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Miranda Lambert on Finally Reclaiming the No. 1 Spot With ‘Bluebird’: ‘I Knew I Was Delivering Great Music’

"Bluebird," which marks the country star's first solo trip to the top of the charts in years, has turned out to be "a little song of hope when we needed it," she says.

Miranda Lambert
Ellen Von Unwerth

Make no mistake: Miranda Lambert is thrilled by the just-announced news that “Bluebird” is the country superstar’s first No. 1 solo hit since the early 2010s. And also make no mistake: She was doing okay when songs like “Tin Man” were winning ACM awards while falling short of the top 10 in the interim. “I have made a career on having some of my biggest songs die at 22, you know what I mean?” she tells Variety.

This is still a big deal by any standard, especially in an era when it feels like some country greats have been bumped up into “venerated hero who doesn’t need radio success anymore” status well before their time. Lambert did have a No. 1 single in 2018… as a duet parter on a Jason Aldean track (“Drowns the Whiskey”). But as her own releases go the last time she visited the No. 1 spot was in 2014, with “Automatic,” if you’re looking at the Mediabase chart, or 2012, with “Over You,” if you’re following the Billboard chart. A subsequent album like “Weight of These Wings” was able to rack up awards and critical accolades without generating a hit, but this has turned that trajectory around. You could choose to see it as a sign that she’s still got it — or that country radio’s still got it.

And it all started with Charles Bukowski. Co-writer Luke Dick had come into a writing session with a Bukowski poem about a bluebird as a captive creative force on his mind. But they and the third writer, Natalie Hemby, didn’t lean on Bukowski for much more than a metaphor, as they turned his frown (“There’s a bluebird in my heart that wants to get out / But I’m too tough for him,” the poet wrote) upside down (“I’ll keep the light on in my soul / Keep a bluebird in my heart,”). The more hopeful version of the symbolism goes down much better in a pandemic.

Lambert spoke with Variety about her chart comeback, even as her headline touring (she would have been headlining arenas and amphitheaters this year, if…) makes it clear that by any other measure she hadn’t gone anywhere in the interim.

VARIETY: Do we think this is probably historically the first country song inspired by a Charles Bukowski thought that has gotten to No. 1?

LAMBERT: Yeah, I bet you’re right about that. Thanks to Luke Dick for pointing that out; he quoted that poem in a group text to me and Natalie, and then we ended up writing a song. So, thanks to Charles for the beautiful words.

Country is probably the only genre any more where not only does the business obsess over chart positions, but even fans will know exactly how many No. 1s an artist has had or say, “That one stalled out at No 12.” So you probably don’t take having a No. 1 lightly, do you?

It is one of those genres that we all rely on it a lot. And I’ve made a career on having a hit and then having six in between that didn’t go there. [Laughs.] It’s been up and down — a roller coaster. But having this right now, this song, especially in the time that we’re in, I feel like it’s very fitting. And when you see a No. 1 next to your name with a song you wrote with two of your friends, it’s amazing. When you’re in people’s homes and in their cars, you can tell the difference when you play ‘em live. Period, the end. No. 1 is not that often for me, so I’m very thankful. But I also have made a career on having some of my biggest songs die at 22, you know what I mean?

The song was written some time ago, and even when singles were being picked last fall, no one was saying, “Well, there’s going to be a pandemic in six months. What are people going to be in the mood for?” It was probably more, “What is going to make for a great summer single?” But it seems to have worked on both counts, somehow.

Right. You could never have planned that. We wrote the song two years ago, so how would we ever have known it would be a little song of hope when we needed it? But I just feel like we (sensed that) in writing it, and now it’s even more special because people have told me that that’s the song that they are kind of going with to remind themselves to find some happiness and peace through all the bad news. I do think that’s part of the success of “Bluebird” is the time that it’s been released into.

Can you talk about discussions with the label over it being picked as a single? “Wildcard” is an album with a lot of pretty commercial-sounding songs on it, especially compared to your previous album, “Weight of These Wings.” Yet “Bluebird” doesn’t necessarily stand out as a no-brainer No. 1 — it’s a great song, but maybe no one would have been shocked if it remained an album track or was even the third or fourth single instead of the second, with so many other choices.

I turn to the label for singles because I don’t know, with whatever the landscape is at the time, whether it’s more bro-heavy or guy-heavy or upbeat-heavy or ballad-heavy, I don’t ever know what that is. But I will say that from my point of view, I mean, when we were on the road, doing the “Wildcard” tour and even doing “Roadside Bars and Pink Guitars” tour (before that), everybody was responding to it; there was a lot of fan attention on it and people were singing it back to me. So I thought right there, that’s an indicator that it’s something special.

During the in-between time when you weren’t having No. 1 or top 10 hits, did you wonder about the reasons journalists or fans might have come up with for that — that it’s harder for women, that it’s harder for people who’ve been around for a few years now, or that it’s just harder for people who are writing more reflective material and not just party songs?

Yeah, I mean, I’ve had those thoughts, for sure. But I just also know I was delivering great music. I mean, “Tin Man” was (the ACM Awards’) song of the year, so it wasn’t the song’s fault, you know what I mean? I don’t know what happened or why it did what it did, but I am thankful ,though (for this), I will say that with radio, they don’t sometimes give me credit where credit’s due, but when they do, they really come on board and support me all these years. They root for me, and I’m so thankful for that. Because it’s been a long relationship with country radio for me, where I’ll have a No. 1, and then I won’t have something cross the top 10 in five singles. So when radio really embraces me, I’m humbled by it and I always appreciate it.

You made an appearance with a Q&A and acoustic performance at Country Radio Seminar this year, not that long before the quarantining started kicking in. It was easy to feel country radio rooting for you, but that isn’t always guaranteed to kick in with chart action, even if people are fanboying and fangirling.  

Yeah, that definitely helps when it’s not just “we love you” —  “Well, okay, well then put me in heavy rotation. Thank you!” [Laughs.] That was my first CRS to do in a really long time. And I was glad to kind of let those people see me for me. You know, I started out my career with this fiery image and I was just a little bit too much. We all are in our twenties, you know? And so this was like sitting back down with them a decade later and just being myself and telling them about my life and who I am — reminding them that I’m still the same, just a little more calm, I guess. [Laughs.] I was nervous. I get nervous to talk in front of people, but after all the years in the business, I felt that support that day.

Most of the lines of “Bluebird” are pretty self-explanatory, but with the line, “I can turn 20 cents into a 10,” people didn’t know if that was humbling, like, turn 20 cents into 10 cents, or 10 bucks. Right now, at least, you must be feeling like it means a big old 10.

Yeah. I would like to say, like, 10 million. [Laughs.] But right now that’s not looking good on the forecast.

A lot of people are regretful that you’re not touring right now, probably most of all you. Is there anything you’re filling your time with creatively, that makes it feel like this time isn’t a loss for you?

You know, I’ve not been very creative. I’ve not felt very inspired. I’ve just kind of been letting myself live and be off the hook about that. And I’m starting to get back into it. I mean, I wish I would have been writing four albums’ worth of songs and a novel and getting abs, but I haven’t started those projects yet. [Laughs.] So I’ve just kind of taken it as it comes, and I’m settling into just being still. Because there’s not a lot of that in my life before.

Some people do need to give themselves a break right now, if they’re not using the time to fulfill all their lost dreams or master new hobbies. So maybe that’s a good example for you to set, too.

Yeah. I mean, let yourself off the hook. You know, there’s a pandemic, so just chill! It’s fine. Sit on your porch with a beer and don’t feel guilty about it.