When Miranda Lambert first released “Tin Man” on her 2016 double album The Weight of These Wings, and later as a single in 2017, the song was a direct hit. It was a poignant tale of heartbreak in the wake of Lambert’s 2015 divorce from Blake Shelton, a plainspoken song built around a compelling metaphor that remains one of Lambert’s best. “Tin Man” won the an Academy of Country Music Award for Song of the Year, and marked Lambert’s first collaboration with singer-songwriter Jack Ingram and Jon Randall, a mainstay country writer and producer. The three had written it on a trip to Marfa, Texas, in July 2015, after Randall finally convinced them to go. Then this March, when they announced The Marfa Tapes, a full album of songs written and recorded by Ingram, Lambert, and Randall in Marfa, “Tin Man” stood out on the track list as prime evidence of the exemplary writing the trio could get done out in West Texas. Not even “Tin Man,” though, could convey what would end up making The Marfa Tapes so special: the love these three musicians have for their chosen setting.
The songs on The Marfa Tapes were all recorded in acoustic single takes in the vast expanse of Marfa, where you can hear the whistle of the wind and groan of the highway. Opening track “In His Arms” sets the tone, with a string of lines about Texas cities, from El Paso to San Antonio to Marfa. As the album goes on, there’s a campfire sing-along called “Am I Right or Amarillo,” a showstopping ballad called “Waxahachie,” and a riot of a dance number called “Two Step Down to Texas.” Then there’s the closing track, “Amazing Grace (West Texas).” It’s not a cover, but a hymn of its own, and the best expression of the magic that Ingram, Lambert, and Randall found out in Marfa.
Many of the best songs on The Marfa Tapes, like “Amazing Grace (West Texas)” sound like time-tested country standards. That’s not to say they sound old on purpose, like some sort of hokey revivalism. These songs dig into sentiments as old as the Texas soil, and convey them with clarity and heart. There’s nothing new about noticing the beauty in a sunset or the solace in a somewhere quiet, and the trio doesn’t pretend there is on “Amazing Grace.” The lyrical scenes speak for themselves: a storm after a dry spell, whiskey-lemonades at sunset. Marfa let the trio tap into heartbreak, anger, and joy. “You can’t do anything else but look inside,” as Jack Ingram recently told Rolling Stone. But instead of closing on their own stories, the trio ends The Marfa Tapes on the tranquil splendor of West Texas — what was, after all, so inspiring in the first place.
Talent overflows on The Marfa Tapes, and some of the best songs on aren’t even sung by Lambert herself. Randall takes lead on “Amazing Grace,” and it makes sense to give him the last word if he prompted the trip in the first place. His voice is steady and warm, with less twang than his counterparts. Lambert joins on the chorus with some of the characteristically shining harmonies she’s perfected with her other group, the Pistol Annies, through the years. The Marfa Tapes was never marketed as a Lambert solo project — the performers are even credited alphabetically, as Ingram, Lambert, and Randall. What’s so impressive is that Lambert, fresh off her first country No. 1 in years and second-ever Grammy win, would cede a bit of spotlight for a project like The Marfa Tapes, which surely won’t crack country radio or spawn an arena tour. But listening to a song like “Amazing Grace (West Texas)” illuminates why it all felt so necessary.
After Randall sings that final note of “Amazing Grace,” he puts down his guitar, but the recording keeps going. “Beautiful,” Lambert says, laughing. “So good.” Many of the songs on The Marfa Tapes end with some expression of praise or awe from fellow performers. Not only do you feel like you’re right there with them, but you get the sense that they believe in these songs. They should — The Marfa Tapes is a high mark for all three careers, never mind one of the best country releases of the year. So at the end of “Amazing Grace,” Ingram, Lambert, and Randall raise a well-earned toast with a chuckle. Then, they let the wind and the cows have the last word.