As a rule, the sound of propeller-powered aircraft leaking into a performance is something record producers avoid. But a plane unmistakably flies around at the conclusion of “We’ll Always Have The Blues,” track 10 on The Marfa Tapes by Miranda Lambert, Jack Ingram and Jon Randall. Elsewhere in the album’s live, semi-outdoor soundscape we hear the wind, creaking chairs, scuffling boots, and cows. It’s an honest field recording by three artists outstanding in their field.
For Miranda Lambert, this is one the periodic pause-and-breathe collaborations that keep her blockbuster country music career centered and her sometimes too-public private life in perspective. While her side project Pistol Annies albums bring the full studio treatment, The Marfa Tapes strips bare a set of songs co-written by the trio, as if a choice Bluebird Cafe set was transported to West Texas with a view of the Milky Way. In spirit, it calls to mind the Dixie Chicks’ acoustic throwdown classic Home and Dierks Bentley’s bluegrass-powered Up On The Ridge. But in its sense of place and atmosphere with all its incidental ambient sound, it makes Springsteen’s Nebraska sound over-produced.
For Randall and Ingram, this becomes one of those moments in roots music where the sublime meets the conspicuous, where great writer/artists beloved in Americana share equal billing with a big-time country music star, who happens to be their close friend. They’d written as pairs but never all three around one blank page. They’re all Texas natives who love scriptural old-school country music. And they stumbled into a multi-year run of writing trips that produced almost 20 songs they decided should be heard in the setting where they were born.
The story starts about six years ago, when Lambert was looking for a way to change her surroundings while the media was ablaze with her marital troubles. “I need to get out of Dodge. I just want to disappear for a little bit,” is how Jon Randall remembers her saying it. She’d gone so far as to make a plan with Randall’s wife, songwriter Jessi Alexander, to head to Texas to see their friend Jack Ingram play a show, followed by a drive out to the tiny but famous town of Marfa. It’s a kind of artist colony and natural area in wild west Texas for well-heeled hipsters.
The agenda beyond being there and being together was unplanned, but “You know, three songwriters with guitars, something’s bound to happen,” Randall told WMOT. “We had this one idea. ‘The Wind’s Just Gonna Blow’ was the first thing we wrote out there.” Miranda sings the lead and leaves little doubt (“Your halo’s in the dresser drawer/And I don’t wear my ring no more”) what she’s processing. “I always like to say that that first trip was a therapy trip,” adds Randall. “All of those songs were therapy for one thing or another that one of us was wrangling. I mean, ‘Tin Man’ came out of that, which is fantastic.”
Fantastic for all involved, as “Tin Man” became a top 20 country hit and ACM Song of the Year from the 2016 Lambert album The Weight Of These Wings. Another trip to the same place led to the crowd favorite “Tequila Does.” And both of those songs get the al fresco treatment here. But the point of these retreats, Randall emphasizes, was never writing for Miranda Lambert albums. “It literally was just us pretending to be our heroes out there, you know, pretended to be Guy (Clark) and Townes (VanZandt) and Susanna (Clark), just writing those kinds of songs that we grew up on, that aren’t necessarily you know, drivetime radio kind of music.”
There were more trips and more songs, until Lambert insisted on recording a collection of them for release – but not back in Nashville. They’d go back to Marfa. So they recruited a top-notch engineer in Brandon Bell, former top guy at Zac Brown’s Southern Ground and a veteran of sessions with Brandy Clark, The Highwomen and more, and gave him an unusual assignment.
“He’s the guy that will experiment with me,” said Randall. “Hey, we want to go set up out in the middle of the desert with the wind and the cows and the coyotes and everything in the background. And we want to record it. And so he brought a little Pro Tools rig and three microphones. He set them up. And we just went for it.”
The album rewards listening on headphones for the enveloping feeling of being in open country, where sound carries and tells stories about the place. It opens with footfall in the dirt and some settling as a lone guitar plays the double-stop riff of “In His Arms.” Lambert sings this one, with the fellows offering refined harmony vocals on the choruses. All three artists take turns as lead vocalist, and the songs range through comfort food country music subject matter of longing, cheating, heartbreak and Texas itself, as in the punny “Am I Right Or Amarillo” or the western swinging “Two Step Down To Texas.” Guy Clark gets a salute in a song about the song “Homegrown Tomatoes” called “Homegrown Tomatoes” with Randall on lead vocals and a bit of buzzed commentary from the other two. Likewise, the gang lets the tape roll at the beginning and end of the songs, capturing the asides, the moving air and the delight in being together, way off the grid.
I found notes from an interview conducted in 2003 with the cast of a new American Idol-inspired singing contest show called Nashville Star. While she came in second runner-up that season, Miranda Lambert made the impression that got her signed to Sony Music and launched her stellar career. At the time she cited her heroes – Emmylou Harris, Jerry Jeff Walker and Merle Haggard among them – and insisted idealistically on a future built on “creative freedom, because I want to be happy, and I don’t think I’ll be happy unless I’m loving the music.”
On The Marfa Tapes, under Texas skies with two ace co-writers and singers by her side, she sounds quite happy indeed.