LAS VEGAS—Miranda Lambert and her parents always swear they're not going to cry when they talk about the country firebrand's latest single, "The House That Built Me."
It goes the same every time, though. Within minutes, all three are in tears. And how could they not be, when the song reflects a difficult eight-year period in their lives that included homelessness and despair? When they talk about the song -- or even just hear it -- so many emotions rush back.
Lambert didn't write her country top 10 hit, "The House That Built Me," but she might as well have. Written by Tom Douglas and Allen Shamblin, it's a pitch-perfect retelling of her childhood, and the Lamberts were shocked when they found out she didn't pen the song.
After they wiped away the tears, of course.
"It's like the persons that wrote that song were channeling into our lives at that horrible but great time in our lives," Rick Lambert, 58, said. "It was so many mixed emotions during that time because we actually lost everything we owned. We actually lost a house that we built with our own hands."
About 20 years ago, the Lamberts were private investigators in Lindale, Texas. A few bad business decisions doomed the company and left the family of four, including Miranda's younger brother, with few options.
"'You're three months away from bankruptcy' is what they say, and that's what happened," Bev Lambert, 50, said. "Four months down the road, we're just like, 'What's happened here?', and we're homeless literally."
The Lamberts stayed with family for a while, but needed a place of their own. Bev noticed a nearby house, a rental property that gave her a strange sense of hope.
"And every day I was like, 'If we could just have that house. If we could just get there we could get back to normal,'" she said.
"What my wife failed to tell you is that house was in such bad shape they were going to bulldoze the house down if we didn't rent it," Rick said.
Some of the rooms didn't have windows and everything needed fixing or replacing from floor to ceiling. The Lamberts eventually got that house, though, and moved in. They lived in one room at a time while Bev started a reclamation project.
She also planted a garden and tended it every day, pulling what the family needed from the ground. And Rick provided the protein.
"I would kill game animals," he said. "I really didn't care if it was in season or not. This was subsistence."
The family raised rabbits -- "and we got to name two, that was it," Miranda said -- and other animals for food as well.
When the Lamberts revisit that time in their lives, their emotions vary. Shame and pride. Fear and joy. There are just as many laughs as there are tears.
The 26-year-old singer first heard "The House That Built Me" when it was sent to boyfriend Blake Shelton. It was immediately powerful to Lambert.
Shelton insisted she take the song.
"It was beautiful," Lambert said. "I mean, I just started bawling from the second I heard it. He was like, 'If you have a reaction to this song like that, then you need to cut it.'"
Her parents, who retired from the private investigator business a few years ago and live on land that borders that old house, simply refused to believe Lambert didn't write the song. The imagery matched their lives in every way.
The family did bury their dog of 14 years in the yard of that rundown house -- just like it says in the song.
And the little room at the top of the stairs is, in fact, where Miranda did her homework and learned how to play guitar.
"And this guy didn't know us," Rick said of Douglas, who credits Shamblin with the idea for the song.
The friends, who've logged many No. 1s separately, were at a songwriters event when Shamblin brought up a kernel of a song over breakfast. He was interested in the idea of how powerful the memories of houses are for people. They started to shape that idea into a song, looking for a nice turn of phrase, something like "the house that he built."
"I believe Allen twisted it to not 'the house that I built,' but 'the house that built me'" -- just talking about that quintessential home that everybody has had," Douglas said. "I guess the song does strike a chord of universality because I think even if you haven't had the home, it's the feeling of it's the home you want to have or the home you're trying to create."
As the operator of Lambert's fan club, Bev knows firsthand how universal that song is. The response to it has been powerful.
"So every single day I cry, because every single day I get somebody's story and somebody's grandma raised them and somebody was homeless and it reminds me of where we were at the time," Bev said.
Turns out all those details were just coincidences, moments drawn out of the songwriters' lives. Put them all together and Miranda Lambert thinks it's a triumphant tale that's also deeply personal.
Like the narrator in "The House That Built Me," she believes those struggles turned her into the tenacious, fiery, hardworking woman who is shaking up country music today. The Grammy nominee won three Academy of Country Music Awards in April, including album of the year for the critically acclaimed "Revolution," and she recently had her first No. 1 single with "White Liar."
It looks like "The House That Built Me" may be her second as it continues to climb the charts. That would be quite the happy ending for the Lamberts.
"It's such a sad story, but it's really such a happy story because it really just built our family back and it made us stronger than ever," Miranda said. "And it made me."
Eds: Entertainment Writer Caitlin R. King contributed to this report.
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