Even before Miranda Lambert released her debut album Kerosene, March 15, 2005, she already had some fuel in the tank. The firebrand blonde with the Texas-bred delivery and sassy attitude had earned a legion of eager-to-follow fans in 2003 with her appearances on the USA Network series Nashville Star, cable’s answer to American Idol. Lambert did not win the competition, finishing third, but impressed plenty of viewers nationwide and, in particular, one of the show’s judges (and Sony Music exec) Tracy Gershon. Gershon, in a prescient vision, urged the label to sign the not-quite-20-year-old youngster.
Lambert had only cut one single, the infectious “Me and Charlie Talking,” prior to the release of Kerosene. Debuting late in 2004, the single didn’t exactly fire up the charts, landing at No. 27. Apparently, that mattered little to the record-buying public. Kerosene debuted on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart at No. 1, with sales of more than 40,000 copies in its first week. That debut chart success proved a rare feat for a solo female artist – only a handful, including LeAnn Rimes (Blue) and Gretchen Wilson (Here for the Party), had managed to pull it off.
Kerosene certainly isn’t Lambert’s best-selling album, as more than two years went by before it even received a Platinum certification. Under even the most flexible standards, few would consider this her finest three-quarters of an hour. As we look back at the album 15 years later, though, it’s obvious that fans and the industry were witnessing a budding talent in the works, a young woman who wrote most of her songs (11 out of 12 for Kerosene) and could interpret them with a seasoned artist’s sincerity. Indeed, Kerosene lit the flame for future albums like Lambert’s award-winning Revolution and Platinum.
Feisty and undaunted by the recording establishment, Lambert knew what she wanted in an album and was willing to stand up for her principles. The often-told story goes that Lambert acquired the chance to do a recording session in Nashville when she was around 16, but walked out because of the pop-oriented material that was chosen for her. For Kerosene, she picked her own producers, Frank Liddell and Mike Wrucke.
The team made bold and unusual production choices, especially for the lead single, “Me and Charlie Talking.” The song begins with the sounds of chirping crickets to set the tone. Who does that for a first single by a new artist? Lambert wrote the song with her dad Rick Lambert and Texas songwriter Heather Little, and the three carved out an evocative story of young small town love, loss and seizing the moment. “Me and Charlie Talking” may have registered as an out-of-the-box choice for a first single, but that”s evidently how this team rolled.
“Bring Me Down” was released as the follow-up single in April of 2005, and this came up a bit short on the charts as well, peaking at No. 32. Lambert and co-writer Travis Howard dabbled in some picturesque lyrical content, as in the lines, It’s like I didn’t see the pennies/ I missed the fountain by a couple yards/ If you would only stay gone/ Maybe I could move on. Again, Lambert invokes familiar theme of loss and yearning and getting on with one’s life.
With hindsight at our disposal, we’d be chirping that “Kerosene” should have been the obvious choice to lead off the singles parade instead of batting third. Kicked off with a jangly guitar intro, the song becomes a relentless take on the time-honored “woman scorned” subject, although this woman isn’t taking rejection passively. She’s going to set fire to everything he has, declaring, Forget your high society/ I’m soakin’ it in kerosene. Lambert’s vocal is so convincing that you actually believe she’s capable of such a revengeful deed.
In keeping with Lambert’s rebellious songwriting philosophy, “Kerosene” was a bit offbeat in structure as it contained four verses without a chorus or a bridge, an early indication that, for this powerhouse singer/songwriter, “convention” was something one attends, not adheres to. “Kerosene” also regaled us with one of the more memorable lines of the past several years: I’m giving up on love/ ‘Cause love’s given up on me. Fifteen years later, it’s still a classic lyric.
Lambert was at first listed as the sole writer on “Kerosene” but she later gave a co-writing credit to Steve Earle after some sharp listeners noted a similarity to Earle’s “I Feel Alright.” Lambert confessed in an interview that she had played Earle’s song so often that she likely, but inadvertently, borrowed portions of the melody.
“Kerosene” became Lambert’s highest-charting single of her young career, landing at No. 15. The song was Lambert’s first to receive a Gold certification and provided Lambert with her first Grammy nomination for Best Female Country Vocal Performance.
“New Strings” was the fourth and final single from the album, peaking at No. 25. The song further exemplified Lambert’s restless spirit, as the main character looks to get away from her small town, driving as fast as she possibly can. The “new strings” (or, more precisely, “New set of strings”) served as a metaphor for starting over and perhaps even redemption.
The Kerosene album contained additional gems like “What About Georgia,” “Greyhound Bound for Nowhere” and “Mama, I’m Alright.” Any could have been chosen as singles had the label team gone deeper into the well.
Kerosene provided an early showcase for Lambert’s multiple talents. Lambert wrote with such ferocity and zeal, and sang with an intensity that mixed traditional country and Texas soul, that you almost had to double check her age. She already sounded like a veteran performer who had developed her own unique and demonstrative style. Not surprisingly, many were comparing her to a young Loretta Lynn, both in her writing and vocal prowess.