When the prefab glitz of Nashville’s country music industry takes a four-day weekend in the surreal contrivances of Las Vegas, a genuine country girl like Miranda Lambert will have a hard time outshining all the big, bright lights, but she will stand out. Which is exactly what the pint-size pride of tiny Lindale (population 4,290) did in May, when the Academy of Country Music held its annual awards show at the MGM Grand. Call the event country’s midsummer classic, the musical equivalent of baseball’s All-Star Game, with a Montgomery Gentry motorcycle ride and a Big & Rich poker tournament in place of the home run derby and the old-timers’ softball game. And know that the ACMers were perfectly at home in the neon dunes. There’s a reason that supremely earnest Texas singer-songwriters—Miranda not among them—have long derided Music City as “Nashvegas”; if Vegas is where stonewashed denim shorts go to die and no man is ever too old to wear his ball cap backward, it’s also a place where Nashville cheese is going to look like just another item on Mr. Puck’s menu.
The MGM’s Grand Garden Arena was home to Miranda’s initial appearance, on Sunday morning, when she rehearsed for Tuesday night’s nationally televised awards show. The hall was mostly empty, with a crew of techs, gaffers, and grips weaving in and out of pockets of professional awards-show stand-ins—underemployed actors who travel in packs from the Emmys to the Oscars to these ACMs, portraying winners and presenters at rehearsals like this one. With unseen producers barking instructions that bounced overhead, Miranda’s band followed a faceless cue and strolled onstage first. Four thousand green-backed seats stretched out below them, the choice spots occupied by sheets of white poster board with publicity-department head shots of the stars who would sit there during the show. The front rows were for the one-name icons: Kenny, Martina, Tim and Faith, Brooks and Dunn. Miranda’s likeness was five rows behind George Strait’s and two sections over from her boyfriend’s, fellow singer Blake Shelton, an arrangement that reflected her management’s desire to keep the couple’s professional identities distinct at this early stage in their careers. Scattered through the rest of the floor seats were familiar but unexpected non-country faces, some there because they were presenting awards (Dr. Phil, Luke Wilson, Hannah Storm) and others because there are those stars who would not be stars but for Vegas, and as such they are inescapable when one is in Vegas (Carrot Top).
After her band had run through the song she’d be performing, “Famous in a Small Town,” twice, Miranda, the favored nominee for Top New Female Vocalist, shuffled onstage wearing a tempered expression that implied that even at the tender age of 23, she’d already grown immune to this specific brand of weirdness. (She had in fact been nominated for the same award at last year’s show but had come up empty, as she had with a nomination at this year’s Grammys and two at last year’s Country Music Association awards.) But far more bewildering, the past year had seen Miranda’s first CD, Kerosene, go platinum and her new one, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend , released the week before she headed to Vegas, debut at number one on Billboard’s country album chart—all without the benefit of a hit single on country radio, an almost unheard-of accomplishment.
Approaching the mike stand, she looked immeasurably prettier than on her CD covers, where sultry pouts and faraway eyes are used to sell her music. Instead she appeared ready to spend the rest of the day in a windowless bar with a jukebox, standing slightly pigeon-toed in bright-red roach stompers, low-rise jeans with button flaps on the back pockets, and a loose, sleeveless peach-colored top. Her long blond hair was knotted in a bun above hoop earrings, and as she glanced at her bass player and noticed his spiked mohawk tucked underneath a baseball cap, she smiled. Dimples the size of nickels opened up in her cheeks.
She applied a little lip gloss before she picked up an acoustic guitar and, with a couple confident strums, kicked off “Small Town” for a third time. It’s a song she co-wrote and the first single off Crazy Ex-Girlfriend , a bar-band rocker that still sounded country when Miranda wrapped her East Texas twang around its lived-in lyrics: “I dreamed of going to Nashville/Put my money down and placed my bet/But I just got the first buck of the season/I made the front page of the Turnertown Gazette.” With no audience to pull energy from, she displayed none of the high-octane, head-banging dramatics that define her live shows. But as the song wore on, she got into it. She cocked her head, scrunched up her nose, and smiled again as she reached the chorus: “Whether you’re late for church or you’re stuck in jail/Hey, word’s gonna get around/Everybody dies famous in a small town.” Her pride at what she was doing and who she was was unmistakable, contagious. She meant it .
Her face when she finished was all grin and dimples, showing the natural charisma of a born performer. With that talent and those looks, she could have been a Go-Go. Or maybe a Bangle. But what she has always wanted is to be Merle Haggard. It was suddenly clear that as long as she stayed in the song, she was exactly where she belonged.
miranda lambert has a habit of ignoring the word “no.” About a year ago she told her business manager that she wanted to buy a second tour bus. Not that there was anything wrong with the first one, except that traveling with her band and her crew members, all eight of them male, was a little like crossing the country in a rolling men’s locker room. Her manager informed her that her career wasn’t quite far enough along to justify two buses.
Her reaction was predictable. Just as she viewed her early success on the Texas country circuit