When The Weight of These Wings goes on sale Nov. 18, Miranda Lambert will be wandering down a road that might appear, from the outside, to be as nostalgic as the lyrics to "Automatic." It's a double album - 24 songs in all - released at a time when the recording industry has all but abandoned that format except for anthologies and compilations.
"A double album 10 or 20 years ago most times was kind of ridiculous," says producer Frank Liddell (Eli Young Band, David Nail). "These days, EPs are even too long, and here we got a double record in 2016."
Music veterans still remember the 1970s, when a double album was a sign of clout for plenty of artists. After Bob Dylan released Blonde on Blonde in 1966 and The Beatles issued The White Album in 1968, double albums became a familiar site in record bins. Many were concert albums - such as Frampton Comes Alive, multiple volumes of Kiss Alive or Willie Nelson & Family Live - and there were plenty of two-record soundtracks, too: Saturday Night Fever, Grease and Urban Cowboy, for starters.
But a fair number of artists used the format to introduce all-new studio material. Stevie Wonder's Songs in the Key of Life, R. Kelly's R. and Fleetwood Mac's Tusk are a mere starting point among the industry's double albums. Their size alone made them colossal risks.
"It's really hard to come up with that much great material," said Megadeth's Dave Mustaine as he walked the red carpet for the Country Music Association Awards, where he accompanied his daughter, country singer Electra Mustaine. "You can go in the studio and have 20 songs, but how much of it is pablum? How much is filler? How much of it is bona fide tracks, like [Pink Floyd's] The Wall or [Led Zeppelin's] Physical Graffiti? All those songs are great."
It's in that context that Lambert's album will be evaluated. It's an hour and 40 minutes long, a major commitment for a listener in an era when attention spans are notably short.
"People are very focused on singles and streaming, so it was a very big creative risk that she took," says John Osborne of Brothers Osborne, who toured with Lambert in 2016. "But if you know Miranda Lambert at all, she's not afraid to take big creative risks."
In fact, the creativity - not the size of the project - was the driving force behind The Weight of These Wings.
"She came to me a year-and-a-half ago and was going through a lot," recalls Liddell. "She said, 'I really just want to take a look at myself, what I've been doing, what I've been going through, write about it, live through it and make a record.' She wanted to look at herself as introspectively as possible, and how she got here, and make the record that's reflecting that."
She reportedly wrote about 60 songs, then recorded more than 30 during a period of a year. From that pool, they removed anything that didn't seem to fit, then settled on the two dozen that appear on discs titled "The Nerve" and "The Heart," images derived from the hook of the final song on disc one: "I don't have the nerve to use my heart." The "Heart" songs, says Liddell, reflect her core being, while the "Nerve" tracks are more about the outer shell she has created for herself.
"She didn't make a double record to say, 'Look at me. Y'all deserve two records from me,' " says Liddell. "It was never calculated, it was never 'we're going to do something that nobody has done.' It was just that this is where she was in her life at the time."
In fact, where rock artists recorded plenty of double-disc albums, most multiple-disc country releases - such as George Strait's Strait Out of the Box or George Jones' Anniversary: 10 Years of Hits - have been compilations.
Multiple-disc studio albums of new material have included Garth Brooks' covers project Blame It All on My Roots: Five Decades of Influences, Vince Gill's Grammy-nominated four-disc set These Days and three volumes of The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band series Will the Circle Be Unbroken, featuring a stream of guest artists. Jim Lauderdale fashioned a two-disc Americana effort, Soul Searching, and Marty Stuart built Saturday Night/Sunday Morning. There are certainly others, but they're few and far between, and with good reason.
"That's a lot of songs to have to live up to a certain standard," says Cassadee Pope. "But if there's one person that can do it, it's Miranda."
It's also an enormous time challenge. Beyond writing the songs and recording them, the mere act of creating a sequence can be unwieldy.
"[Noted mastering engineer] Bob Ludwig pointed out that on a 12-song record, there are something like 130 million sequence opportunities," says Liddell. "So not only do we have two albums, and we had two times the material, there were several trillion options to divide a record into sequences. It sounds easy, but you move one song and then it distorts the entire thing. Then you go back and listen to the entire record to see if that fits."
Ultimately, they pushed it to the wire. Lambert's manager, Shopkeeper Management owner Marion Kraft, helped keep them focused on meeting the manufacturing deadline, says Liddell. And they met it with just 15 minutes to spare. Sony Music Nashville - which provided Lambert her own imprint, Vanner, when it recently extended her recording deal - was supportive even after the label discovered how ambitious the album was. The label developed a marketing plan around the album, but the marketing had zero influence, says Liddell, on the project's makeup.
"It was a bold move," says Brothers Osborne lead vocalist T.J. Osborne. "A lot of times in this business, people have these bold ideas and they don't do them, they chicken out, and the fact that she went through with it, I'm super-proud of her."
The magnitude of the effort is impressive enough, especially given how rarely country artists have tackled double albums. Lambert's emotional effort in both writing the material and recording it carries even greater significance.
"She went through a lot in the last few years - I don't think that's news to anybody," says Liddell. "Rather than make light of it, or rather than telling somebody else to 'give me something timely,' she sat down and did the work."