Producer Frank Liddell compares most country music stars to drivers in Manhattan. They circle and circle until they find a parking spot, and once they find one, they never want to leave.
Miranda Lambert found a roomy space in the shade when she released the career-changing "Revolution" in 2009.
"A lot of times, that parking place will dictate an artist's entire career," Liddell said. "Miranda, with this last record, she had a pretty good parking place. And she just drove right out of it without thinking twice about it."
You can hear where she's headed on her new album, "Four the Record," out Tuesday. It's Lambert's follow-up to the album that won her universal critical praise, enough fans to ratchet her career to the headliner level and a bushel of trophies, including a Grammy.
All conditions were right for Lambert to deliver a new version of "Revolution," repeating the blend of sass and smarts and a little bit of tenderness that turned out to be such a combustible mix. But the 28-year-old delivered something very different. There's still a little bit of that blonde firebrand who set country music ablaze in "Four," Lambert's fourth album. But the overall picture the album leaves you with is a little more somber and mature.
"I'm one of those fortunate few, few, few artists that get to do what I want to do, make the album I want to make, with nobody telling me what it should sound like or what songs I should cut, and the best part about it is, people actually buy it," Lambert said.
Most emerging country stars would have spent time building their brand after such a career leap. She and new husband Blake Shelton appeared on the cover of Us Weekly after their wedding, the peak of the carnival atmosphere that surrounded the two over the last 18 months. With Shelton's turn on "The Voice," their visibility had never been higher, and the opportunities never more lucrative.
Lambert did the unexpected, though. Instead of chasing tour sponsors and endorsement deals, she's turned down most offers. Instead of trying to recreate those hit songs from her last album, she sought new writing partners and even considered a higher than usual percentage of songs from outside writers.
She also formed a band on the side, Pistol Annies, something of a maverick move in a town where such things are considered wastes of energy at best and brand killers at worst. With no radio airplay and little marketing, Pistol Annies' debut album "Hell on Heels" hit No. 1 on the Billboard country albums chart.
All of these things are unusual moves — and part of the plan that Lambert has put together with her manager, Marion Kraft.
"The interesting part about it is we think of expanding, not in a financial way, but we're thinking of expanding in a creative way where I feel like we are inspired by what we're doing and she gets better because she keeps re-inspiring herself," Kraft said. "That's how Pistol Annies came about, because we didn't fight it. ... The expansion that we are hoping will happen is that we broaden our fan base because we allow art to drive it rather than commerce."
It sure worked with the platinum-selling "Revolution." No. 1 songs like "White Liar" and "The House That Built Me" brought more fans into Lambert's camp and they fell for what they found. Those songs, Lambert said, were reflections of where she was when she recorded "Revolution," which won album of the year from both the Country Music Association and the Academy of Country Music.
"Four" finds Lambert somewhere a little different. She's grown up some, moving from young womanhood into maturity, and started a new life with her husband in Oklahoma. There's more humor here, probably thanks to the influence of the ever-funny Shelton, and more and deeper emotion.
There's still a little fuel for the fire on songs like "Fastest Girl in Town" and "Mama's Broken Heart." But from the first notes of opener "All Kinds of Kinds," a song about Horatio the Human Cannonball, the dog-faced boy and the three-ring circus that is life, "Four" little resembles her previous work. There's also "Over You," a song she wrote with Shelton about the death of his brother. And there's "Safe," which she wrote backstage while Shelton performed.
"I kind of felt that feeling come over me," Lambert said. "That's my fiance. That's going to be my husband. I'm going to keep him safe. I feel safe with him. So that's definitely some insight into my softer side."
Liddell, who has produced all of Lambert's albums, said she came to the studio this time with none of the nervousness she displayed in the recording of her previous albums. She would play the basic song for Liddell and her musicians, then turn the discussion over to the group.
"She just allows everything — courage and creativity and interesting musicianship — and doesn't get bogged down in little things, minutiae or what's expected of her, or the last hit on her last record," Liddell said. "None of that really comes in. If she feels it in her heart, she really starts pushing the buttons, and I think that's the most exceptional thing about her."