Country Jukebox Jury LP: Jack Ingram, Jon Randall and Miranda Lambert – The Marfa Tapes

It is so rare than a major-label release has consistency of songwriters. Usually Miranda Lambert works with a cornucopia of writers and producers: Luke Dick, the Love Junkies, Natalie Hemby, Brent Cobb, Ashley Monroe. Here her two buddies Jack Ingram and Jon Randall back her up with harmonies and guitars on every track. They’re like Peter, Paul and Mary.

The trio go on writing retreats in Marfa, Texas, population just under 2000, majority Latino/Tejano, founded as a water stop town for horses between a set of mountains and a national park in the Western bit of Texas that just out like a nose. The Marfa air is the fourth songwriter on this album, which seems to have been recorded directly onto tape (or a mixing console) with no overdubs and with ad-libs left in. Indeed, The Wind’s Just Gonna Blow is the name of one of the tracks, with either Jack or Jon pickin’ a rhythm and the trio singing of darkening skies, dust on the roads and gettin’ to moving on. ‘Bad times they all pass, for me they usually don’t’ is astonishingly vulnerable from a woman who used to be sold as Blake Shelton’s wife. The album closes with Amazing Grace (West Texas), which links the elements with an old hymn: sunsets, church bells and rainfall are all the work of the Lord.

Pre-released singles include opener In His Arms, methodical Am I Right or Amarillo and addictive stutter of Geraldene, which Elle King should cover. We know the album version of Tequila Does, with its shifting tempos, and it’s great to hear the demo version here.

The first line of Ghost has Miranda burning some jeans and there’s a lyric calling the addressee ‘the meanest man I’ve ever known’, ‘a shell of a man’. Is this a murder ballad or a chirpy kiss-off? If this were turned into a studio version it’d have a patented Jay Joyce sonic bed with minimal instrumentation, perhaps just a soft organ or pedal steel. In fact, he’d turn it into what we heard on the studio recording of Tin Man, which is also here in demo form.

Waxahachie includes words like ‘bourbon buzz’, ‘turnaround tempo’ and ‘gasoline, memories and nicotine’ (album title alert). It sounds like a song that could have been peppered up by a train beat, steel guitar and harmonies from session singers but here it’s Miranda ooh-oohing to an acoustic guitar. We’ll Always Have The Blues, the best song Willie Nelson’s never written, deserves an orchestra rather than just a whistle solo: a serenade from a jukebox, a slow dance between two people who cannot be together. Jack’s vocal is as crackly and warm as the sound of the hiss of the tape. Two-Step Down To Texas is the perkiest moment on the album, reminding everyone of the song All That’s Left from Miranda’s Platinum album. In the absence of a banjo or a mandolin, there’s another whistle solo. I hope this song gets fleshed out.

Jack takes the lead on the funky party song Homegrown Tomatoes, punctuated by Miranda’s chuckles. They rhyme the title with ‘little instigator’ as A-List writers are apt to do but this song is, by their own admission, about nothing at all, just a nod to Guy Clark who wrote a song of the same name. Jon’s tender croon leads the two-minute long breakup song Breaking A Heart, which asks for sympathy for the person doing the breaking up (‘I really do wish you were the one letting go’ ). He also takes the lead on Anchor, which is a proper country song full of metaphor: anchor, ‘salvation in the sweetest suicide’, going ‘to the other side’. Remember, this is the man who wrote that perky pop song Whiskey Lullaby, so I take it as a bleak tune.

Every release puts Miranda at the very vanguard of her generation: she’s less druggy than Kacey, less showbiz than Carrie, less flash in the pan than Gretchen Wilson. 15 years into a brilliant career, which has been aided by Jon and Jack, this is a quiet masterpiece. Let’s call it Miranda’s Nebraska, one for true fans rather than those who turn up in pink Stetson hats to bellow along about kerosene, gunpowder and lead. With especial apologies to Jack, Miranda is the top name here.

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