The Marfa Tapes — Miranda Lambert, Jack Ingram, Jon Randall
Back in the days before radio, records, streaming and concerts (remember those? Rumor has it they’re coming back), country music was played mainly for the pleasure of those around you. Be it in the living room, out on the porch or in front of the campfire, it was meant for fun, not for show. Taking a page from that book, longtime songwriting partners Miranda Lambert, Jack Ingram and Jon Randall recently decamped to the small Texas town of Marfa to record stripped-down versions of 15 songs they’ve written together. Billed as a record with “no overdubs or second chances,” the resulting The Marfa Tapes sounds like one of those cool fireside shows you’ve always wished you’d get an invite to.
Despite its diminutive mark on the map, Marfa has hosted a fair share of artistic endeavors. No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood were shot there, and the kind of spareness that worked for those films is also what brings out the best in the songs (and the performers) on The Marfa Tapes. “In His Arms” leads off the album, and it’s a song of longing and regret – “Waiting for the right one to come find me/But the wrong one always sets me free.” Lambert takes the lead on this one, but the boys get their chance to star, too. Ingram heads up “I Don’t Like it,” a catalog of good memories – “I love it when you wake me up/And kiss me ‘til the coffee’s cold” – and bad – “I don’t like being away from you/I don’t like it when you’re not here” (it seems that isolation only enhances the loneliness found in these song).
The Marfa Tapes isn’t an audiophile’s dream, and it’s not meant to be. It’s two mics and a guitar, along with plenty of natural sound on the recordings – campfire, cows, coyotes and high desert winds all make cameos. It’s all about the songs and capturing the genuine warmth between Ingram, Lambert and Randall, which shows up in the banter between (and occasionally during) songs – it really is like a small, private show. There’s also fun country wordplay sprinkled across the record, whether it’s the sketchy characters in “Homegrown Tomatoes” (“Tequila shots, Bud Light top, she’s a little instigator”) or the wanna-be homewrecker in “Geraldene” (“You’re trailer park pretty, but you’re never gonna be Jolene”).
Even with all of its fun and warmth, The Marfa Tapes works best on the country weepers. “Waxahachie” imagines a late-night roadie to see an old lover, along with a stiff shot of reality – “Freedom’s overrated, guess I underestimated the truth/And you.” “Anchor,” fronted by Ingram, asks you whether love steadies you or drags you under. And “Tin Man” is a stark, heartbreaking trip back to the track from Lambert’s double album The Weight of These Wings. The song was written by the trio, but Lambert goes it solo here as she offers Mr. Tin Man a deal – “You give me your armor/And you can have my heart.” She nitpicks her own performance at the end of the recording, and while it may not be flawless, it’s absolutely perfect.
Song I Can’t Wait to Hear Live: “Tin Man” – whether it’s on this record or at the ACM Awards a few years back, Lambert performing this song solo is an absolute showstopper.
The Marfa Tapes was recorded and mixed by Brandon Bell and mastered by Eric Conn. All songs were written by Ingram, Lambert and Randall.