Jack Ingram, Miranda Lambert and Jon Randall’s The Marfa Tapes

cover artMy wife and I were supposed to spend a week just outside of Marfa, Texas, from which we would explore Big Bend National Park in March of 2020. Well, you know what happened to those plans as the world shut down at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. We’re still planning to go someday when things are all better, but in the meantime we can soak up the atmosphere of this album made by three veteran country musicians around a firepit on a ranch near Marfa in November 2020.

Marfa’s a tiny spot on the map, home to artists and musicians and eccentrics of various stripes. Miranda Lambert, Jack Ingram, and Jon Randall are longtime friends who have gone to Marfa regularly for the past few years to soak up the desolation and isolation and turn it into songs. “I’ll never forget pulling into Marfa that first night at 4 a.m.,” Lambert says. “The stars were like nothing I’d ever seen before, just this endless blanket hanging so low you could reach up and touch them. I immediately understood why this place was so special.” Randall expanded on those sentiments: “There’s no TV, no radio, nothing to do out there but pour a cocktail, sit around the campfire, and talk. Eventually, that just inevitably leads to songs. There’s no pressure to write, but most of the time, the three of us can’t seem to help ourselves.”

This time they didn’t go to Marfa to write, but to sing and record some of those songs they’d written out there. As well as some barebones acoustic versions of songs they already knew or had recorded, such as Lambert’s award winning “Tin Man,” and her fan favorite “Tequila Does.” The three co-wrote the former song on one of their previous Marfa sojourns, and this time they present a quiet version backdropped by sounds of the wind and boots on the ground, just Lambert and her guitar, and her collaborators assuring her that it was a good take despite any buzzing strings.

A highlight for me is “Am I Right Or Amarillo,” one of their songs that was recorded by Asleep at the Wheel in 2007 – it really swings and their harmonies on this one are great. Another high point is one with Randall singing lead on their very upbeat tribute to Guy Clark, named after one of his most popular songs “Homegrown Tomatoes.” The three of them have trouble keeping it together on this one, laughing every time they don’t quite hit the harmonies on the refrain, until Lambert finally says “nailed it.”

If you’re sensing a theme, this album runs heavily to Texas imagery and tributes. In addition to those already mentioned, there’s “Waxahachie,” which Lambert sings lead on; “Two-Step Down To Texas,” a bit of Western swing that is indeed a two-step, again with Lambert on lead vocals; and the closing track “Amazing Grace (West Texas),” with Randall singing lead and beautiful three part harmonies on the chorus verse. There are lots more of those lovely harmonies throughout the album, including on Lambert’s “In His Arms,” the opening track.

A really fun song for the country music superfan is Lambert’s “Geraldene,” which is an answer song of sorts to Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” but which also references other classic country songs such as Lowell George’s “Willin’.”

This is a really unique project, with three fairly mainstream country singers and songwriters taking part in what amounts to a guitar pull that’s also basically a field recording. Low fidelity rules the day, and highly emotional ballads rub up against heavenly harmonies and hijinks around the campfire. You can bet I’ll be taking this one along when I finally do make that trip to Marfa, and I’ll be listening to it plenty in the meantime.

(RCA Nashville/Sony, 2021)

Gary Whitehouse

Gary has been reviewing music, books and more at the Green Man Review since sometime in the previous Millennium. He lives in a mostly hipster-free part of Oregon, where he enjoys dogs, books, music, the outdoors, and craft beer, cider, and coffee.

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