Say this for Miranda Lambert: The country superstar is not afraid to share the spotlight. Whether teaming with Angaleena Presley and Ashley Monroe in Pistol Annies or, more recently, cavorting with Elle King, Lambert seems to revel in collaboration. Maybe that’s one reason her solo work has maintained a consistently fresh edge.
For The Marfa Tapes, Lambert took off for the remote West Texas hamlet of Marfa with two songwriting buddies, Texas country-rocker Jack Ingram and Nashville studio ace Jon Randall. Reflecting Lambert’s well-earned clout, the results are unlike any major-label release you’re likely to hear — and one of the best albums of the year. It’s just the three performers, with equal billing, sitting outdoors singing and playing acoustic guitars.
To say the tracks sound like demos does not do justice to the intimacy and depth of these performances. The loose-limbed chemistry among the three is palpable: They’re obviously having a lot of fun, as you can gather from the between-songs banter, but it’s also clear they mean business.
“Tin Man” and “Tequila Does” are familiar co-writes from Lambert’s solo albums, but the other collaborations here are also first-rate. “In His Arms,” “Breaking a Heart,” and “Anchor” are among the somber ballads, while Lambert’s feistiness comes to the fore on the kiss-off “Ghost” and on “Geraldene,” which puts a new spin on a Dolly Parton classic (“You’re never gonna be Jolene”). The trio also lighten up with the double entendre of “Homegrown Tomatoes” and the sprightly swing of “Two-Step Down in Texas,” and they make a terrific addition to the canon of country cheating songs with the ultra-catchy “Am I Right or Amarillo.”
It takes more than a little audacity to appropriate the title “Amazing Grace,” even if “(West Texas)” is appended to it. But Lambert, Ingram, and Randall pull it off, providing a perfect, well, grace note to cap this unvarnished yet sublime set.