'Marfa' Has Arrived
Here's a track-by-track guide to the new collaboration from Miranda Lambert, Jack Ingram and Jon Randall.
I’m currently poolside (shocking for me), trying really hard to conjure west Texas via active noise canceling and The Marfa Tapes. The album — which consists of 15 songs written and recorded by Jack Ingram, Miranda Lambert, and Jon Randall on a ranch outside Marfa, Texas — has garnered comparisons to Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska and Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger for its demo-like quality, but I’ve mostly been thinking about these songs in terms of Lambert’s own discography.
The Marfa Tapes subtly and overtly reflects on her past work. She reimagines songs from Wildcard and The Weight of These Wings, presenting not so much a hard-left turn as a mature exploration of themes she’s touched on throughout her career. In celebration of the album’s hyper-stripped-down style, here are my (mostly) unfiltered thoughts on each song:
“In His Arms”: Regret and longing aren’t emotions people typically associate with Lambert, whose biggest hits include “Gunpowder & Lead” and “Mama’s Broken Heart,” but I’ve often found her quieter songs to be her strongest (one reason I have famously struggled to connect with the brash Four the Record). On “In His Arms,” she projects her emotions onto the Texas landscape, imbuing iconic imagery with personal grief.
“I Don’t Like It”: Jack Ingram takes the lead on this song, offering a wounded and sensitive vocal that perfectly fits the somber lyric. “I Don’t Like It” sounds like the title of a horrific stadium-country song, but Ingram uses the phrase tenderly: “I don’t like being away from you / I don’t like it when you disappear.”
“The Wind’s Just Gonna Blow”: As is the case with the Nelson and Springsteen albums, The Marfa Tapes’s unpolished style belies the complexity of its lyrics. “Trying to find forgiveness is like breaking into prison” is a line that I’m still trying to wrap my head around.
“Am I Right or Amarillo”: Throughout the album, the trio evinces remarkable skill at subtly twisting familiar country imagery. “These truck stop bars are lonely” is a line that’d be equally at home on a Gram Parsons record as on a Gretchen Wilson single, but here it feels newly specific.
“Waxahachie”: I was reminded of Wim Wenders’s Paris, Texas throughout the album, and on this song in particular. To me, Lambert’s line about writing “a lipstick letter on the mirror with a bourbon buzz” evokes an iconic scene at the end of the movie involving a two-way mirror at a peep-show club. It’s one of the most affecting moments in all of cinema (in my opinion), and it’s easy for me to imagine this song being sung from the Nastassja Kinski character’s perspective.
“Homegrown Tomatoes”: I wasn’t fully enamored by the Hailey Whitters and Brent Cobb collab “Glad to Be Here,” which felt weirdly judgmental of people who are struggling to stay positive (in a pandemic, no less). That said, there’s a line about “rich dirt, growin’ up tomatoes” that hits me in the same spot as this song does. I’m often drawn to country songs that convey incredible sadness, but “Homegrown Tomatoes” is a reminder that the genre is better than most at capturing life’s simple joys. And, as Guy Clark was clearly aware, tomatoes is a great word to include in a country song.
“Breaking a Heart”: There’s a great scene in Before Sunrise (relevant because director Richard Linklater is from Houston!) where Ethan Hawke’s character says the worst thing about getting your heart broken is remembering “how little you thought about the people you broke up with” and realizing that your ex probably isn’t thinking about you, either. I think he has a point, but this song makes a compelling case for lasting pain on both sides.
“Ghost”: There are some amazing one-liners on this song, which is more in the vein of Interstate Gospel’s pettier tracks than The Weight of These Wings’s turn-the-other-cheek approach to heartbreak. “If you’re such a poet, write an epitaph” is an all-timer, and “Ashes to ashes, dirt to dirt” reminded me that Sharon Stone once likened Dwight Yoakam to a dirt sandwich. Ouch!
“Geraldene”: I’m declaring this the era of the “Jolene” revamp. The last twelve months have given us Chiquis and Becky G’s campy cumbia version, Chapel Hart’s independent-minded “You Can Have Him Jolene” (more on that later), and now “Geraldene.” Rather than a revisionist take on the Jolene myth, “Geraldene” is a straightforward other woman song, in the vein of Loretta Lynn’s “Fist City” and “You Ain’t Woman Enough.” Maybe it’s not a case of women supporting other women, but it’s fun!
“We’ll Always Have the Blues”: A resigned performance by Ingram amid the familiar yipping and howling of coyotes … just lovely.
“Tin Man”: Though I wasn’t sold on “Tin Man” the first time I heard it — too simple? too cute? — I’m glad it’s become something of a staple song for Lambert. It’s one of many songs from her discography that, for me, gains potency with subsequent listens.
“Two Step-Down to Texas”: I’m not saying the song needs it, but I’m begging for this to get the full Western Swing treatment à la ”All That’s Left” (feat. the Time Jumpers), an underrated gem from Lambert’s genre-spanning 2014 album, Platinum.
“Anchor”: This song gives me “chill coffeehouse” vibes, which admittedly isn’t my favorite mode. Sorry!
“Tequila Does”: I don’t know if there’s anything necessarily wrong with Lambert singing about “blonde señorita(s)” and “tall margarita(s)” amid crises at the border, but this Wildcard cut feels flippant in a way that makes me uncomfortable. The flubbed lyric in the second verse and occasional giggles add undeniable charm to this recording, but I still wish Lambert had left the song off both albums.
“Amazing Grace - West Texas”: It’s tough to sing about one’s faith without sounding preachy or self-righteous, but I think this irreverent hymn strikes the right balance. I can’t imagine I’d be particularly welcome at a church service in one of these “little bitty towns,” but this song makes the experience sound lovely.
Thomas Rhett Goes ‘Country Again’
With new material, Nashville’s smarmiest bro makes a ploy for credibility
After years spent pumping out hits that range from sort-of-cringe to just God-awful, Thomas Rhett is going back to his roots. Whereas other stars have made similar maneuvers of late with bluegrass albums and acoustic tapes, Rhett has chosen to proclaim his integrity via a middle-of-the-road album titled—fittingly—Country Again.
Actually, because this is Nashville, Rhett is releasing a double album, in two installments, with “Side B” arriving later this year. The last couple years have seen a proliferation of double albums and multi-release albums, two different ways of arriving at the same equation: more songs = more streams = more money. I’m exhausted!
The album’s lead single, the insufferable “What’s Your Country Song?” was clearly produced with arena tours in mind — drum machine, screaming guitars, banjo buried deep in the mix — and does that thing I really hate where every line is a reference to a different country song. (On a petty note, it was jarring to hear “That Ain’t My Truck” listed among classics like “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” and “Mama Tried,” but it was sweet of Rhett to shout out his famous Daddy.)
True to the project’s on-the-nose title, a few of these songs find Rhett in a subdued and somewhat traditional mode. The title track is among the least commercial-sounding songs he’s ever recorded, and there’s a folksy charm to the self-mythologizing “Ya Heard.” But just as many of the songs are blatant radio fodder, like the grating “Put It On Ice” and awkwardly appropriative “More Time Fishin’.”
All told, on Country Again, Rhett never swings too hard in either direction. The album adopts a centrist approach that’s akin to the balancing act performed by Morgan Wallen on his massively successful Dangerous double album. One of the album’s stronger tracks, "Growing Up,” conjures a shimmery nostalgia that reminded me a lot of “7 Summers,” to the point that I half expected Rhett to break out into a spontaneous Yeah, I bet your daddy’s so proud.
Upcycling in country music is nothing new; it’s a well-known fact that many of country radio’s biggest hits sound roughly identical. But it seems that Rhett is attempting to fill a Wallen-sized hole in country’s center (not that the latter’s supposed cancelation has hurt his sales or streaming numbers). The album isn’t the hard reset I was hoping for, but it’s certainly better than the budget Maroon 5 he was giving us before.
Notes on New and New-ish Country Releases
“Paradise” - Sturgill Simpson
Ahead of Broken Hearts & Dirty Windows: Songs of John Prine Vol. 2, here’s a lovely bluegrass version of a song that’s been covered by everyone from Jimmy Buffett to Johnny Cash. I’ve tolerated Simpson’s genre explorations over the last couple years, but I’m holding out hope that he makes another “hard-country” record in the vein of his beloved first two albums. In the meantime, I’ll be revisiting the episode of the Trillbillies podcast that finds the Kentucky-native discussing — among other things — socialized healthcare, Bernie Sanders, and Hillbilly Elegy.
“You Can Have Him Jolene” - Chapel Hart
No one is having as much fun as this New Orleans-based trio, made up of sisters Danica and Devynn Hart and their cousin Trea Swindle. “You Can Have Him Jolene” is a hilarious title for a country song, and the rest of the song is just as sharp. I have to fantasize about a world where this gets played on country radio.
“Jesus & Alcohol” - Chapel Hart
This is definitely more on the “new-ish” side, but I’m fully obsessed with these gals and had to include it. Like the group’s other singles, “Jesus & Alcohol” breathes new life into some of country’s most familiar tropes. In their words: “Pass the bible, bourbon, and brace for a breakup!”
“Wild One” - American Aquarium
Frontman BJ Barham is the first to admit he can’t go toe-to-toe with Faith Hill as a vocalist, but there’s something really endearing about this entry from the group’s new covers album, Slappers, Bangers & Certified Twangers, Vol. 1. Like other great 90s country songs, “Wild One” gives voice to young girls’ experiences, and I am personally very glad the band hasn’t engaged in any pronoun-swapping (one of many reasons Ryan Adams’s 1989 was insufferable).
“Back” - Alan Jackson
Alan Jackson has been bemoaning the death of country music for decades. One of Nashville’s staunchest traditionalists, Jackson has returned after a six-year hiatus with Where Have You Gone, an album that sounds remarkably similar to much of his catalogue. That means heavy fiddle, prominent steel, and some defensive posturing over what constitutes “real country music.” There are some potentially problematic implications here, especially given that the album arrives amid concerted efforts to diversify country radio, a context that makes more than a few lines of this song sound like reactionary dog whistles.
Sidewinder Has a Spotify Playlist
If you want to listen to songs from this and previous issues, follow the Sidewinder playlist on Spotify! I promise to update it regularly and only include the good stuff.