Originally published in the November 9, 2015 issue of Country Weekly magazine.
It’s an unusually warm and humid fall night in Huntsville, Ala., with a hint of rain lingering in the air. Tucked behind security fencing at the city’s Von Braun Center, among state-of-the-art buses and assorted service vehicles, is a tiny vintage camper that goes by the no-nonsense name of Wanda the Wanderer.
That is where Miranda Lambert likes to hang out when she’s on tour. Inside, Miranda fusses with a scuffed-up iPod shuffle that’s been pumping out The Rolling Stones and other classic-rock gems through speakers that face a makeshift covered patio outside the trailer. Wanda’s interior looks like something an Anthropologie purchaser dreams about—vibrant, colorfully patterned throws and cushions butt up against the aesthetic of mid-century Americana. Miranda—sporting black leather hot pants, a sleeveless Dolly Parton shirt and silver boots—pulls up a cube-shaped cushion and immediately strikes a wistful tone.
“We only have two more weekends so I feel sad,” she admits. “It’s almost like it’s too quick. But it makes it sweet, too. It leaves us wanting more.”
This iteration of Miranda’s Roadside Bars and Pink Guitars Tour (she originally conceived of it in 2009) is particularly noteworthy in that the entire bill is comprised of female performers, like a country version of Lilith Fair. At the Huntsville show, RaeLynn, Clare Dunn and Courtney Cole are warming up the crowd, while Ashley Monroe has appeared on other dates (including a weekend when the Pistol Annies reunited and Patty Loveless came out to sing). One could possibly argue that Miranda would have been able to play bigger venues by adding a mid-level male star to the tour, but that would be missing the point entirely.
“It’s not always been all females—we did it before with different male artists,” reminds Miranda. “We kept rotating different friends of mine that were male artists, and they came out. But this time it felt like I really needed to do a strong female thing because we need more women in country music.”
Still, this tour is groundbreaking in the sense that there haven’t been many previous examples of female solidarity in country music tours. Jana Kramer and Kelsea Ballerini joined forces for the CMT Next Women of Country Tour earlier this year, and back in 2001 Reba McEntire spearheaded the Girls’ Night Out Tour with Martina McBride, Sara Evans, Jamie O’Neal and Carolyn Dawn Johnson. This year it feels especially meaningful, following the “Tomatogate” kerfuffle caused by a radio consultant’s clunky boys-are-lettuce-girls-are-tomatoes salad analogy. The chart data speak to the need for such tours: other than Miranda and Carrie Underwood, Kelsea Ballerini is the only female to hit No. 1 in 2015. Maddie & Tae managed it at the tail end of 2014 with “Girl in a Country Song.” And that’s pretty much it.
In July 2015, Miranda dominated a few news cycles when news of her divorce from Blake Shelton broke. It’s the kind of personal turmoil that has stalled or derailed many careers, but Miranda seems to have emerged on the other side just fine. While the marriage may have had the short-term benefit of raising her profile, Miranda already had a long-established sense of her artistic identity and pattern of risk taking that endeared her to critics and fans alike.
So at present, Miranda is still—along with Carrie Underwood—at the top of the pyramid for female country artists, evidenced by her recent nomination for CMA Entertainer of the Year. She arrived at this point slowly and steadily, releasing several singles that missed their mark before the hits started coming. As such, she sees this Roadside Bars and Pink Guitars Tour as a crucial way to help other female artists make strides toward their own award nominations and televised performances.
“It’s just important to me, and all these girls are friends of mine,” says Miranda, who will support Kenny Chesney’s tour next summer. “I want to do it again. I’ll do it a hundred more times and bring out a hundred more female performers. It’s important and we have to lift each other up. Out here, too, all of us hang out every night and get ready together.”
Opener Courtney Cole—an independent artist who just signed a big publishing deal—confirms that the ladies are getting to spend a lot of time together.
“[Miranda’s] like, ‘It’s a slumber party out here!’” she says. “We got our nails done the other day. We were getting our nails done and sharing a bag of Cheetos. It was amazing!”
Singer/songwriter/guitarist Clare Dunn proudly shows off the single painted fingernail that remains from that mani/pedi day. (“The guitars wreaked havoc on my manicure, but it’s OK,” she says.) Though her single, “Move On,” is starting to gain a little traction on country radio, the Colorado native is still largely unknown in the grand scheme of things. Tours like this one with Miranda offer invaluable exposure to a hungry audience as well as an up-close tutorial on what it takes to achieve Miranda levels of success.
“The truest form of who you are as an artist is always the best approach,” muses Clare. “[Miranda’s] been an artist who has stuck to her guns and knows who she is and
believes in what she’s doing and has a vision and sees the whole thing.”
Spunky RaeLynn—the youngest of the bunch at 21—vocalizes what seems to be the central focus of this tour: to introduce fans to new artists—or, in her case, introduce her to other artists.
“Miranda just put such an amazing girl-power tour together where we can actually see other artists that I didn’t even know have been in Nashville for awhile,” says RaeLynn, whose debut single, “God Made Girls,” cracked the Top 10. “I didn’t know much about Clare Dunn and Courtney Cole, but they’re so amazingly talented and this has been such a great opportunity for us because we can all bond and share our music together.”
Later in the evening, each of the four ladies presents at least one musical instance where she directly connects with the tour’s overarching theme of feminine strength. Opener Courtney, backed only by an acoustic guitar and cajon, thumbs her nose at the polite behavior unfairly expected of women in “Ladylike” and nods at quasi-feminist hero Shania Twain with a mashup of “Any Man of Mine” and Queen’s “We Will Rock You.” Clare subverts expectations with her slashing guitar work, juxtaposing the harder textures of songs like “Move On” and “Tuxedo” against the yearning vulnerability of their lyrics. She also covers Bob Seger as well as uber-male Led Zeppelin and recasts their tunes as something new. RaeLynn kicks off her set with “Boss,” a declaration of empowerment directly descended from Janet Jackson’s “Control.” Between sets, the house speakers play songs exclusively by female artists (except for The Rolling Stones’ “Honky Tonk Women,” of course).
“All of them inspire me in different ways,” she says. “I watch their whole shows, every night, all three of them. It makes me feel like, ‘All right, I’m ready to go now.’ They’ve inspired me to get up onstage and do what I do. I hope they can learn from me.”
Miranda’s 90-minute set combines the many elements of her artistry, leading off with a guns-blazing “Kerosene” and hitting every emotional vista along the way. She swaggers through the self-acceptance anthem “Heart Like Mine”; she quiets the crowd for “The House That Built Me”; and brings out the devastation of “Over You,” which she wrote with ex-husband Blake Shelton. She even pulls out album tracks like “Me and Your Cigarettes” from Revolution and “Bring Me Down” from her debut album, Kerosene.
With a simple stage setup, understated fabric backdrop and elegant lighting, Miranda lets her songs and performance do the talking. It’s a nod to the rough-and-tumble Texas music scene that still informs her sense of how to work a crowd even in large arenas.
“That’s what I saw as performing, was just these dudes in clubs playing their hearts out, sweating,” she says. “That’s sort of why I’m doing it this way right now. I wanted to feel like that and have [general admission], no chairs up front, no thrusts, no ego risers, nothing like that. I sort of wanted it to feel like it’s a big ol’ club and that’s what it is. We’ve had at least two or three catfights every single night of this tour—which makes me happy!”
There is no catfighting between the members of this tour, however. They carry on like old friends, laughing and singing along to Top 40 hits during a pre-show photo shoot. Whatever rivalries may exist between artists working in country music, there don’t seem to be any between these women—only admiration. It’s inspiring to witness a united front that—considering what women in country have faced in the last year or so—is happening at exactly the right time.
“We need to push it to the forefront. I’m so thankful to have this spot,” Miranda says. “I’ve been doing this now for a decade and I feel like I’m just getting started. I’ve been doing nothing but writing songs for the last four months straight. I literally feel like I’m at the beginning. I’m that excited. And I want to share that. I want to create a platform for these other girls to feel that way.”
In 2015, that mattered more than ever for the women of country music. NCW
Miranda’s Tour de Force
Hometown: Mandeville, La.
In Miranda’s Words: “She’ll get in her car with her guitar and go anywhere, no matter how far it is. She’s so positive. You see her and she has a smile on her face, all day every day, no matter how far she drove. She’s just so excited to be out here. I don’t know that at this point in my career if I could go back to traveling that way and have that good of an attitude about it. She gets out there every night and gets the crowd going, and she just gives it her everything and I just appreciate that so much about her.”
Hometown: Baytown, Texas
Single: “For a Boy”
In Miranda’s Words: “Rae is just so confident in who she is. She’s my little sister so I’m just so proud of her and seeing how much she’s grown and how she takes control backstage. She’s now the boss and has her band and crew. She’s healthy and happy and I just love seeing her grow into a woman. It makes me happy.”
Hometown: Two Buttes, Colo.
Single: “Move On”
In Miranda’s Words: “She’s such a seasoned performer. She works her tail off. And she’s such a good guitar player. It makes me want to crawl under a rock and take guitar lessons for a year and come back out. Just being so confident in herself, but just straight-up rock ’n’ roll grunge. Like, ‘All right, I gotta get up there and bring my sh*t tonight!’”
Pistol Annies Reunite
During a trio of shows early in the Roadside Bars and Pink Guitars Tour, Miranda surprised and delighted fans by bringing Pistol Annies bandmate Angaleena Presley out to sing with her and Ashley Monroe. They hadn’t performed in public since their rather abrupt tour cancellation in 2013.
“We hadn’t sung together in like two years onstage, because we all made records,” Miranda says. “Angaleena’s little boy is in first grade. Ashley got married. Like, everybody was just busy with life and we always said Annies is supposed to be fun and convenient. We’re not gonna make it like something that adds to our stress levels because the reason we started it was to be fun.”
That camaraderie returned quickly, and fan videos of the performances showed the trio dancing giddily through verses of “Hell on Heels” and “Hush Hush.”
“It definitely inspired us, though. We all got chills onstage when the crowd was singing ‘Hell on Heels’ back to us. We’re already looking at our calendars, planning a trip to the mountains to go write some more music. Like, ‘We have to do this!’”