Looking back, it seems surprising that the first single off Miranda Lambert‘s major-label debut, released 10 years ago this week, was anything but “Kerosene,” a sundown revenge fantasy that burns down the house of a cheating boyfriend. It was the title track, it was the only single to reach the Top 20 and it introduced listeners to a new Texan not ready to make nice. “I’ve given up on love/’cus love’s given up on me,” she sang, 22 years old at the time. “Life ain’t hard but it’s too long/living like some country song.”
The daughter of two private investigators, Lambert grew up halfway between Dallas and the Louisiana border. She cut her first Nashville demo when she was 16, but she had trouble singing the cheery material that had been presented to her. Back home, a new self-released collection earned notice from Best in Texas magazine, the publication of record for country music in the Lone Star State. “This is no little-girl love song singer,” wrote radio programmer Pam Shane. “Her powerful voice is rooted in the drinkin’, cheatin’ world of singers like George Jones and Tammy Wynette.”
In 2003, Lambert returned to Tennessee to compete on the first season of Nashville Star, USA’s country answer to American Idol. She finished third, which was enough for a deal with Epic Records, the label that ultimately decided to release “Me and Charlie Talking” — a campfire song that opens with the sound of crickets and puts a major-key spin on Bruce Springsteen’s overlooked “When You’re Alone” — as her first single. This was clearly the safe choice, but the song now seems as revealing as any, telling the story of two kids who give up on love in their own way, bottling emotions when one gets too ambitious to stay put in their sleepy town.
If the single’s chirpiness — for once, actual chirpiness — sets it apart from the rest of Kerosene, the ambition, the movement and the how-the-fuck-did-she-turn-such-an-obvious-metaphor-into-such-a-great-song guts set the album’s course. It might be simplest to group Kerosene with coming-of-age albums, but that’s only because testing-your-limits albums, venturing-off-on-your-own albums and risking-failure albums are so much harder to pull off. But here, Lambert did exactly that, recording 12 songs that take Ignatius of Loyola’s “go forth and set the world on fire” far more literally than the Jesuit saint had ever intended.
Two examples: Track 3, “Greyhound Bound for Nowhere,” which is self-explanatory, and Track 4, “New Strings,” which is almost the same. The metaphor on this one — new strings on an old guitar — might be slightly subtler than the fireflies, but the rest of the track holds nothing back, opening with the line “I bet this road will take me out of here” and introducing the final chorus by suggesting “If you don’t jump you’ll never know if you can fly.” Seven songs later, “Mama, I’m Alright” beats both, with Lambert sending home a letter that’s part justification (“You can’t see a desert sunrise in the bible”) and part thank-you (“I’m strong just like you prayed I’d be”). She struggles for independence, sure, but she never loses sight of the ties that bind.
This proves especially true on “What About Georgia,” one where growing up means not leaving home but embracing it. Here, Lambert gives a tough-love pep talk to a 33-year-old who can’t get over his dad, worries his mom and is “too scared to hold that hand that wants to help [him] up.” In verse one, she calls him out on the “excuses for the answers that [he] lacks”; in verse two, she reports back on a visit to his sister and his son; and the whole thing is punctuated by an unexpectedly peppy “Hey!” that releases the tension left for the final chorus. (I’ve been waiting 10 years to shout this “Hey!” in public, and my own coming of age possibly involves accepting the fact that not many people want to hear songs like this at a party, no matter who brought the baby carrots.)
Lambert, however, likes to keep it complicated: If “Georgia” is about anything, it’s about the possibility of redemption. And where there is optimism, it’s often an optimism of last resort — the pragmatic response of someone who’s realized that pessimism won’t get her out of Texas. We can now confirm that she went on to do exactly that, and listening to Kerosene today, Lambert’s later success can provide the closure that the record itself usually can’t. Now 33, her Best in Texas cover, which also came in 2005, led to the covers of People and (Hey!) Rolling Stone. She has released at least two more classic LPs and won a ranch full of Grammys, CMAs and ACMs.
But take all that away and these songs’ sustained excellence offers a happy ending of its own, proof the singer behind it was onto something bigger than even she seemed to have realized. Lambert would eventually make it to the top, but here we get to sit across the aisle as she experiences the nerves, thrill, doubt and energy of a young woman unwilling to make the most of life on the bottom. She may not know where her Greyhound is heading, but she’ll bet everything that it’s moving in the right direction.