Miranda Lambert—the now-beloved country songstress known for hits like "Gunpowder & Lead" and "Mama's Broken Heart"—released her debut studio album Kerosene in March 2005. The album launched 4 Top 40 Billboard Country singles, and the title track "Kerosene" even ended up on some 2005 best-of lists.
But Lambert was already a whisper on the country music wind by the time that album came out. This is obvious by the amount of coverage Lambert's debut album received. The 21-year-old Texas girl known for playing honky tonks had a profile in The New York Times in coordination with the release of her album. Some of that publicity was just good work by her label, Epic Records.
But Lambert had press mentions as early as two years before the release of her album, because her true entrance into the American popular conscience was through an American Idol knock-off TV show called Nashville Star, which attempted to find the next great country singer. Lambert placed third in the competition, but she still got quite a bit of buzz.
Here are some of the earliest mentions of Lambert I could dig up in a LexisNexis search:
Boston Herald, May 2003
Lambert was 19 years old when she lost Nashville Star to Buddy Jewell and second place to John Arthur Martinez. The first recorded mention of Lambert comes in a review of the show's finale, written by Larry Katz for the Boston Herald. His entire review focuses on why, even though Nashville Star is a knock-off of American Idol, it is far superior:
"On paper, "Star" looked to be as corny as "Hee-Haw" and twice as silly. But once the singing started, it proved superior to "Idol." The dozen hopefuls on "Star" weren't just young people with big dreams, they were musicians. Most could play guitar and all could write."
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Katz spends little time discussing the contestants that weren't the ultimate winner, Jewell, but he does manage to scoot in the first recorded reference to Lambert:
"In the end, "Star" came down to a battle among three unlikely but enormously appealing singers: Miranda Lambert, a cute, 19-year-old blonde from Texas with an allegiance to old-school roots music; John Arthur Martinez, whose aching honesty and bilingual songs mark him as a Latino country star of the future; and the deserving winner, Buddy Jewell, a heavyset 40-something with a sweet but masculine classic country voice and a personality to match."
It's kind of gross that the adjectives used to describe Lambert mainly reference her physical attractiveness, but at least Katz gives her the credit to align her with the great Texas country artists of old.
USA Today, July 2003
The next mention of Miranda Lambert (in brief) comes just two months after the conclusion of Nashville Star, in the form of a 3 out of 4 review for Lambert's Nashville Star co-contestant Buddy Jewell's new album:
"Jewell and fellow contestant Miranda Lambert, who also has signed with Sony Nashville, duet on Merle Haggard's Today I Started Loving You Again. Perhaps instead they should have sung We Believe in Happy Endings"
This should make us pause. How did Buddy Jewell—who just won Nashville Star—get an album out and reviewed in a national publication in literally two months?
Turns out, after the show wrapped, Jewell went straight to the studio where he cut an album—no joke—in eight days, with the help of country music producer Clint Black. The quick turn around was incredibly successful; the album sold more than half a million units, debuted at no. 1 on the Billboard Top Country Albums charts and produced two singles that hit no. 3 on the Billboard Hot Country Singles charts.
But Lambert took things a little bit slower.
USA Today, June 2004
The next mention of Lambert doesn't come for another year, and even then, it's just a passing mention in USA Today under a subhead titled "TV Stars;" the author Brian Mansfield briefly notes that she "makes her debut on Sony later this year," and that she writes her own music.
It's worth noting that by the time news of Lambert's upcoming album started to surface, almost all of her previous publicity had died out. Instead of riding the wave off of Nashville Star into as much attention as she could, Lambert took her time on her first album. She released the first single off her debut album "Me and Charlie Talking" that summer. It debuted on the Billboard Hot Country Singles & Tracks at no. 42.
At the time, it might have seemed like Lambert had made a huge mistake waiting so long to release music. By June 2004, Jewell was a big country star with a following, and Lambert didn't even have a successful album. But in the end, Lambert probably took the right path. Jewell's 2005 album, Times Like These, only moved 80,000 copies, and he told The Boot in 2013: "As it is with Nashville, you’re only as good as your last project… I’ve actually had to pray to God to give me the willingness to forgive some people for making some bad decisions about my career."
Lambert spent 2003 and early 2004 finding a record label and making sure she could create the music she wanted to.
Lambert told About.com sometime in January 2005 she was "scared to death to sign that recording contract. I was afraid they'd change me. I was worried they'd take my songs that didn't sound like anyone else's and produce them just like the next record down the street. I did not want it to be the typical Nashville record. I have my own style. I want to be my own person. There are a million blonde chicks who can sing. I've always wanted to be different."
Entertainment Weekly, November 2004
With her debut album in the works, a single on the Top 40 charts, and interest in her work peaking, Lambert got an invite to the Country Music Awards ceremony in November of 2004. The year was dominated by Keith Urban, Kenny Chesney and Martina McBride (a country music trifecta that has dominated this award ceremony pretty consistently for the last 30 years.)
But with the Horizon Award (now known as the Best New Artist award) going to Gretchen Wilson for her debut album and single "Redneck Woman," there seemed to be extra attention paid to the young female artists at the event.
Entertainment Weekly's coverage of the event included a quote form Kim Adelman who straight panned Lambert's appearance:
Blame at least some of the country-star-as-supermodel syndrome on Country Music Television and the cadre of image-obsessed video stylists and stars the channel has spawned. "Miranda Lambert, Julie Roberts—they're overstylized," says Girls' Guide to Country author Kim Adelman about two of Nashville's newer talents. "The Faith Hill clones are everywhere!"
But while Julie Roberts' career would flop (she blind auditioned for The Voice in 2013 but didn't make it through the first round), Lambert would go on to massive international success.
New York Times, March 2005
By the time her debut album was released in March 2005, Lambert was on her way up.
In a review for Entertainment Weekly in March 2005, Alanna Nash wrote: "Lambert's got Dixie Chicks-like potential… Her vocals evoke Natalie Maines, and she clearly knows how to write a killer tune." The New York Times made mention of Lambert in an article by Kelefa Sanneh titled "As an Idol Deserts, Reality Pop Plays On;" after calling Lambert a "loser," Sanneh goes on to be very complimentary"
It's still not clear how Miranda Lambert failed to emerge a "Nashville Star" winner in 2003, but at this point it doesn't much matter. Ms. Lambert, a 21-year-old Texan, has a thin but strong voice that hints at mischief, and "Kerosene," her impressive debut, might be the best album so far from the current reality-pop boom.
By the end of 2005, Lambert's Kerosene would make best of the year lists in local papers and Rolling Stone alike. In the end, Lambert really was the Nashville Star winner, after all.
First Reviews is a new series that finds and evaluates early reviews of now-popular and well-respected artists.
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Kelsey McKinney is a culture staff writer for Fusion.