Chicks albums like “Wide Open Spaces” and “Home.”

“Love Is Looking for You” is one of the best songs on “Kerosene.” It is a hymn for a lost and wounded soul, and its lyrics, set to a lovely melody, sound as though they come from someone wise beyond her years.

Lambert was no older than 20 when she wrote lines like “So you’re lookin’ for your skin / That you never did fit in / You can’t hide when you’re turned inside out / Love is lookin’ for you now.”

And: “Maybe you’ve been thirsty / But the rain just ain’t enough when you’re this dry / So you’re runnin’ from the water and the fire’s getting hotter / I think you better find some level ground / Love is lookin’ for you now.”

Later on “Kerosene,” in “Love Your Memory,” she embalms and buries a relationship that is coming apart at the seams:

“I don’t want to see you or feel you / I don’t want to look into your eyes / I don’t want to touch you or miss you / I just want to love your memory tonight.”

She followed up “Kerosene” with “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” and though the title track was the album’s most popular song, it’s not its best.

The album includes more parables and sermons about small-town life, a favorite topic for Lambert, and another broken-heart eulogy, “More Like Her”: “I should have held on to my pride / I should have never let you die / I guess you got what you deserve / I guess I should have been more like her.”

“Ex-Girlfriend” includes three covers that say a lot about Lambert’s musical roots and influences: “Dry Town,” a Gillian Welch/David Rawlings song; Patty Griffin’s “Getting Ready”; and “Easy From Now On,” a Carlene Carter/Susanna Clark ballad that gave the title to one of Emmylou Harris’ best albums, “Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town.”

The liner notes also provide evidence that Lambert was working outside the commercial country boundaries. Guest musicians included Buddy Miller, Chuck Leavell, Waddy Wachtel, Glenn Worf.

She added more covers on “Revolution,” her third full-length, songs by Fred Eaglesmith, Julie Miller (Buddy’s wife) and John Prine.

She also contributed some of her own well-crafted ballads with incisive lyrics, like “Dead Flowers,” one more valediction: “He ain’t feelin’ anything / My love, my hurt or the sting of this rain / I’m living in a hurricane / All he can say is, ‘Man, ain’t it such a nice day.’ 

How will post-divorce Lambert sound?

By then, Lambert was dating fellow country star Blake Shelton, who is now a judge on “The Voice.” They married in 2011, the year she released “Four the Record.” She wrote only two of its 14 songs solo and co-wrote four others, including “Over You,” which she wrote with Shelton. It’s a song about enduring grief: “I miss you / They say I’ll be OK / But I’m not going to ever get over you.”

Other songs are credited to several well-known songwriters: Chris Stapleton, Allison Moorer, Brandi Carlile, Brandy Clark, Kacey Musgraves and Welch/Rawlings.

In an interview that same year with Lone Star Music, Lambert said of her music, “You can’t pin any of it down. You can just twist it all together. Definitely, it’s country. But it’s got a rock edge, a soft side. There’s a vintage feel sometimes. It’s a mixture of everything I’ve ever loved that stuck out in my mind.”

In 2014, Lambert released “Platinum,” her most recent album. It continues the course taken on “Four the Record”: only one song written solo plus 15 collaborations, covers or songs written by others.

Her own song, “Bathroom Sink,” is one of the album’s best, and it harkens back to some of her strongest early material. It’s a rumination on discipline and hard work but also on taking stock of what you see in the mirror every morning and on ruing the fights she still has with her mother, who “taught me how to pray and drink / and how to clean the bathroom sink.”

“Somethin’ Bad” was the album’s big hit. It went platinum, thanks in large part to Underwood’s role. It allowed Lambert to once again play the role of a woman indulging in debauchery, unrepentantly.

But “Platinum” also includes “Hard Staying Sober,” for which she gets a co-write. It’s another song about fractured love and one that taps into her keen way with lyrics: “It’s hard staying sober when you ain’t staying over / It’s easy getting messed up on the truth / It’s hard standing here watching taillights disappear / It’s hard staying sober when I’m getting over you.”

Life has changed a lot for Lambert since she released “Platinum.” She and Shelton announced in 2015 they were divorcing after four years of marriage. She let it be known late last year that she is dating and collaborating with Anderson East, a Southern soul singer/songwriter from Athens, Ala.

She should have plenty of emotions and sentiments to express in the wake of her divorce (and Shelton’s subsequent romance with co-“Voice” judge Gwen Stefani), and the prospect of East’s soulful influence is intriguing.

If it means the retirement of Lambert’s bad-ass, feminist heroine characters, so be it. She has proved she has other worthwhile stories to tell and memorable ways of expressing them.

Timothy Finn: 816-234-4781, @phinnagain

Saturday

Miranda Lambert is part of Kenny Chesney’s Spread the Love Tour, 5 p.m. Saturday at Arrowhead Stadium. Tickets are $43-$349 through Ticketmaster.com.

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