Review – Miranda Lambert, Jack Ingram, Jon Randall ‘The Marfa Tapes’
A strong case can be made that over the last year-plus during the COVID-19 pandemic, the standards of what constitute an “album” have slid significantly from the reams of live, acoustic, live acoustic, and stripped-down or downright scratch track material that has made it onto the market as legitimate musical works. It’s a disturbing trend further clogging up an already glutted market for music.
This Miranda Lambert/Jack Ingram/Jon Randall collaboration made up of crude rough tracks might be the most glaring example of this downgrading yet, and from a major artist on a major label no less. This isn’t some bedroom artist releasing stuff on Bandcamp. This is being put forward from a woman who’s won 58 major industry awards.
But it would take a pretty cold heart to not recognize there’s a sweetness to this project, some really great songwriting, and a few really excellent performances regardless of the lo-fi and duct taped nature of the effort that renders The Marfa Tapes worthy of the rather strong praise it’s been receiving, regardless of its homespun nature.
If it wasn’t Miranda, would we be making such a big of a fuss about this? Of course not. But here we are. And a big fuss has been deserved to be made about Jack Ingram and Jon Randall in the mainstream for years and never really was, but now here it is. It’s just the latest example of Miranda championing worthy songwriters just like she’s done with her Pistol Annies side project, and like she’s done for years on her albums, despite whatever more commercial interests have crept into her career as well.
If you’re a serious independent music fan, you’ve probably spent hours rummaging through archival sites and YouTube digging up material on your favorite artists, and even more importantly, being able to find it. That’s not always the experience for most mainstream fans whose listening experiences are much more controlled and curated. An album like this is kind of like an Easter egg hunt, and a rare opportunity to poke your head behind the curtain. This imbues the experience with an excitement not always felt by mainstream ears, almost like you’re engaging in a forbidden enterprise.
Could other mainstream country artists do this—release completely raw tracks as legitimate consumable material? Some maybe. But some need the studio and its tricks to hide their shortcomings. And they don’t have close friends like Jack Ingram and Jon Randall on speed dial to help bolster the experience. But what renders useless all of the standard concerns for flubs, listening quality, production, et. al. that we normally levy against albums when judging their merit is the spirit of this project, and the sheer quality of the songs themselves.
Whether it’s songs previously heard by the world like the award-winning “Tin Man” or “Tequila Does,” or songs that are new to us like “Am I Right or Amarillo,” “Waxahachie,” “Breaking a Heart,” or “We Will Always Have the Blues,” The Marfa Tapes really is a formidable songwriting performance, with no varnishing to hide what happens to make these compositions beautiful as written words and melody.
It’s not always the mainstream songs themselves, it’s the layers upon layers of overproduction that weigh them down and bury their heart that results in a commonly repellent listening experience for cultured ears. Selections from Miranda Lambert’s own discography aren’t immune from this outcome.
Along with The Marfa Tapes exposing the art of songwriting and a couple of worthy souls in Jack Ingram and Jon Randall, it illustrates how unnecessary and oppressive so much of the overzealous production is to modern country music, like you must expend a ton of effort and money to make a song good. Strange how recordings with absolutely no embellishment can be more fetching than ones with all the bells and whistles.
All that said, it is a shame that the first time we’re hearing some of these songs like “I Don’t Like It,” or “Am I Right or Amarillo,” or “Breaking a Heart” is on an effort whose audience may be limited from the sheer lack of any production at all. If or when a studio version comes along (and Miranda has said of few of these will be re-recorded), the new car smell will be sort of worn off. That’s the risk you run when you start digging for unreleased tracks from your favorite artists, and one of the reasons many fans recuse themselves from the practice. They want to hear all the songs and fresh the first time they’re able to behold a new album in full.
Miranda seems to take singing her parts very seriously, even complaining at one point that her capo was crooked, and a string was buzzing. Jack and Jon, they sing just fine, but seem to take this simply as creating scratch material. Still, it’s amazing how stripping everything down can expose the story, melody, and sincerity behind a song like little else where you really focus on the words and message. Listening to “Tin Man,” it feels like a completely different song from the studio version, beyond the slightly different rendition. You recognize nuances in the melody and words you didn’t hear before.
What’s also advantageous about The Marfa Tapes is just how Texan the whole experience is. Even if Texas doesn’t loom large in your particular ethos (or you even find it off-putting), the sense of home and familiarity it graces this project with gives it a warmth it otherwise might lack. There really is a theme that is interwoven through all of these songs, and not just from titles of Texas towns like “Amarillo,” “Marfa,” “Waxahachie,” it’s also the little references like to The Broken Spoke that makes this material feel loved.
If you had taken this entire body of work and made it into a studio effort, it would make for one hell of a traditional country record. That’s one of the frustrations while listening to The Marfa Tapes. Why couldn’t Miranda Lambert or anyone else make a mainstream record with this same track list, only done proper in a studio, but without all the overproduction?
Either way, The Marfa Tapes feels like a bit more than just a conversation piece, or a side project, or some scratch tracks cobbled together to tide folks over during the COVID pandemic. It feels like a blueprint for how country music in the mainstream could move forward in a way that’s more resonant with audiences and more respectful of the song. Will it actually result in this auspicious outcome? It’s speculative.
But The Marfa Tapes is one of the increasingly-frequent opportunities for mainstream country artists to do something a little bit outside of the box. This wouldn’t work every time, but it works here. And along with all the very fair concerns and complaints about the lack of quality of the recordings that some will bring forth about this album, it still feels like a sum positive, not just for Jon Randall, Jack Ingram, and Miranda Lambert, but for country music in general that The Marfa Tapes made it to the public.
1 1/2 Guns Up
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Purchase The Marfa Tapes
This article has been updated.
May 11, 2021 @ 8:54 am
Full support even if none of the songs turn out to be memorable.
Like Zach Bryan and his whole what you see is what you get approach, Miranda and the boys must know a lot of young people are flat-out jaded. They want real life because everything around them is sh*t getting deeper by the day. I’ve even heard college students say they’ve been in college for a year and “college” hasn’t even started yet. They’re all sitting around on their hands obeying orders. Everyone’s in Holding Pattern Land where nothing is real no one trusts anything or anyone.
So good for Miranda and the boys for stripping things down, even if “The X Tapes” title is tired. Not everything off-grid or cool has to reference Dylan and the Band.
May 18, 2021 @ 8:10 am
Keeping it county and keeping clothes on recorded with respect
John R Baker
May 11, 2021 @ 8:57 am
I like that they are selling the experience of the place and the music rather than just another highly engineered studio recording. It’s a unique idea and one who’s time has come I think.
May 11, 2021 @ 9:02 am
Jason Isbell, are you listening?
strait country 81
May 11, 2021 @ 9:19 am
Gotta feeling he doesn’t listen to anything that’s not Jason Isbell.
May 11, 2021 @ 9:27 am
Plese leave him out of what is otherwise a good conversation.
May 11, 2021 @ 10:31 am
Quite the sense of entitlement there.
May 12, 2021 @ 11:16 am
Maybe we should talk about his new Fender telecaster…some better songs might be hiding in that? LOL
May 12, 2021 @ 3:43 pm
Looks like a Telecaster Custom with a black pickguard to me . Nothing special. I’ll pass.
Matt "Mayday" Saracen
May 11, 2021 @ 9:40 am
Good Lord, everyone on this site seems to hate Isbell like the plague. It’s like he ran over your collective dog, or something.
May 11, 2021 @ 4:02 pm
if it wasn’t for him, i might have had a chance with amanda shires. i am not letting that go!!!
you reading this, slide into my DMs bae. i have extra rosin.
May 11, 2021 @ 12:51 pm
I don’t get it, please explain….
May 11, 2021 @ 9:08 am
The songs were on work tapes/IPhones but once they decided to release them they did get an engineer to go back w/ them to Marfa w/ 2 microphones to record the songs in a one take for a lil better quality. I truly enjoy that you can close your eyes & listen and instantly you are next to them at the coolest writers round or campfire sing a long. Not to mention every song is pretty great. Congratulations Jack, ML & Jon !
May 11, 2021 @ 9:20 am
Real and raw are words that come to mind when I listen to these tunes. Much like Marfa, TX were this was recorded. While some civilization has encroached on Marfa over the last 15-20 years it is still raw and real like her full time residents making a go of it in a hard scrabble place. Projects like this one for me, are the essence of what I appreciate about music. Tales of life told simply no frills needed or wanted. Just music as it is intended to be real and raw.
May 11, 2021 @ 9:38 am
The song title “Tin Man” must be the most milked song in the history of country music.
Kenny Chesney had a song called “The Tin Man” that was sent to radio two different times & appeared on two of his albums (not including compilation albums )
Miranda now has her song “Tin Man” on two different albums, with this newest edition being a different version. Plus, her song was heavily promoted back in the day & won/nominated for many awards.
Just an observation!!
May 11, 2021 @ 9:58 am
Miranda wrote this song as a female’s point of view to Kenny Chesney’s version. I think I’ve read that she called him and asked if he was OK with it, and of course he said he was. Before she wrote that song, I heard her sing his song on his XM station. I get the sense that is a favorite of hers and something that has resonated with her for a while.
May 11, 2021 @ 9:11 pm
kenny is such a gentlement ！love how he treated the ladies with love and respect
May 11, 2021 @ 10:00 am
She put Tin Man on the Marfa Tapes because that’s where she, Jon & Jack wrote it and fans love when she sings it acoustic. Two artists having a song with the same name is hardly milking a song title. 🙄
May 11, 2021 @ 11:44 am
It was just an observation.
Both songs are very notable & important to the artists themselves. They both appear on multiple projects. I was just surprised to see it on the tracklist. I didn’t know of it’s origins being related to Marfa.
May 11, 2021 @ 8:14 pm
Missed one. 😉 Jack put it on his last album, too. That Tin Man gets around.
October 8, 2021 @ 8:12 pm
Ghost is great song. Amazing grace too. This album soothes me. Love it.
May 11, 2021 @ 9:55 am
I may actually give this thing a listen, mostly because Jack has proven he can be charming with the duct tape approach.
May 11, 2021 @ 10:01 am
Interesting how you start with great songwriting, and everything else seems to fall into place, even with all those cut corners… Almost as if it’s the song that matters most…
Beautiful songs, faithfully executed.
May 11, 2021 @ 10:39 am
For me, this is the comment of the day. Thanks!
May 11, 2021 @ 10:05 am
Geraldene (live performance version) is exceptional with Miranda’s vocals, and the Layla-esque guitar riff.
May 11, 2021 @ 10:13 am
Listening to and liking this a lot.
May 11, 2021 @ 10:22 am
I’ve been in a rut lately, not being able to enjoy any music really. I turn stuff on and it’s just not exciting the way it normally is. This album completely changed that, such a great listening experience. I’m not a huge Miranda fan, nor am I from Texas (or even the States) but I still know what it’s like to sit in a wide open field and hear the wind and an acoustic guitar. This album is awesome.
May 11, 2021 @ 10:32 am
I am digging this. Honestly never heard of John Randall before but I have seen Jack seven or eight times live and he always delivers and his early and recent catalog is good. (He took an unfortunate detour chasing mainstream success but found his way back). Will definitely listen more.
May 11, 2021 @ 10:33 am
“I Don’t Like It” has strong John Prine vibe but also feels like a song that Kathy Mattea could’ve scored a hit with in the late 80’s. Just a beautiful song.
May 11, 2021 @ 11:51 am
Would love to see an album release full of songs written by Miranda & Eric Church.
They wrote a ton of songs together back in 2010.
“Don’t Blame in on Whiskey” was one. I’m not sure if others have been released?
May 11, 2021 @ 12:02 pm
Yeah, but you’re forgetting that back in 2012 when Miranda was still married to Blake Shelton, Church called out reality TV show contestants turned music stars, which Miranda could also be categorized in, and she tweeted, “I wish I misunderstood this . . .Thanks Eric Church for saying I’m not a real artist. You’re welcome for the tour in 2010.”
So there may still be some bad blood there, even though Church apologized to Lambert (though not to Shelton).
May 11, 2021 @ 1:32 pm
I don’t think there’s a room in the world big enough to fit Eric Church, his swelled head and Miranda.
May 11, 2021 @ 12:45 pm
Hopefully those songs get to see the light of day. Even if it’s through another artist singing it.
Don’t Blame in on Whiskey was the highlight on Pardi’s album.
May 11, 2021 @ 1:26 pm
When the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band did their second “Circle” album, Emmylou Harris said that we had lost the Front Porch feel of music and that album was bringing back. The Marfa Tapes is about the same thing, with a little more emphasis on the creative spirit in the songwriting process.
May 11, 2021 @ 1:30 pm
I was so pumped for this album. There’s nothing like a song in its original acoustic form, before the suits get involved. I somewhat enjoyed it, but it was underwhelming over all. Miranda is the weak link — I know this will be blasphemous to all the Miranda fan girls and boys. For the most part, her vocals are nails on a chalk board bad. She definitely needs studio trickery and production to cover her nasally whine.
As far as Jon Randall goes, I’ve been following his career for more than 20 years. Few singer-songwriters in Nashville, big stars or otherwise, can carry the man’s guitar. He’s a mammoth talent who slipped through the cracks for years thanks to the suits, record label shakeups and bad timing. In a just world, Randall would be ruling the charts and the paint-by-numbers numbskulls would be living in obscurity.
Jack Ingram is another major talent who fell through the cracks as he bounced from record label to record label. He’s the real deal.
Ingram and Randall carry this project.
May 12, 2021 @ 8:00 pm
I admit I was surprised to see your comments about Miranda’s vocals as I don’t tend to read much negative on Miranda’s vocals. Makes me curious to know who are your favorite country female vocalists are. Thanks.
May 21, 2021 @ 6:27 pm
Wow. That’s one load of bullshit. Miranda does not need studio production to sound great. You may not like her voice but she certainly can sing without production tricks jack hole. Suck it. Be appreciative she let these two guys hitch a ride and get exposure since you seem to think they carry this album.
May 11, 2021 @ 4:03 pm
I listened to the cuts above and I remain frustrated at the ‘low tech’ approach to this . it does NOT sound good , imo , its a struggle to hear miranda’s vocals/lyrics , I don’t like the bg noise , the harmonies are a bit suspect and I’m not hearing these as special songs .
May 11, 2021 @ 4:41 pm
I loved every bit of the Marfa tapes project! It’s real country music to me! I love the three of them for sharing their experience.
Bonnie B Lyon
May 11, 2021 @ 5:28 pm
So this is Miranda’s divorce album, Part III. The songs are about Blake and written 2015-16.
May 13, 2021 @ 7:19 pm
Only 2 songs could be about Blake. Jon said relationships end and no one’s to blame (wasn’t he married to Lorrie Morgan before Jesse?). But Ghost is all Evan. She said that was written in 2018. Tired of 6 year old divorce songs. Curious to see if we ever get a Felker song in response.
Country Music Girl
October 18, 2022 @ 2:05 pm
Nah, not about Evan. She only dated him for like 5 months. I think she appreciated Evan as a songwriter but then found out about his personal demons. The song Ghost is about someone she knew on a deeper level.
May 11, 2021 @ 5:48 pm
There’s nothing like a raw performance to expose soul and superior songwriting. I don’t only listen to Nebraska and Rust Never Sleeps, but those kinds of albums happen to be my favorite. Marfa Tapes sounds good to me, and I’m glad that at least a few of country’s A listers deserve their fame and stay true to the art of song craft
William Phillip Giles
May 11, 2021 @ 10:52 pm
This album has so much more heart and friendship exhibited that it is a wonderful listing experience. Is it a new way of recording. Maybe not , but in the case of Miranda Lambert, Jon Randall, Jack Ingram it works and work very well.
May 12, 2021 @ 9:30 am
“In His Arms” and “Ghost” are melodically nearly identical. One of them should’ve been cut.
May 14, 2021 @ 12:59 pm
Such a great tune, it would be a shame to use it only once 😉
May 12, 2021 @ 5:11 pm
I expected this to be good but it far exceeded my expectations. I’m loving it. To me it does a great job of combining being laid-back and being real tight in terms of performance.
Kasey Chambers’s Campfire from a few years back had a similar vibe.
May 12, 2021 @ 6:22 pm
I wish more albums sounded like this. Probably going in my top five releases of the year so far. Enjoyed the movie as well.
May 14, 2021 @ 6:39 pm
I love the album. I wish more of Nashville had the guts to do this type of music. I’d be remiss in not mentioning two other pioneers of the “fuck you Nashville“ school of country music…Kevin Welch and Kieran Kane. They fled Nashville in the late 90’s when country went corporate and founded Dead Reckoning records. Let’s hope that more country artists choose not to rap, bro, and polish their voice.