Signing a record contract is usually a joyous occasion for an unknown artist, especially one that has spent years struggling. But Miranda Lambert (search) recalls little joy when that big moment came, only increasing dread as she stared at the papers in front of her.

For almost a half-hour, she debated whether joining Sony Nashville (search) — home of such best-selling acts as Gretchen Wilson and the Dixie Chicks — was a good thing.

"I heard so many horror stories about record deals and how they go bad, and how labels try and make use of a puppet, you know, and do what they want with you. And that scared me," says the 21-year-old Lambert, a finalist on the inaugural edition of the TV talent contest "Nashville Star." (search)

In the end, she signed. But the next day, Lambert called up new Sony Nashville President John Grady and offered a caveat.

"I said, 'I know what I am and who I am and I know what kind of music that I want to do. I'm a songwriter. If you're going to try and change me in any way, I'd rather just go back home and do what I was doing there. So please tell me know before we waste a lot a money and a lot of time.'"

It's easy to imagine Lambert, an effervescent blonde who's done some modeling and acting, being pushed down the Shania Twain/ Faith Hill glamour girl route. But fortunately for her, Sony Nashville wanted Lambert just the way she was — a feisty Texas gal who prefers classic country to today's slick country pop and would rather be on stage strumming her guitar than prancing around in sexy outfits.

"I think I was born in the wrong era," Lambert says, laughing as she describes her musical influences and philosophy in a recent interview. "I got a record player for my 21st birthday in November, and I'm listening to vinyls most of the time when I'm home. I love the old sound."

Lambert wrote or co-wrote all but one song on her debut album "Kerosene," which debuted on top of the Billboard country album chart in March. It has a sound that might best be described as retro-country — harkening back to the lyrical content and musical style of her idols, who include Merle Haggard, Dolly Parton and Willie Nelson.

"I feel like country music should be real. I feel like if you go back to the roots ... they all sing about cheatin' and drinkin'; they sing about real life, because that's what country music originated out of — real people signing about real-life situations."

While "Kerosene," talks plenty about heartbreak, cheating, drinking and smoking, Lambert is quick to add that besides the love part (she's got a boyfriend), everything else is pretty much made up: "I haven't done a lot of cheatin' and drinkin' yet; hopefully I won't have to do that!"

But she did hear plenty about it growing up in Lindale, Texas, about an hour from Dallas, thanks to her parents, who were — and still are — private detectives.

"Our dinner conversations were always about someone cheating," she says. "I saw a lot of reality in their jobs and they never tried to hide it from me."

Lambert would draw from the drama in her parents' work in future songs. But what would end up having a greater impact on her was her father's interest in music: Lambert recalls her dad playing guitar on their front porch, writing songs.

She didn't show an interest until her teen years, even rebuffing her father's gift of a guitar, preferring to let it sit in her closet. But one day, on a whim, she decided to enter a local talent contest.

"My parents, literally the looks on their faces were kind of shocked, like, `Oh my God, she's interested in singing!'"

Lambert, who has a younger brother, began singing seriously enough that her parents took her to Nashville to record a demo when she was 17. It wasn't what she hoped for, but it was a valuable lesson.

"I cut these four pop-country songs," she says. "I got in the studio and tried to sing them — I hated them," she says. "They would have been great for someone else, but I didn't really feel them."

After that, the guitar in the closet — and the idea of creating her own songs — started to look pretty inviting.

"I went back home and I was like, `Dad, can you teach me some chords?' I kind of ate humble pie," she says. "From there, I was writing three songs a week, and a couple of them ended up on my album."

Lambert's father, Rick, says it was important to his daughter that she wasn't singing someone else's words.

"Miranda would quickly tell you that she was going to be a complete singer," he says. "She knew from the beginning that she wanted to be an artist, not just a singer, and in her mind, art is that of writing songs."

That's partly why she decided to audition for "Nashville Star" — which, unlike "American Idol," put a premium on singer-songwriters, she says.

Lambert was one of the top three finalists (and also met friend and co-writer Travis Howard, another contestant on the show) but didn't win the 2003 contest. Lambert says she was actually relieved at the result.

"(Winner) Buddy Jewell made a record in eight days," she says. "I just felt like I wasn't ready for that at 19 years old. I wasn't finished writing my material. I didn't know anything about a studio."

But she did know what kind of image she wanted to project. Lambert takes great pride in writing her own songs, and she didn't want to be promoted on her looks.

"I told them I'm never going to dance around in a halter top on stage or sing pop songs. It's just not me," she says.

And she hasn't had to.

"I feel like my music can carry me. I don't think I need to 'show skin' to get me anyplace," she says.

But she jokes: "I might change my mind when I'm 30 and there's some hot little 20-year-old coming out — I can take something off!"