Miranda Lambert and Ashley McBryde on life during COVID, day drinking and that Garth announcement

Miranda Lambert and Ashley McBryde on life during COVID, day drinking and that Garth announcement

Even within a grainy Zoom window, the expression on Miranda Lambert’s face said it all.

Asked what she thought of Garth Brooks’ recent request not to be considered for entertainer of the year at the Country Music Assn. Awards — one of Nashville’s two upcoming awards shows, along with Wednesday night’s Academy of Country Music Awards — the country singer grinned, chuckling quietly under her breath.

“I think that last year was bulls— and that Carrie should’ve taken it,” she said.

If Brooks’ controversial appeal was meant to quell a backlash among fans who felt he’d robbed Carrie Underwood in 2019, Lambert’s reaction captured a certain lack of surprise that a man could find a way to make such a gesture more about him than about the structural inequities of a genre that routinely undervalues its female artists.

Since she emerged a decade and a half ago with pugnacious hits like “Kerosene,” “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” and “Gunpowder & Lead,” Lambert, 36, has become a focal point of Nashville’s woman problem — a creative powerhouse and touring superstar who still struggles to get her music played on country radio with anything like the regularity of men half as talented as she is.

Yet there are signs of hope, as she pointed out in a video chat with her friend Ashley McBryde, 37, who toured with Lambert last year and recorded a cover of Elvin Bishop’s “Fooled Around and Fell in Love” that featured all of Lambert’s opening acts: McBryde, Maren Morris, Tenille Townes, Elle King and Caylee Hammack.

In July, Lambert’s “Bluebird” — a dreamy midtempo number from her 2019 album “Wildcard” — gave the singer her first solo No. 1 on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart in eight years, while McBryde’s soulful “One Night Standards” recently reached a career-best No. 11. Now “Wildcard” is nominated for album of the year at the ACM Awards, where Lambert is also up for female artist of the year and McBryde’s “Girl Goin’ Nowhere” is nominated for song of the year. (Lambert is expected to perform at the ACMs, which already named “Fooled Around and Fell in Love” the music event of the year.)

Lambert’s showing for November’s CMA Awards is even more impressive, with a leading seven nods, including one alongside Underwood for entertainer of the year — the first time more than one woman has been nominated in that category since 2000, when Faith Hill and the Dixie Chicks made the cut. “Wildcard” is up for album of the year too, for which she’ll compete against McBryde’s second major-label disc, “Never Will.”

“Wildcard,” which Lambert said drew from Bob Seger and Fleetwood Mac, piles on the guitars (and the frisky humor) after the singer’s somber 2016 “The Weight of These Wings,” which documented her divorce from Blake Shelton. “Never Will” has some of the granular small-town storytelling of “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” by McBryde’s beloved Lucinda Williams.

For the afternoon Zoom call, Lambert dialed in from her home in New York, where she lives part-time with her husband, Brendan McLoughlin, an NYPD officer she married last year. McBryde was at her manager’s office in Nashville.

“They didn’t have any rosé here, so I’m having some Jacques Daniel’s,” McBryde said, lifting her whiskey into view. Lambert, sipping from a wine glass, said, “Ash and I texted earlier. I told her, ‘I’m having rosé — either drink with me or don’t judge me.’”

The music you’re nominated for came out before the world changed due to COVID. Does it feel like you made these records a lifetime ago?
Ashley McBryde: It’s not that it seems old; it just feels a little bit removed. Usually when you get to awards time, you’ve been touring that record all year long. It’s kind of sad.

Miranda Lambert: I’ve never had this much time off. I played one private gig, so we had two days of rehearsal, and I had to go through and make a playlist on my phone of all my songs.

Safe to say that “Wildcard” and “Never Will” would’ve been completely different records had you’d written them this year?
McBryde: I would not want to make a record right now. With everything that’s going on, it’s got to get into your head, and that doesn’t belong in the studio whatsoever.

Lambert: I hope there’s not a whole bunch of end-of-the-world records coming out.

This moment doesn’t rev your engine as a songwriter?
McBryde: I’ve been loving writing during 2020; I don’t want to write about 2020. But you can’t help those things from getting in there. I found out I have a tendency to drink too much during quarantine, and that popped up in a song.

Lambert: I usually gather information and inspiration from things going on around me — from travel, from cities, from people I meet. And doing laundry’s not that inspiring. But Ash and I got to hang the other day at my farm [in Tennessee]. We had an awesome time — come bring your guitar and sit around the fire and sing some Judds. I’ve missed that.

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Miranda Lambert and Ashley McBryde in conversation.

(Courtesy of the artists)

Maybe more than in pop or hip-hop, work in country music still happens primarily in person.
Lambert: It’s fine to talk about a song on a group text. But we’d much rather write and record in the same room. You don’t make friends the other way.

McBryde: When Miranda set up “Fooled Around,” it could’ve been that she and Maren sang on Monday, and Elle and I sang on Tuesday. But it would’ve sounded so different if Miranda hadn’t been right in front of me and Maren and Caylee weren’t right across from me. All of us being together made it work.

Do you think of that cover as a rejection of the idea that women in music are competing with one another?
McBryde: It wasn’t to be defiant in any way. But after we sang, we sat around in the studio and listened to some of Miranda’s record and listened to some of my record. Caylee was still in the studio with us, and she asked Miranda, “Is this a moment I shouldn’t be here for?” Miranda looked at her and said, “Any woman that’s ever made you feel that way didn’t know her lane — and as soon as she finds it, she’ll realize that you’re not a threat.”

What do you wish you’d known when you were in Caylee’s or Tennile’s position?
Lambert: I didn’t really have a female mentor of any kind, so I wish I’d had somebody like me, I guess, to tell me I’m not gonna die every August at the end of festival season. Or somebody to call when the label’s pushing you to do something.

McBryde: I would text Miranda, even before we’d had many conversations, about things like skincare: “I’m on a radio tour and my skin looks like crap. What do I do?”

Lambert: Not only do we have to do our jobs, but we have to look cute doing it. Kelly Clarkson said something to me once. She doesn’t do red carpets, and she said, “I don’t want them judging my life’s work on a dress. It’s just asking for negativity.” That makes so much sense.

What was your take on Garth Brooks’ CMAs announcement?
McBryde: I know there are people that are upset about it and people that are delighted about it. But he doesn’t do anything that he hasn’t thought through completely.

Lambert: That’s a nice answer. I’m still a little bit grudge-y about it. Although I love Garth — he was my first concert when I was 10 years old — there’s times and places for things, and I just felt like it was the wrong thing. But this year I’m excited because I feel like it’s the way that it should be. And maybe that’s because he pulled out of it; I don’t know. But I think everyone in the category deserves to be there.

In 2012 the Grammys did away with male and female genre categories. The ACMs and CMAs still split some awards along gender lines.
McBryde: When it comes to the gender-equality thing, there are some things that are complete crap and there are some things that are pretty valid. I’m thankful for it personally because it allowed me a chance that I might not have had otherwise.

Lambert: Without the male and female categories, I would’ve gone against Eric Church. And I don’t want to go against Eric Church. It also opens up more slots. You get a nomination, you get a TV performance — that’s usually the way it goes. And that gives people a platform, especially when they’re brand new.

Who’s underappreciated in Nashville right now?
McBryde: Tyler Childers. He’s as country as a homemade sock, so there’s no reason he shouldn’t be played on country radio. He’s got the beard — the only thing missing is the ball cap.

Lambert: Elle King is another one. I don’t know what the hell kind of genre she is, but I love it.

Nashville goes through welcoming phases and unwelcoming phases. Which one are we in?
McBryde: I’d say we’re in a welcoming phase. When I first moved to Nashville, we weren’t. It was a hard nut to crack.

Lambert: It got really stale there for a while — the same for so long. But the bro phase, everybody’s sick of it, and that’s why the welcoming committee is back. We want more points of view, different kinds of artists, all the stories we can get.

What about the way people listen? Morgan Wallen’s “7 Summers” set a record recently for a country song on streaming.
Lambert: I’m still like Meemaw when it comes to all that. I do miss a good old CD, I will say. But I love Morgan’s song. He’s 27 and has a mullet, but the song reminds me of something old. It’s got a Fleetwood Mac vibe.

Kids may not be up on Fleetwood Mac, but there’s a trickle-down effect with Wallen and Harry Styles and Kacey Musgraves and Miley Cyrus all embracing that sound.
Lambert: Can I just say that I’m all in on Miley? I think she’s killing it. The more out there and honest she is, the better.

The Chicks returned this year, and I think it’s fair to say they’ve been received like heroes. Does what happened to them in 2003 feel like a realistic fear today?
McBryde: You could erase yourself at one show with one sentence. Anything taken out of context could erase you.

What’d you think of the Chicks album?
Lambert: I haven’t listened yet.

Wait, what?
Lambert: I’ve been avoiding it only because I want to sit down and do the whole thing. If I’m gonna listen, I’m gonna listen like I did to the first two albums that changed my life — top to bottom, mix another drink, repeat. What do you think of it?

It’s great. Such detailed breakup songs, which is all the more impressive given the interest in Natalie Maines’ personal life. You can imagine she’d want to deflect, but she’s out here singing about the time her husband brought his girlfriend to see her play at the Hollywood Bowl.
McBryde: The best way to take power away from something that sucked so bad is to shine light on it. And she’s not the only person whose husband brought his girlfriend to a place where they were gonna be. She knows that as a songwriter.

You both write about your real lives and about the imagined lives of characters. Is one more gratifying than the other?
Lambert: Sometimes for our own survival we do what we just talked about Natalie doing. It’s therapy, and you’re sharing it with everybody else, hoping you’re not alone. But when you can write characters — Guy Clark or John Prine writing from a female perspective with such grace — that’s when your skill is on another level. You know what it does too? It gives you relief that you don’t have to live every sad thing you sing about.

McBryde: You’ve been in enough dark places that you can put yourself back there any time you want to. You don’t have to keep putting your heart in a burlap sack and crushing it against every solid surface you can find.

Lambert: I wrote a song the other day and sent it to my mom. It was kind of like old-school ML — had some rage in it. She was like, “Uh-oh, everything OK?”

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