In the not too distant past, there were only two means for musicians to get record company executives and potential managers to hear their music. One way was to play live shows and showcases and hope that you could convince the right person to show up and "discover" you, and the other method involved sending out tapes and gambling on the remote chance that you'd make the right impression within the first 10 seconds should your tape even make its way out of the submission pile.
Today's social media like Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace has greatly increased the odds of getting discovered or heard, but the abundance of high-profile music-oriented contests provide the truly talented an even better means for getting exposed to the right people and propelling a successful career into motion. This was certainly the case with country singer-songwriter Miranda Lambert, who burst onto the scene in 2003 after finishing in third place during the inaugural season of Nashville Star, a country-oriented talent competition that aired on USA Network and later on NBC.
"I initially wasn't too excited to go on the show," admits Lambert. "But Nashville Star was my vehicle that got me in front of the right people. Now look at where I am. I don't think I'd be where I am today if it wasn't for Nashville Star. Today I think that any opportunity is a great opportunity. If you can find the right competition for you as an artist, it's definitely a helpful vehicle that can get your career off to a great start."
Lambert encourages prospective entrants in singer or songwriter competitions to focus on being themselves and doing their best rather than strategizing to create something that they think the judges will like. "Let the judges know who you really are," Lambert suggests. "Go into the competition with confidence and go, This is my music. Even if you don't win, at least you did your own music and were true to yourself. Do not conform to what you think the judges or whoever wants to hear. Go in there and be yourself."
Lambert says that having that exact attitude is the secret to her continuing and growing success. She's recorded four studio albums for major labels, with her latest, Four the Record, scheduled for release November 1. She also formed an all-girl band, Pistol Annies, which released its debut album, Hell On Heels, this August. Lambert has been nominated for and won numerous prestigious awards, including honors from the Academy of Country Music, the Country Music Association, the CMT Music Awards, and the Music Row Awards. Earlier this year she took home a Grammy for Best Female Country Vocal Performance for the song "The House That Built Me."
"I was thrown into the shark pool right off the bat after I did Nashville Star," she recalls. "Fortunately I went into Nashville Star with the attitude that I just recommended. I got to third place just by being myself, and I knew that's what I should capitalize on in my career. I didn't let anyone change who I was or tell me what songs I should sing. I got attention based on the songs that I wrote and the way I performed them, so I stuck with that."
While many country artists pursue crossover success by incorporating elements of rock music to their sound (and conversely many rock artists have chased country audiences by making their sound more country), Lambert remains a dedicated country performer.
"I'm country through and through," she says. "I love country music. I grew up on it. A lot of country artists are now crossing over to the mainstream, but I think actual country music itself has become the new form of popular music right now. Thanks to artists like Carrie Underwood and Taylor Swift, country music has a huge following. That's why you see all these other acts from other genres making country records. It's because we're the ones who are selling records and concert tickets right now. Country music has a buzz about it, and we deserve it."
Like Swift, Lambert prefers to write most of the music that she performs and records. As a result, she doesn't always play it safe, and she's earned critical acclaim for her daring and unconventional compositions like "Gunpowder & Lead," "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend," and "Dead Flowers."
"I tell stories," she says. "I don't play it safe. I don't necessarily sing little bitty love songs and radio-friendly songs. I just write my own songs and have the production the way that I want it and put whatever I want on the record. It wasn't easy at first because radio didn't immediately embrace it, but after a while they started to and now I have great relationship with radio. When critics say that my music goes against the grade and they call me a rebel it's because I really do sound different and sing about things that are a little left of center. But I hope that people feel like they know me when they're done listening to my records."
Lambert says that many of her best songs come to her naturally. For example, she says that "Dead Flowers", the tale of a relationship gone bad, came to her instantly and virtually wrote itself when she was throwing out some old flowers that had withered and dried up long after she received them for Valentine's Day.
"Writing songs is kind of like therapy for me," she admits. "There will be a couple of months where I don't write anything, and then I'll feel like I really need to write. I've been hooked on songwriting ever since I wrote my first song, which was called ‘Take Me Back to Texas.' It wasn't that great of a song, but once I finished it I felt like I had accomplished something. I was like, I wrote a song! I can do this!"
For Lambert, writing a great song is just one element of her recipe for success. She says that building the right team from the producer and studio musicians through the band that backs her up on the road is also critical. Lambert credits producer Frank Liddell, who has produced all of her albums, with playing a major role in shaping her distinctive sound.
"I chose Frank Liddell first off when I was 19 to work on my first project ever, which was Kerosene," she says. "I had heard other things he did, and I just thought he was the right producer for me. My label was pushing me to work with other producers and other people were giving me their opinions about who they thought I should work with because Frank wasn't necessarily the typical big hit-making producer in Nashville. But he had this style that I thought would be perfect for me because he's very open-minded."
Liddell used his connections to bring in an impressive array of musicians to back up Lambert on Kerosene, including guitarists Randy Scruggs and Richard Bennett, bass player Glenn Worf, and drummer Chad Cromwell. "Frank always brings in the most amazing musicians," says Lambert. "He's also brought me some amazing songs, although sometimes we pick the songs together. It's a real joint effort between us. He's really laid back in the studio. He lets the musicians and the songs take charge of the whole session. He may give notes here and there and make suggestions about what direction the song should move in, be he lets the musicians form the song first before he gives his opinion. He knows how to put together the right team that can make a song sound different and unlike anything else while making the song itself sound right."
Although Lambert generally prefers to record and perform songs that she has written or co-written herself, she has found a handful of songs penned by other songwriters impossible to resist. She first discovered "The House That Built Me," which went on to become one of her most successful singles, when it was pitched to her husband, singer Blake Shelton.
"That song wasn't even meant to be pitched to me," she admits. "But it felt like something that I wrote. In fact, a lot of people thought that I wrote it. I wish I could take credit for such an amazing piece of art, but it was actually written by Tom Douglas and Allen Shamblin. I just fell in love with that song, and when that happens I just have to record it.
"I listen to a lot of records for pleasure," she continues, "and often I'll fall in love with one particular song. I've cut a couple of Gillian Welch's songs as well as songs that I really love by Emmylou Harris and Fred Eaglesmith. Most of the songs I record that I didn't write myself are by artists that I already love who are underground or independent artists who may not be very mainstream. For my new album, Four the Record, Frank sent me some outside songs that were pitched to him by songwriters but haven't been recorded yet. One of the songs on the album that I recorded was 10 years old, but it hit me the same way that ‘The House That Built Me' did—it felt like something I could have written and I really wanted to sing it with passion."
Lambert's success as a solo artist continues to rise, but she recently surprised Nashville observers by forming an all-female band, Pistol Annies, and recording an album with them before completing work on Four the Record. Initially she didn't plan on forming a band, but when her friend Ashley Monroe introduced her to Angaleena Presley she realized that she had stumbled across an opportunity that was too good to pass up.
"Ashley and I were on the same record label when I first got signed," says Lambert. "We met and became friends and started writing songs together. A while back she came to visit me at my farm in Oklahoma, and we took my little Airstream camper out to this campground near my house to write songs. We ended up writing about 12 songs in two days, but we couldn't figure out where they fit. They didn't sound like anything either one of us had done as individual artists, but the songs were too good to waste. Then Ashley told me that I had to hear this girl Angaleena Presley, who was another friend that she wrote songs with. She played me Angaleena's music on MySpace, and it blew me away. She did this great, old-school Loretta Lynn-style music. We decided right there that all three of us should start a band."
Although Lambert's touring schedule is too busy for her to go on a dedicated tour with Pistol Annies, she is bringing Monroe and Presley on the road with her to perform several Pistol Annies songs during her set. One advantage of having Monroe and Presley on the road with her is the certainty that even more songs and ideas will emerge. While Lambert rarely lacks motivation to write songs, she takes the pursuit very seriously and always encourages inspiration whenever possible.
"Writing songs is my job," she comments. "Some days it really feels like a job, but fortunately my job is also my hobby. I started making music as a hobby because I really loved it. Luckily I get to do what I love every night for a living."