Miranda Lambert, Jack Ingram and Jon Randall invoke Marfa magic in 2021 'ACL' season opener
The “Marfa Tapes,” a new collaboration album from country stars Miranda Lambert and Jack Ingram and Grammy-winning guitarist, songwriter and producer Jon Randall, is an earnest collection of heartache ballads, campfire yarns and rambunctious story songs propelled by colorful characters making questionable life choices.
Recorded over a period of several years in the namesake West Texas art haven, the music has a built-in sense of spaciousness that made it the perfect season opener as Austin’s storied television series, “Austin City Limits,” emerges from the pandemic.
“We’re so happy to be the first show back at 'ACL,'” Lambert said after the trio, sitting on stools spaced six feet apart, opened with “Two Step Down to Texas.”
There were no fans on the floor level of the club, with a limited audience of show donors socially distanced in the mezzanine and the balcony. With a larger crowd in-house, the lead track likely would have been riddled with excited screams of recognition as Lambert and crew name-checked beloved Austin institutions, from the Broken Spoke to the Carousel Lounge to the migas at Magnolia Cafe. But as the three singer-songwriters, armed with acoustic guitars and intricate harmonies, led the audience on a “journey together out to the West side” where, Lambert said, “there’s a special kind of magic,” the sparseness of the crowd and the isolation of the artists on the floor level of the club matched the vibe of the music.
Lambert encouraged the audience to “laugh a little, cry a little and drink a lot.”
She never explicitly mentioned her tabloid-fodder split with country star Blake Shelton, but she said the project came together in 2015, the year they divorced, when she was “going through a lot.”
The three musicians had been good friends for years and one night, Lambert and Randall went to see Ingram perform in Midland and then drove all night to a remote spot in Marfa. They weren’t necessarily planning to write music, Lambert said. But they packed acoustic guitars and plenty of tequila and it was bound to happen. With the space to “say some things into the world that we needed to say,” the songs came pouring out, she said. The first track they wrote was “Winds Just Gonna Blow,” a devastating landscape survey of life after love that unwinds as a cathartic release.
Lambert’s 2016 hit “Tin Man” also came out of that session. Twisting the conundrum of Dorothy’s heartless friend, the song is a weary lament that culminates in the devastating Faustian bargain, “You give me your armor/ And you can have my heart.”
“All three of us needed to say that,” Lambert said about the song before they performed an intimate version of the track with each singer taking a verse.
In between the soul-baring heartbreakers, the set was scattered with moments of levity. “Am I Right or Amarillo,” is a rollicking ode to infidelity that tips a Stetson to the time-honored tradition of country cheating songs, and Lambert stares down a backstage temptress with “truck stop red lips” in the soon-to-be-hit “Geraldene.”
Her charismatic sass compounded with piss and vinegar, Lambert tells her would-be rival, “You’re trailer park pretty, but you’re never gonna be Jolene.”
With no backing band, the crew created rich soundscapes with a trio of guitars, with ace-picker Randall doing much of the heavy lifting.
“We didn’t really practice,” Lambert said near the end of the show, noting that the audience was getting the songs in “the raw form, how we wrote them.”
The lack of polish was refreshing, spotlighting the honest delivery and adding to the projects backyard jam vibe.
The group closed out the set with a two-fer of tributes. They dedicated the cookout jam “Homegrown Tomatoes” to the Texas country great Guy Clark, who has a song of the same name and died in 2016. Then they closed the set honoring Austin legend Jerry Jeff Walker, who died in October, with a spirited cover of his Ray Wylie Hubbard-penned hit “Up Against the Wall Redneck Mother” with the audience happily picking up the call-and-response chorus.
A camera pan across the masked audience, coupled with show producer Terry Lickona's end instructions asking folks to exit the club by row to prevent crowding, reminded us that we're still not out of the woods with this pandemic. But the taping, centered on a project that evokes wide open Texas skies, was a welcome escape.