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Miranda Lambert is hanging out backstage at a sports arena in DeKalb, Illinois, talking about her surreal life. The singer has just swept the Country Music Association Awards in Nashville (Female Vocalist of the Year, Album of the Year and Music Video of the Year) and watched her fiancé, Blake Shelton, win, too (Male Vocalist of the Year). Half-joking, half-serious, she wonders aloud whether this good news is a mixed blessing. "Being happy is horrible for songwriting, especially for country music," says Lambert, who'll perform at the arena later tonight. "We just want to write about leaving and sadness. We're all better when we're tormented. I have to put myself in a dark place if I want to write something good."
Luckily, today the 27-year-old Texan, who speaks with a regional twang ("I" sounds like "ah"), is radiating good cheer. She's dressed in jeans and comfortable black suede boots and sports a large diamond-and-platinum engagement ring. It has been six years since Lambert met Shelton, 34, when they were paired on a Nashville duet show (they sang "You're the Reason God Made Oklahoma"). At the time Shelton was married and Lambert was in a relationship. "So we were just friends for a long time. We wrote songs together," says Lambert. "He ended up getting divorced and eventually we fell in love." The couple will wed in 2011. "Blake is outdoorsy, outspoken and really funny," she says. "I used to have no sense of humor. Everything was a big deal. I've gotten so much better about not taking things too seriously -- and Blake is the reason why."
"With Blake," says Lambert's mother, Bev, "Miranda has laughed more in the last five years than she has in her entire life."
Lambert was only 17 when she landed a weekend singing gig at the Reo Palm Isle Ballroom near her hometown of Lindale, Texas. Two years later she parlayed a third-place win in the USA Network's talent show, Nashville Star, into a recording contract. She then spent several years touring the country as a warm-up act, sharing sleeping quarters on her bus with a dozen guys -- band members and roadies. (At one point, she recalls calling her business manager and saying, "I need you to check: How much is it to live in an insane asylum and how much is it for a second bus? Because I either have to do one or the other.")
These days she is the headliner with a 23-person entourage and plays more than 100 shows a year in venues that seat up to 30,000. She even got that bus -- an upscale number decorated with patchwork quilt-style curtains, a framed poster of the Marlon Brando movie The Wild One and a Murphy bed. "After a show I'll get on the bus and pull my bed down," says Lambert. "I have three rescue dogs -- Delilah, Delta and Cher -- and they jump in bed with me and we go to sleep."
Now that fans recognize her, it's more difficult for Lambert to move around. "I can't even go to Walmart anymore!" she says. She's also dealing with the pressures that come with fame, like trying to maintain a healthy weight. "I've gone through a lot of weight issues and spent my 20s going up and down," admits Lambert, who recently rehired her personal trainer so she can get into shape for good. "I called my trainer a month before the CMA Awards [last November] and said, 'I'm ready to make this a lifestyle and not a crash diet.' Every time an event was coming up I was trying to figure out how to lose 10 pounds in two days. I've always been a size eight-ish. Now I'm down to a six, which is fine with me. When you're onstage, you don't want to be thinking about what's jiggling."
Lambert's concerts are definitely physical: When she performs she struts, she dances, she tosses her hair -- she has even been known to throw the microphone stand down with such intensity that it breaks. Her lyrics are equally fiery. Her first CD was titled Kerosene, and her second, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. In her songs women don't pine passively at home, weeping over lost love. Instead they track down cheating or abusive boyfriends and give them hell or threaten them with a shotgun. In 2008 Esquire dubbed Lambert "Terrifying Woman of the Year."
She revels in her tough-girl persona, eagerly rolling up her T-shirt to show off the elaborate tattoo on her left arm: two intertwined revolvers graced by wings. It's her tour logo, designed by a friend. As she explains the symbolism, "I'm really a small-town Texas girl. I've got a good heart. I was raised right. But I also have a feisty side. I have this don't-take-any-crap attitude. The guns and wings represent both parts of my personality."
This is not shtick: She really does go for guns. Her father, Rick Lambert, who was a Dallas police officer before starting a private investigation agency with her mother, taught her about weapons at an early age. These days Lambert carries a Colt .45 revolver on the bus and in her free time she and Shelton like to hunt for deer and wild turkey.
Fiercely independent, she does not live with her fiancé -- they each own farms six miles apart in rural Oklahoma. After Shelton's divorce, in 2006, he left Nashville and moved back to his home state of Oklahoma. Lambert, still living with her parents in Texas three hours away, visited frequently, but the couple weren't ready to merge their lives. The solution? Three years ago a friend showed Lambert a 700-acre farm nearby. "I fell in love with it but I wasn't sure. I told Blake, 'If I buy this farm and move away from everything I know, are you going to screw up?' He said, 'Buy the farm.' So I did."
She likes having two separate houses -- "When Blake gets on my nerves, I can go home" -- and expects they will continue to live this way even after they get married. "We hang out at one farm or the other, depending on the night," she says, explaining that her place is decorated with "girly" things while his house features "dead animals" mounted on the walls. "It works for us."
This afternoon Lambert has scheduled a few hours to work on writing new songs. Her rough-around-the-edges Texas childhood remains an inspiration for her music. When she was 6 years old and her brother, Luke, was 2, her parents experienced hard times after their business collapsed and wiped out their savings. The couple could not pay their mortgage. "I was in first grade and we lost everything," says Lambert. "I remember every detail about it, every tear."
"All those changes at once sent her into an emotional tailspin," recalls Bev Lambert. "Miranda had always been introspective and introverted, and here she was changing schools. We didn't have anywhere to live -- we were homeless. She would cry every day."
The family left Dallas for the rural town of Lindale, where they moved in with Lambert's uncle. About a year later, once Lambert's parents got back on their feet, they rented a nearby farmhouse and became self-sufficient. "We started living off the land," says Lambert. "We had a garden, hogs we raised to slaughter, rabbits we raised for food, and my mother canned pickles and made bread. With all the things that I was exposed to, I still think I had a normal childhood because my parents were so steady."
In many ways Lambert credits her mom and dad for her success. "I started like Loretta Lynn did, with my mom driving me around Texas, looking for radio towers. Some stations would let me in the door and put me on the air. Others wouldn't. But my parents and I always worked together to get gigs."
"Now I try to repay the favor they did me in every way possible," she says. Lambert is putting her brother through college at the University of Texas in Austin, and her parents work with her part-time, running her merchandising operation. "The first new car anyone in my family ever had I bought for my parents two years ago, a Ford Expedition," she says. "I bought the first car I ever had -- a pickup truck -- over a year ago. We live within our means. I don't have a big mansion. But I have 700 acres that no one can take away from me. It's amazing to walk around my land and think, 'That?s my tree that I bought with my hard-earned money.' That's something that my dad wanted to do and he couldn't. I feel like I'm doing this for my family now."Miranda's Favorite Things
Charity: When I moved to Oklahoma there was no dog rescue shelter nearby and there were so many stray dogs it was sad. Blake and I did two benefit concerts to raise enough money to build a local shelter.
Book: Shopgirl, by Steve Martin. I read a lot of chick lit on the road.
Food: I'm trying to learn to cook healthy things. But I like hamburger and meatloaf and mac-and-cheese, stuff I can't have if I want to stay in my jeans!
Hobby: I try to think of new things so I won't get stale. Three years ago I bought a horse and I did my first barrel race in May. You go real fast around barrels in a rodeo. I'm not real good but I'm working on it!
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, March 2011.