In 2016, reeling after her divorce from fellow country star Blake Shelton, Miranda Lambert took a trip with Jack Ingram and Jon Randall, two other Texans in the country music business. Ingram was a bit of a minor star himself, a longtime singer-songwriter who’d had one #1 hit on the country charts, 2005’s “Wherever You Are.” Ingram was a veteran when he landed that one, and he just kept lingering around after it. Back before she got famous, Lambert used to open for him. Randall started out in Emmylou Harris’ Nash Ramblers band, and he went on become a behind-the-scenes figure. He co-wrote Brad Paisley and Alison Krauss’ heart-crunching duet “Whiskey Lullaby,” for instance, and he produced records for people like Dierks Bentley and Dwight Yoakam and Jack Ingram. Randall released his own records, too, but they weren’t hits, and he didn’t make them too often.
Together, Lambert, Ingram, and Randall went down to Marfa, Texas, the tiny desert town with the art installations and the fake Prada store and the occasional psychedelic indie music festivals. There’s been tension in Marfa lately between the longtime residents and the art-world elite who have turned the town into a favored destination, but apparently that tension didn’t affect the three country music professionals. Instead, they settled into a house and wrote “Tin Man” on the front porch.
“Tin Man” will mess you up. It’s a sharp, simple ballad addressed to a Wizard Of Oz character: “You ain’t missing nothing ’cause love is so damn hard/ So take it from me, darlin’: You don’t want a heart.” The chorus is just a wordless coo. In Nashville country, where all three of these professionals have spent decades making songs with a mathematical sort of efficiency, a song as unstructured as “Tin Man” is not supposed to hit. But “Tin Man” did hit. The song, once an album track on Lambert’s post-divorce double LP The Weight Of These Wings, was too good to be ignored. It came out as a single, landed in the top 20 of the country charts, and won some big awards. A few years later, Lambert returned to Marfa with Ingram and Randall, and the three of them wrote “Tequila Does,” a silly drinking song that Lambert included on her 2019 album Wildcard. “Tequila Does” never became a single, but when I saw Lambert touring behind that album, it got a huge reaction from that audience (which seemed to be at least half drunk women in their 30s and 40s, all of whom were having a great night).
Lambert has been to Marfa with Ingram and Randall a bunch of times. She’s said that the place has “good mojo” for her and her two collaborators. This past September, at loose ends what with the pandemic and all, the three of them returned to Marfa, where they sat around a campfire and wrote songs. The next morning, the three of them listened to the voice notes that they’d recorded on their phones, and Lambert decided that those voice notes should be an album. The songs were good enough, and if they never came out, then too many of them would probably just disappear. Maybe they’d become demos or whatever. Maybe they’d be forgotten. Instead, we get to hear those songs in rough and lo-fi form. That’s the idea behind The Marfa Tapes.
For someone like Miranda Lambert, a straight-up star who fills arenas and makes gleaming and impeccable records full of hits and potential hits, The Marfa Tapes is just a wild departure. This isn’t Taylor Swift easing up on the stadium-pop and making a couple of indie-ish albums with the guy from the National. Those last two Swift albums are still pop music. They’re lush and rich and pretty, and when the songs show up on the radio, they sound like they belong there. The Marfa Tapes is something else.
On The Marfa Tapes, Lambert and her friends sing country songs, songs that could potentially be hits if given the gloss-crunch treatment. But they record them outside, with all three of them singing into one microphone. The only instruments are acoustic guitars, and there’s usually only one of those. (It’s usually Randall’s, though when Lambert brings back “Tin Man,” she does it fully solo-acoustic.) You can hear wind blowing against the mic. You can hear helicopters or cow moos. There are little mistakes, or mid-song giggles and asides. The three artists share little inside jokes as the songs end, or they talk about how much they like the songs, or they encourage each other. Before making the album, they set rules for themselves: They would record everything live, no overdubs, and there would be no second takes. They stuck to those rules.
At the end of the Marfa Tapes version of “Tin Man,” you can almost hear Lambert’s facial expression, and you can definitely hear the two guys rushing in to assure her that she just did something great. Lambert and Ingram are almost arguing: “My string was buzzing.” “Shut up!” “My capo was crooked.” “That was your brain buzzing. That’s great.” Ingram is right. It is great.
It’s fascinating to hear a genuine country star in a stripped-down context like this, sharing equal billing with her two collaborators, not even credited first on the album cover. And the billing is equal; all three sing lead on the album, though Lambert’s voice is at the center for more than half of the LP. You can hear that this is a family affair, with these three people harmonizing over a single guitar. The Marfa Tapes is the kind of experiment that weird no-touring times made possible; Lambert herself has said that this LP probably never could’ve come out during a more normal time. But the conceptual gambit wouldn’t mean much if the songs weren’t there. They are.
The songs on The Marfa Tapes are straight-up country songs, presented in their most elemental form. Lambert and her collaborators, who wrote every song on the album together, do the classic-country thing of describing big feelings with specificity and economy, in as few words as possible. There are silly songs on The Marfa Tapes; “Home Grown Tomatoes,” for instance, is about getting all fucked up on weed and wine with good friends. But the songs that stick with me the most are the heartbreakers, and there are plenty of those.
Consider the imagery. “Trying to find forgiveness is like breaking into prison, getting caught up on a razor-wire fence.” “I used to make you love me, laugh and want to touch me. Now, I drink alone and cry at my own jokes. Your halo’s in the dresser drawer, and I don’t wear my ring no more. Kids, in time, will learn to love us both.” “My ring is on my keychain. Your diamond’s in your purse. It won’t feel like cheating if nobody gets hurt.” That’s writing.
Heard in this spartan setting, sung by committed professionals who know how to sell those feelings, those Marfa Tapes songs hit hard. Miranda Lambert can still make pop music. Just a couple of months ago, she and past tourmate Elle King released the duet “Drunk (And I Don’t Wanna Go Home),” an EDM-adjacent party song that does the job it’s supposed to do. (I thought I didn’t like the song, but then I heard it on a car radio, and now I think it’s good.) Lambert will make more big, bright radio records, and they’ll probably be great. In the past couple of decades, she’s done that sound better than literally anyone else on the planet. But in this little detour with her two friends, Miranda Lambert has made an album that sounds like nothing else in her discography. The Marfa Tapes is an experiment, a far cry from those pop-country records that Lambert has made so well, but it sits right up there with any of them.
The Marfa Tapes is out 5/7 on Vanner Records.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Iceage’s Seek Shelter.
• Mitski’s This Is Where We Fall.
• Sufjan Stevens’ Convocations.
• Weezer’s Van Weezer.
• ALLBLACK’s Y4FWM.
• Squid’s Bright Green Field.
• Pile’s In The Corners Of A Sphere-Filled Room.
• Annie Hart’s Everything Pale Blue.
• Ashe’s Ashlyn.
• Fiver’s Fiver With The Atlantic School Of Spontaneous Composition.
• Nancy Wilson’s You And Me.
• The Mighty Mighty BossTones’ When God Was Great.
• Bebe Rexha’s Better Mistakes.
• Aly & AJ’s a touch of the beat gets you up on your feet gets you out and then into the sun.
• Van Morrison’s Latest Record Project Volume 1.
• GoGo Penguin’s GGP/RMX.
• Anjimile’s Reunion EP.
• A Certain Ratio’s ACR:EPA EP.
• Axis: Sova’s Fractal EP.
• Doss’ 4 New Hit Songs EP.
• Angel Olsen’s Song Of The Lark And Other Far Memories box set.
• Iron & Wine’s Archive Series No.5: Tallahassee Recordings.