There’s an old adage in country music which goes something like this: To make a good song all you need is a good guitar which can sing as good as you.
And there is no better proof of this than on The Marfa Tapes – a refreshing collection of stripped-down songs by three Texans – Jack Ingram, Miranda Lambert, Jon Randall – who are just as proud of their State as they are their marvellous music.
The trio set out to make music you hear around a campfire “with cows mooing” and out there all you need is your favourite acoustic guitar and some chit-chat between songs – all highlighted on this as-live recording.
“You hear so much more about a song when there are no distractions around it – no steel guitars and drums. I love instrumentation, but sometimes you understand things differently when it’s in its rawest form,” Randall told Madeline Crone of American Songwriter.
They chose to record in a town called Marfa, somewhere in nowhere West Texas, where Lambert fled to seven or so years ago when her marriage to fellow country-star Blake Shelton was in public free-fall. Joining her there were Randall and Ingram, two other Texans and song-writing buddies also seeking refuge from a big-city jungle.
Marfa, a three-hour drive south of El Paso, is on few people’s map!
By the time you get there, you’re on another planet,” Lambert said in the interview with American Songwriter. “The stars and sky, the surroundings, and friendship amplify all the emotions you bring with you. We get to be us for a minute out there, and it stops time.”
The actual recording took place in late 2020 at a friend’s ranch on the outskirts of Marfa. There were just two microphones and two guitars. This was one-take recording at its most raw and a far cry from the multi-instrument sophistication evident on the trio’s previous individual output – Ingram (ten), Lambert (seven) and Randall (three).
It was in their early days in Marfa that the threesome actually began writing together. The first song of the West Texas production line was “Tin Man,” a signature song on Lambert’s 2016 double album The Weight of These Wings which was certified platinum by the Recording Industry Association. Another Marfa writing session resulted in the delightful “Tequila Does,” a fan-favourite off her 2019 album Wildcard, which went on to win the Grammy for Best Country Album earlier this year.
It is no surprise therefore that versions of “Tin Man” and “Tequila Does” are included on The Marfa Tapes. “Versions” is the operative word here because both songs bear little resemblance to the originals, with big-name engineer Brandon Bell stripping away any percussion-like intrusions to further emphasize that live guitar-strumming “camp-fire” experience.
Lambert’s laid-bare treatment of the clever “Tequila Does” truly takes the song back to the desert border where it - and Marfa – belong. He don’t love me like tequila does/Nobody can/He don’t give me that border town buzz/Like tequila can.
The same applies to “Tin Man” which sees Lambert providing the biggest contrast to her earlier studio-adorned output. Her voice is simply sublime as she harmonizes with a softly-strummed guitar. It begs one to instantly compare it with the multi-instrumental original on The Weight of These Wings, as good as that is too.
The other 13 songs on the album are all originals and deliberately lack that sophisticated recording-studio enhancement.
There is no better example than on “Am I right or Amarillo,” a cleverly-written, endearing trucker song about on-the-road stolen love – My ring is on my key chain/Your diamond’s in your purse/But it won’t feel like cheating/If nobody gets hurt/Am I right or Amarillo/Am I wrong for loving you/Come lay down on my pillow/’Til the dawn comes breaking through
Another no-frills number with delicate harmony is the album closer “Amazing Grace – West Texas.” Out in West Texas it hardly ever rains/But when it does/It’s amazing grace. It is kinda cowboy/kinda gospel. And this is a song in which the guitar surely sings too!
The Marfa Tapes will serve as an example of what happens when you take country music out of the digital monstrosity that Nashville can be today and place it on a front porch or – in this case – around a desert campfire. Jack Ingram, Miranda Lambert and Jon Randall deserve all the accolades they get not only for their creative purity, but also their musical risk-taking!
Crossroads – Americana Music Appreciation