I write about politics and government for a living, which means I am sometimes asked questions like, “Who’s going to win the Democratic nomination?” and “Are we going to have a recession?” and “Is Lindsey Graham a garden gnome come to life?” And I have to make a wild guess or admit, “Dang if I know.” What no one asks me, alas, is a question I can answer with utter certainty.
Like every Texan, I am a natural-born authority on barbecue, college football and country music. Even so, I can’t say with absolute confidence where the very best smoked brisket can be found, or whether Nick Saban’s Alabama defense could stop the old Nebraska triple option. But when it comes to country music greatness, doubt is not a problem.
As a baby boomer, I was weaned on Hank Williams and rocked to sleep by Patsy Cline. While my high school classmates were grooving on the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix, I was twanging out with George Jones and Tammy Wynette. I can chew over the merits of Willie Nelson and Reba McEntire till the Brangus come home.
Not that I profess any technical knowledge of music. I wouldn’t know adagio from fettuccine, and I sometimes forget that the mandolin is not a tropical fruit. But you don’t have to be an astronomer to find the Big Dipper.
Rolling Stone magazine has an online list of the “100 Greatest Country Artists of All Time.” Though I don’t entirely trust country music evaluations from people who have never stuck a tractor in a muddy field, the rankings have some merit. Putting Merle Haggard at No. 1 is not preposterous, and Hank Williams may deserve his No. 2 slot.
But I’m happy to stand on the hood of George Strait’s pickup truck or stalk the streets of Dollywood and declare the incontrovertible truth: Miranda Lambert is the greatest country music artist of all time. Put me on a polygraph; waterboard me; lock me in a biker bar with Toby Keith and his meanest buddies. I couldn’t say otherwise if my life depended on it.
This should not surprise anyone who likes country music. Lambert (who will appear at Country LakeShake in Chicago on Friday, June 21) has earned more awards from the Academy of Country Music than anyone, ever. Six of her albums have sold more than a million copies.
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But she still manages to be underrated and underplayed, partly because of her gender. Country radio is heavily dominated by dudes, and she’s had only a few No. 1 hits. Rolling Stone placed her at No. 33.
That’s like calling Michelangelo the 11th-best sculptor to come out of Florence. Lambert is the total audio package. Her distinctive voice can make daffodils bloom or light asbestos on fire. She has a versatility no one else can approach — excelling at quiet meditations (“Love Your Memory”), raucous barnburners (“Gunpowder and Lead”) and heart-swelling anthems (“Keeper of the Flame”).
In that old Nashville vein, feelin’ bad about bein’ bad, “Vice” is a masterpiece of self-loathing. “The House That Built Me” and “Mama’s Broken Heart” are as different as two songs can be, but people will be listening to them until Mount Everest is underwater.
Some of my co-workers suspect I am unduly influenced by the fact that Lambert is cute, blond and curvy. In fact, I wouldn’t care if she looked like Sasquatch. My wife is cute, blond and curvy, but I have no songs by her on my playlists.
Lambert, whose first single came out in 2004, has been as durable as barbed wire. She’s written or co-written dozens of her songs. She’s forged an identity as a badass country girl and feminist without ever becoming a cartoon or limiting her emotional range.
I mean no disrespect to her competition for GOAT, but still. Merle Haggard? His voice is not in the same league. Hank Williams? His career, cut short by death, lasted only six years. Patsy Cline sang like an angel, but heaven couldn’t wait for her. George Jones, brilliant at his best, recorded a fair amount of stuff that was a waste of good vinyl.
By comparison with Lambert, Dolly Parton is cloying and Garth Brooks is bland. George Strait beats her in longevity, but he stuck faithfully to a time-tested formula. Lambert has never lost the capacity to surprise.
It’s a common sentiment these days to think all sorts of things in America are getting worse. But country music has never been better than when Miranda Lambert is making it.
Steve Chapman, a member of the Tribune Editorial Board, blogs at www.chicagotribune.com/chapman.