Interview: Miranda Lambert, Jack Ingram + Jon Randall Got Lost and Found in Marfa, Texas
To get to Marfa, Texas, you'll fly into El Paso International Airport and start driving. First, point your truck southeast along the I-10 before tilting south further along US-90. It takes about three hours, and if you do it right you'll notice a change.
The air is different, sure, but it's an emotional change that Miranda Lambert, Jon Randall and Jack Ingram look for as the views from the front seat shift and swell and then flatten. It takes about 200 miles to find their essence, or who they'll be for the sake of songwriting and fellowship that week or weekend. If someone is in a dark place — as Lambert was post-divorce in 2015 — they explore those feelings.
If someone's heart is full — as she was last September — they chase that spirit. It's not all about her; in fact, it's not fair to call The Marfa Tapes a Miranda Lambert album, but as the celebrity with the highest profile, her story is well-known. So that's where you begin when trying to learn what's so special about Marfa.
"The place in general is just in the middle of nowhere," she says. "As the miles go by, like as you leave El Paso — the last big town — the world kind of disappeared with it. With every mile you’re farther and farther away from noise and all things that are in your life that distract you from creating. Jon had been telling me about this place for a long time. We flew down to see Jack play a show and then we drove all night to get to Marfa, and when we first pulled up and I saw the sky, I was instantly like, ‘Oh, I get it now.’ Because the stars were like a blanket."
All 15 songs from The Marfa Tapes (May 7 on RCA Nashville) were written exactly how you find them on the record. You don't need Bose headphones to hear the campfire crackling, cows being weaned or airplanes flying overhead. Birds sound like they're singing along during songs like "Amazing Grace," a Randall-led illustrative, West Texas ballad that closes the acoustic (with emphasis) experiment.
“When I watch him sing it under a desert sunset in Marfa, sitting on a tailgate, it captures his true self for that moment," Lambert will say, forcing a blushing smile from Randall on the other side of the Zoom.
The song closes with a bittersweet exchange. It feels like the last song on the last night of a great weekend away that you wish would never end.
"Beautiful. So good," she says with a sniffle on the record. "Cheers, friend."
The three Texans have a friendship that pre-dates the first "hit" song they wrote together, "Tin Man" for Lambert's The Weight of These Wings album. Fan-favorite "Tequila Does" from Wildcard is the only other track on The Marfa Tapes that fans have had the chance to see her sing live until she performed "In His Arms" at the 2021 ACM Awards. An Ingram-led, John Prine-esque love song called "I Don't Like It" epitomizes their bond. Go ahead and believe it was inspired by a personal romance if you want. Maybe it's her note to husband Brendan McLoughlin? Nah, the truth is ...
Lambert: Jack kept leaving. He kept going in the house.
Randall: We’d be in the middle of a song or whatever — tell the story, it’s great.
Lambert: Well, we’d be in the middle of a song, writing around the fire, and he’d go in the house. Every time we’d be right in the middle of something or come up with a line, or in the middle of a conversation, he’d go in the house and do whatever, get coffee, go to the bathroom. I’m like, "Quit! I don’t like it when you disappear." I said it to you (Randall) because the screen was open and I didn’t know it. I go, "I don’t like it when he disappears like that," and he’s like, "I can hear you!" ... So like 20 minutes later the song wrote itself. I was like "Quit leaving. You leave every five minutes. It’s so annoying."
Playful moments like "Homegrown Tomatoes" and "Geraldene" break the melancholy that this trio writes with rare empathy and conviction. "Ghost" is the standout lyric. It was written during their second trip, in 2017 or 2018, and it cuts to the bone like few in Lambert's catalog: "I replaced the headboard with a chiseled stone / Here lies the meanest man I've ever known / Go rest in peace with every lie you ever told / Cause now you're just a ghost / Honey now you're just a ghost," she sings, words scraping like a blade across scars.
She'll deflect when asked to share what inspired the poetry, but it's clear some great hurt, and then the conquering of that hurt, was top of mind. Later, during a taping of Austin City Limits, she'll refer to the men who've driven her to drink.
"When we show up in Marfa, any one of us can show up in any kind of heart state or mind state. We just meet each other there, wherever that is," Lambert says. "That’s one reason we love going there, because once you get off the plane and start driving, you start to open up."
The track almost lost its way, Randall admits. Verses kept coming, but with no hook or chorus, they felt they had written themselves into a corner until Lambert said, "I ain't afraid of ghosts."
"And Jack jumps up and starts jumping up and down and running around the campfire and going 'Woo-hoo!' crazy," he says, laughing. "It was awesome."
It's hard to believe any songs from The Marfa Tapes will be released to country radio as a single, since all 15 are so sparsely produced. Even the softest conventional ballads would overwhelm the trio's singing and picking when placed alongside it before a commercial break. This doesn't mean you'll never hear these songs on the radio, however.
Lambert says she'd love to re-record all 15 for her next album, but more likely will just select a few of her favorites. "In His Arms" is her baby, so count on that one. "Geraldene" and "Waxahachie" are two more she's excited to amplify. A fourth trip to Marfa may be necessary to round that album out, however.
"Miranda has said this before, but everything we say to each other sounds like a song somehow," Randall says. They're both smiling now.
"Sometimes it’s like we can’t be friends anymore. We can’t stop. It’s like an addiction. Just keep writing, keep writing ..."