As one of country music’s biggest stars, Miranda Lambert is well enough versed in the machinery of Nashville to know when it’s time to step away from the homogeneous, high-gloss sheen of a big-budget studio production and let the songs stand on their own. That’s what she does on The Marfa Tapes, a stripped-down, spellbinding collaboration with the journeymen country singers Jack Ingram and Jon Randall. And what songs: Ingram, Lambert and Randall are a potent combination, and they pared these 15 songs down to their essence, recording them with a couple of microphones and acoustic guitars, often outside, where they were immersed in the sounds of the West Texas desert.
Marfa has been a songwriting refuge for the trio since they started writing together in 2015. The little town in a broad expanse of nothing much is where they came up with Lambert’s 2017 single “Tin Man,” which has sold more than a million copies, was nominated for a pair of Grammys and won Song of the Year at the ACM Awards in 2018. Appearing on her 2016 album The Weight of These Wings, the song has a sleek, polished feel, with airy keyboards hovering at the edges of the arrangement while limber acoustic guitar runs accent Lambert’s voice. The song is beautiful, but genteel and restrained. By contrast, the Marfa Tapes version channels unfiltered heartache.
Lambert sings as though she’s just barely keeping it together as she accompanies herself on guitar. The tempo wanders a little bit, and there’s a crackling noise at the start from the wind or a campfire, but there’s no improving on the lonesome quaver in her voice as she warns the Tin Man away from wishing for that heart he’s always lacked. The song is one of two Lambert has previously recorded, along with “Tequila Does,” from her 2019 album Wildcard. The other tunes are new, and they span moods from mournful to longing to playful. “Waxahachie” hits the first two as Lambert recounts a romantic blow-up while driving all night on her way to try and make amends. Randall strums through a brisk chord progression behind her, and he and Ingram add vocal harmonies. The three of them capture the feel of late-night regret and the lingering hope that maybe the damage isn’t permanent on a song that is at once simple and devastatingly effective.
That’s true also of “The Wind’s Just Gonna Blow,” where Lambert and Ingram trade off on lead vocals as they give voice to a couple whose love has gone crosswise. Randall picks out a sad minor-key part on guitar, while Ingram sings in a craggy, self-effacing tone and Lambert lets the sorrow in her voice build just to the point of spilling over, then pulls it back. Randall takes the lead on “Breaking a Heart” with a rueful cast to his smooth tenor over understated guitar. When Ingram and Lambert come in on harmonies, it sounds as though they’re holding up their friend in a moment of need.
Not everything on The Marfa Tapes is a downhearted gut-punch. The trio pays tribute to the late, great Guy Clark on “Homegrown Tomatoes,” a song about hanging out with some drinks on a summer afternoon with a brisket in the smoker and singing along to Clark’s song by the same name. It’s loose and relaxed, and it’s one of the songs on the album that offers a glimpse into the musicians’ personalities as they crack each other up. “Nailed it!” Lambert declares in the second refrain when she hits the harmony part. Later, they ham it up on the jaunty swing number “Two-Step Down to Texas,” a good-humored travelogue that hits some of the highlights of Austin and environs, complete with a whistled solo. “That one’s fun,” Lambert says at the end of the song while Randall and Ingram laugh.
Truth is, the whole album is fun, even when it’s melancholy. The songwriting is first-rate, and the minimalist aesthetic suits these tunes in a way that more elaborate arrangements and polished production never would. The Marfa Tapes started as a passion project among friends, and turned out to be a showcase for Lambert’s versatility while shining a light on Ingram and Randall’s skill as writers, singers and players.
Eric R. Danton has been contributing to Paste since 2013, and writing about music and pop culture for longer than he cares to admit. Follow him on Twitter or visit his website.