Heartbreak is one of the life’s most universal experiences; we fall in love just to fall back out again, collapsing in tears, booze, and lonely nights. Two and a half years ago, Miranda Lambert found herself in the eye of such a frenzy. In the aftermath of her divorce from Blake Shelton, she put pen to paper for her seventh studio album, The Weight Of These Wings, turning the experience into a modern country masterpiece.
Foregoing much press, the star let the music do the talking — and alongside such salacious headlines as “Why Miranda Lambert Cheated” and “Blake Shelton Caught Miranda Lambert Cheating” — there was plenty to speculate about.
Beneath the rumors and hushed whispers, however, there lies one of the boldest albums in country history. The cultural significance of Wings rests on two tangible elements — its clear-cut, towering physical status (24 songs is nearly unheard of in the mainstream) and her plain-spoken truth. The aching quiver of songs like “Tin Man,” “Use My Heart,” and “Things That Break” provide all the sound bites a listener needs to satisfy their thirst for drama. Paired with the lead single “Vice,” in which she turns to one-night stands and booze to cope, Lambert was at her most honest — and most ambitious.
“It was so beyond anything I had ever seen,” producer Eric Masse detailed in one of a handful of interviews around the record. “She just knew. She knew what was right and what was wrong, always. Every artist has opinions, but I don’t mean opinions. She was doubling down on the actual emotions, and really living inside them. She didn’t have opinions. She just knew the answers.”
The payoff is characterized through her reliance on alternative strains of country music and a wealth of unconventional songwriters, including Aaron Raitiere (The Steel Woods) and Mando Saenz (Whiskey Myers, Stoney LaRue), lodged next to the usual mainstream suspects (from Natalie Hemby and Shane McAnally to Josh Osborne, Jon Randall and Liz Rose). For the sake of genre classifications, Wings (also featuring production contributions from Frank Liddell and Glenn Worf) is an Americana album, as Billboard discussed around the 2017 CMA Awards, noting Lambert’s role “in tilting [the Album Of The Year] category toward the unpolished Americana sound.”
Lambert is no stranger when it comes to shifting the focus toward a more grounded, organic timbre and away from the shimmer of prevalent pop-country. She never had an eye for hits, really, but wanted to honor her personal truth in song. Her first No. 1 hit didn’t arrive until her third studio album, 2009’s Revolution. “The House That Built Me,” a wistful folk ballad, was an anthem for tumbleweeds blowing restlessly away from home. In the years which followed, Lambert continued wielding an alternative bent in her work, from songs like “Easy Living” and “All Kinds Of Kinds” from 2011’s Four The Record to “Bathroom Sink” and “Two Rings Shy” off Platinum (2014). Wings works twice as hard as either of those records, a towering, 24-track magnum opus with an utter commitment to the Americana approach, trading in-your-face rock influences for arrangements with far more space to breathe.
Not everyone can achieve what Lambert has with this record. From the start, her daring was in raw form. “When we determined it was a double album we had already cut 32 songs,” Masse later commented, matter-of-factly. “Either Frank or me said, ‘I don’t know how the f*ck we are going to cut it to ten.’ And it was Miranda who was just like, ‘F*ck it, it’s a double album.’”
Wings immediately took off upon release, shifting 122,000 copies her debut week and flying in at No. 1 on Billboard’s Top Country Albums. It has spawned one Top 10 hit with “Vice” and two other Top 30 hits (“We Should Be Friends,” “Tin Man”) and has been certified platinum by the RIAA. While her radio career has always been a rocky one — she has only 11 Top 10 hits and three solo No. 1s (four if you include her “We Were Us” collaboration with Keith Urban) on the Billboard airplay charts — critical acclaim has never waned.
So, it was rather shocking to see Wings excluded from not only Best Country Album at the 2018 Grammy Awards but also the night’s highest honor, Album Of The Year. Coming off Sturgill Simpson’s nomination for A Sailor’s Guide To Earth last year, the needle seemed to have moved — but apparently not in Lambert’s favor. At the time of his much-deserved nomination in late 2016, Simpson’s album had sold roughly 170,000 copies.
As of October 2017, it has shifted a little more than 217,000. Sale are sales are sales; both Simpson and Lambert have carved out their own niche, bolstered by a loyal, album-buying consumer base. In the aftermath of his nomination, a flurry of “Who is Sturgill Simpson” probes hit the Twitter-sphere, resulting in numerous think pieces, like this one and this one and that one. His name recognition (and probably his net worth) skyrocketed on nomination alone. Lambert doesn’t necessarily need that exposure, but not to at least acknowledge her work on Wings seems to be such a glaring travesty, stemming from systemic problems.
There still appears great unwillingness to recognize country women in the bigger conversation. Over 60 years, since the show first began in 1959, solo country women have been nominated only nine times in the Album Of The Year category. Even worse, only two women have actually won: Bonnie Raitt in 1990 for Nick Of Time and Taylor Swift exactly 20 years later for Fearless. In counting women in groups and collaborations, including Alison Krauss’ work with Robert Plant for 2007 winner Raising Sand, female country artists have been nominated a total of 16 times and taken home a measly six trophies.
Turning to the Best Country Album field, there are vastly more occurrences of a woman-led nomination sweep (such as in 2006 when four solo women were nominated) and things are generally more promising, though far from perfect. Best Country & Western Album first appeared in 1965, but the award was nixed after 1966’s ceremony (and Roger Miller’s two wins). The category was renamed Best Country Album and returned in 1995. In the last 22 years, solo women have landed 42 nominations and seven wins. Once again expanding to include women in groups and collaborations, those numbers rise to 12 wins. Previously, Lambert has appeared here three times with one win (for Platinum in 2015). Still, no solo female artists made it into the field this year, with the only sensible reason for Lambert’s exclusion coming from the sheer length of time since the record was released in November of 2016.
But that logic doesn’t hold up when considering Lambert’s song entries for this year. Wings album cut “Tin Man” hit No. 1 on the all-genre iTunes chart following her acoustic rendition at the 2017 ACM Awards. Six months later, the song returned to the all-genre Top 30 after the CMA Awards (and she didn’t even perform it). When given the chance, consumers are clearly responding to this record in remarkable ways. The song is set to compete for Best Country Song and Country Solo Performance at the Grammys this Sunday.
Even given her stature as one of the most important singers, songwriters, and musicians of the modern era, Lambert is still vastly limited by male egotism. Artistic endeavors are not exempt from being shoehorned by an archaic system. Country radio consultant Keith Hill reaffirmed the format’s ingrained sexism, urging programmers to drop woman-fronted singles in favor of men back in 2015. “The tomatoes of our salad are the females,” he told Country Aircheck. Nearly three years later, not much has changed ⎯⎯ there are nine solo women-led singles in the Top 60 of Billboard’s most recent Country Airplay chart (and another 10 women showing up in collaborations or groups, including Little Big Town and Runaway June).
Despite a system built against her, Lambert has never been one to go down without a fight or stick strictly to convention ⎯⎯ or let a man tell her what to do. The Weight Of These Wings is a testament to her strength, resilience, and musical capabilities. It is not what you’d call a traditional Nashville record. It’s a living and breathing creature of Lambert’s darkest, most intimate thoughts. It might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it damn well deserved to be upheld as the stunning Americana contribution it is on the biggest musical stage in the world.
Recording Academy, your turn.