The town of Marfa was established in Southwest Texas, in the late eighteen-hundreds, because steam-engine locomotives needed a place to stop in their journey and replenish their water supply. A century and half later, the community endures. With a population of fewer than two thousand residents, Marfa cultivates an image as an artistic haven, and poetic souls do seem to gravitate there, wanting the draw from the sedate beauties of the Lone Star State without having to contend so much with the ongoing political idiocy that is more defining of the area for many people outside its borders. Marfa is where Paul Thomas Anderson filmed There Will Be Blood and the Coen brothers shot much of No Country for Old Men. The community’s tourism website eagerly notes that Beyoncé and Matthew McConaughey occasionally call Marfa home. And it’s where Jack Ingram, Miranda Lambert, and Jon Randall went to record a stripped-down album while standing on desert soil.
The Marfa Tapes is an album by three talents of country music, and it’s certainly got a touch of twang to it. It feels more like a folk record, though, a cousin of old recordings made on front porches in an attempt to capture an otherwise ephemeral art. More specifically — and more recently — it’s reminiscent of Michelle Shocked’s debut album, The Campfire Tapes, which was recorded outdoors on in Central Texas, crickets and crackling flames that chief accompaniment. This country trio brings a similar warmth and quiet, assured camaraderie. The songs they play, it seems, are for themselves primarily. We all just happen to be lucky enough to be invited to listen in.
A few of the songs are familiar — “Tin Man” and “Tequila Does” appear on earlier Lambert albums, and are both so fantastic that it’s no wonder all involved were happy to revisit — but much of the material is all new, fresh products of the ongoing collaboration that started a few years back, not long after the announcement of Lambert’s divorce from a preening huckster who bolstered his fame by sitting in a spinny chair. I might single out tender, melancholy “In His Arms,” jazzy “We’ll Always Have the Blues,” and Lyle Lovett–esque “Amazing Grace (West Texas)” as ear-catching highlights. Doing so seems almost unkind. The track list is a procession of sharply rendered equals, each song a gift of unadorned, modestly presented songwriting and performing artistry.
The troubadours who sign their names to the album acknowledge that working together has helped them through hard times, the normal, awful challenges of simply living life. There’s no burden, nor even all that much catharsis, evident here. Instead, The Marfa Tapes is the blessed sound of replenishment.