Miranda Lambert is chatting happily about her forthcoming album, "Revolution," due out Tuesday, while seated in a booth in a deserted hotel restaurant in Pomona a few hours before a performance at the L.A. County Fair.
At one point, she starts hemming and hawing about her abilities as a singer -- even though she's one of the Country Music Assn.'s nominees for best female vocalist for its upcoming awards -- sputtering out with halting pride something about the confidence she thinks is evident on the new record.
About that time, country singer Blake Shelton strides in and slides his 6-foot-5 frame into the booth next to that of his 5-foot-4 girlfriend of the last two years, and starts playfully giving her grief for her self-deprecating attitude.
"She's never had that much confidence in her singing, which is odd to me, because she's one of the standouts, in my opinion," says Shelton, who has racked up several No. 1 hits of his own, including "Austin," "Some Beach" and, last year, "Home," on which he was joined by Lambert.
"She's one of the ones," he says, "that when you're watching [country music awards shows], when it's Miranda's turn to come out and perform, you can almost take a deep breath of relief knowing that, 'OK, this one's going to make us look good. This one's not going to sound [embarrassing] on national television and make the whole country music industry a joke.' Miranda's one of the ones that brings credibility to us, as a writer and a singer, and is unique."
"We're going to do more interviews together," she says with a giggle. "I like this."
Smart starter moves
Lambert's evolution as a singer and songwriter is apparent on "Revolution," for which she wrote or co-wrote 11 of the 15 songs. Many reach beyond her "Kerosene," "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend" and "Gunpowder & Lead" image as country's most volatile woman to show there's also a sensitive heart, and a sense of humor, lurking beneath the hair-trigger surface.
"I feel like I was getting dangerously close to being shoved in that box of 'She's that crazy girl who kills people in her songs,' " she says. "That's fine, but there's so much more to me than that; there's so much more to the great music that I love than one song.
"You listen to Merle Haggard and there's everything from gospel to songs about his mama and songs about being in prison," she continues. "Nobody says he only sings about prison, or he only sings about cheating. On this record, it's the first time I really have a lot about every aspect of life, not just the get-even part of me."
She points out that for the new album, "I wrote a song called 'Love Song,' which is so out of character for me," she says. "I'm always the one singing the hate songs. I guess just being in love and being settled a little kind of opened up my mind to go there, so why not talk about it?"
Lambert wrote "Love Song" with Shelton and two other writers and it's disarmingly tender: "Everybody always sings about it/How they're never gonna live without it/We don't even have to talk about it/'Cause we're living it out."
"I'm not the crazy, wild-eyed kid I was for 'Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,' " she says. "It's just that life experience sets in. Of course, I'm still a kid: I'm 25. I've learned a lot, but I have a lot more to learn."
To do so, she took a break from the nonstop pace she's maintained since she entered the competition for "Nashville Star," country music's "American Idol," in 2003.
She wound up in third place during the inaugural season -- Buddy Jewell won that year -- but she considers that a blessing, because the winner is automatically assigned to a preselected record producer and label. Lambert got numerous offers and was able to choose the team she felt would be in sync with the music she wanted to make.
She immediately went to work on "Kerosene," which upon its release produced her first top 20 country hit in the title track. She toured extensively, getting her first big slot opening for Keith Urban. Almost before catching her breath, she had to dive into writing and recording the follow-up, "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend."
"You don't take breaks when you're new," she says. "You can't, because then people will forget about you when the next new face comes along. Until you really get yourself established, I don't think it's smart to disappear."
She didn't -- but working on "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend," whose title song milked the vengeful persona she had established with "Kerosene," the combination of continued live performances, recording and various promotional appearances made it "a blur, the whole process," she says. "Obviously, it did me some good to have to do it that way."
"Crazy Ex-Girlfriend" has sold more than 800,000 copies, pretty close to sales of her debut, now just under 1 million. That's no easy feat for someone who came out of the gate as successfully as Lambert did, selling better than many of "American Idol's" top five finishers.