Writing and singing songs around a fire under the Lone Star sky? As far as imagery goes, it doesn’t get more honest or romantic. That’s the concept behind an unadorned collection of songs recorded by Jack Ingram, Miranda Lambert, and Jon Randall in the twilight and dust of West Texas. Part homecoming, part escape, the longtime friends and writing partners have repaired to the small town of Marfa for years to collaborate. Fighting the uncertainties of the COVID-19 pandemic, the trio made plans to record The Marfa Tapes in the style and manner in which they were written– eye to eye and in the moment. The result is 15 songs that rely purely on 3-part harmonies, plain acoustic guitars, the natural sounds of dirt under bootheels, coyotes in the distance, and the simple truth that a song, no matter whether it’s recorded in a Music City studio or a field in Texas, has to stand on its own. Jon Randall got his start playing guitar in the Nash Ramblers for Emmylou Harris back in the early ’90s, and since then, there’s barely an award or honor in the realm of popular country music that he hasn’t been associated with. Fresh off the release of a new EP, Neon Texas, under his own banner, Randall has also produced and written with or for Guy Clark, Reba McEntire, Brad Paisley, Allison Krauss, Maren Morris, Dierks Bentley, Pat Green, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Dwight Yoakam, Central Georgia native Travis Denning, and many, many more. Jon took the time to share some details on his collaboration with Ingram and Lambert, the many projects he’s currently involved in, and even the potential release of a long-lost Nash Ramblers live album.
AI- Marfa, Texas! The three of you– Miranda Lambert, Jack Ingram– you’ve called that your songwriting retreat and y’all have been makin’ that trip for some years now. Put this in context for me, the songs on The Marfa Tapes, were these all recorded during a single excursion, or are they all selections from various sessions?
JR- No, they’re songs from four or five different writing trips down there. I think we probably had about 20 songs. We picked our favorites and went down and rerecorded them kind of in the spirit that they were written. We thought about puttin’ out the little work tapes off the phones that we do down there, but it wasn’t gonna work. We tried to make it work, and we thought it’d be a better experience to give everybody a taste of what they sounded like in their rawest form. If you go on YouTube, you can see that there’s some footage of us recordin’ it too.
What did you do the actual recording on?
Brandon Bell brought three microphones down and we just set them up in front of us and put it onto a Pro Tools rig. Went live. No fixes… There wasn’t any way to fix it (laughs)! It was all just in the room! All very, very much in the room! There’s cows, and you hear a border patrol helicopter go over one time, there’s some coyotes howlin’… It’s just all in there! It’s crazy!
Yeah, it’s almost like a fourth, fifth, sixth instrument. A lot of those background sounds, the way that you came at it– that’s a very different way to bring out these songs. Releasing demos, I don’t think is a particularly new concept, as a matter of fact, one of my favorite Chris Knight albums is The Trailer Tapes, which is just his publishing demos. On The Marfa Tapes, you take all that to a whole different level capturing everything. You said in another interview that, “This is why we into this in the first place. Let’s get back to that. Start with a clean slate.” Is that what The Marfa Tapes are for you? That clean slate?
Absolutely! I think we’re also just trying to capture for the listeners what that is when we’re in that environment, what that feels and sounds like. It’s almost like we wrote a soundtrack to this place. We wanted that to fit the vibe of that place. And also too, you have to take into account, a couple of these songs have ended up on [Miranda Lambert] records– “Tequila Does”, “Tin Man”. I think a few of them will end up on her next project as well. But most of these songs are like story songs. They’re songwriter songs. They’re better with just an acoustic guitar and a vocal. You know what I’m sayin’? In the spirit of our heroes, we wanted to keep it raw like that because we feel like that’s really the best way to tell these stories.
Conceptually, you talked about the footage that was filmed, and I absolutely could see this as having been released as a concert film, expanding that boot print as a larger video work. Is that something that’s been considered or that perhaps is on the way?
There is some footage, I think. They’re using it for YouTube– kinda concept footage stuff– but we did get some really cool shots down there. I’d love to see those tied into it, but I think right now it’s more about just gettin’ the music out there first.
Miranda has said that under any other set of normal circumstances, the album wouldn’t have been possible. That’s something, I guess, what you might call a blessing from the pandemic canceling everything else. Was this a hard sell when you decided that you did want to do this? Was this a hard sell to say, “Hey, we wanna put out these rough cuts of these songs?”
No, I don’t think so. And I think she’s exactly right. When we were workin’ on this stuff, there was no future for touring. Nobody knew what was gonna happen. Everybody was just kinda in a holding pattern for makin’ records or anything. We were listenin’ to these and we were like, “Gosh, man, Miranda Lambert fans would love to hear this!” You hear her and us guys writing these songs in its rawest form, you know? So I think the timing was everything. It wasn’t meant to go to radio. It wasn’t gonna conflict with her or Jack’s album release schedules– or mine for that matter– and if there was a blessing in it, this was it. I think the record companies were just dyin’ for content as well! I think they really got what we were tryin’ to do once they heard it. And this is [Miranda’s] first release on her imprint label. This is kind of a joint venture for her as well.
When was this? You said this was four different sessions? When did these take place?
We did our first trip down there in 2015. We might’ve skipped a year? We’ve been down there about five times now. But 2015 was the first year. Miranda was kinda havin’ a tough year that year, and she was like, “I just wanna get the hell outta Dodge!” And I said, “Well, I know where to go! I know where we can go and nobody will ever know we’re there!” (Laughs) Even the little grocery store doesn’t have tabloid magazines! And she was like, “Okay, I’m movin’ here. This is amazing!”
We took guitars. We were like, “Man, it’d be great to pour our hearts out and write some songs here,” but we also were like, “Maybe we don’t. We’re just gonna come down here as friends and hang out and run away for a little bit.” But once you get there, the vibe is so cool that songs just fall out of your head. You cannot not write a song down there. It’s really, really inspirational.
What’s been the reaction from other artists about the way that y’all have released this? Or rather, your peers?
I think they’re jealous (laughs)! I think they’re jealous that we got away with it! They’re like, “What! You just put up a mic and sang one pass, poured tequila, and played another song?” Like, “Yeah, that’s what we did! We did it real! We did it raw!” No, man, everybody’s lovin’ it. Everybody that I’m workin’ with that has heard it have all said they thought it was a really great idea. They feel like fans of any kind of music would be intrigued with hearing this project the way it was recorded.
The way people have been consuming live music this last year has really been through their screens. And an overwhelming majority of artists, that’s the way they’ve been performing live– through social media, or some folks have Patreon pages, things like that. That’s how music’s been received, perceived, and enjoyed over the past year. Were you conscious of that when you were putting this together?
Not really. No, not really. I think more than anything, we just felt like not all of these songs were gonna end up on a Miranda Lambert record. I’m singin’ some of ’em and Jack’s singin’ some of ’em, and not speaking for her, but I think part of her wanted her fans to get to hear what this was. Because it wasn’t the kind of songs that ended up on a radio record. She’s such a fan of mine and Jack’s, and we’re all ‘great’ fans of each other’s, obviously. I think the world of those two, and it was a neat opportunity to collaborate with people that you really respect and gel with.
You also have an opportunity to let people in on the process of songwriting when it comes to projects like this. Was there any reluctance in that? I mean, as you say, you do it, you get one pass on it and if it works, it works and if it doesn’t, it doesn’t.
(Laughs) Yeah, exactly! I produce so many records and sometimes I can tend to overthink things ’cause that’s my job– to make sure that it’s all right. I love that Miranda, usually, if she even sees a hint of me goin’ there, she makes me have a tequila shot (laughs) so that I’ll pick up my guitar and shut up and sing! That’s what we wanted. That’s what we wanted out of this was just, “Here’s what it is. Here’s a story. Here’s the wind and here’s the cows. Put your headphones on and take this ride with us. ‘Cause it’s really fun!”
And the dominating factor of this project, I think, is that on every single track, the three of you sound like you’re having the time of your lives!
We are! At the ACMs the other night, we were backstage looking at our calendars, tryin’ to figure out when we could go back! Literally! We have so much fun when we’re down there! Those guys are like family. We’ve known each other for 20+ years, so we can’t help but just have a really good time together!
I saw that Miranda has a string of dates. I think everything’s kicking off this weekend for her. Jack’s got some dates comin’ up. I didn’t see anything on your website about any potential shows, but I’m curious to know that with The Marfa Tapes due out next month, do you have any plans to do a string of trio acoustic dates? ‘Cause it seems like that’d be a great way to get back into live music in a pandemic.
I think there’s talk. We haven’t gotten anything in stone. I know we’re doing lots of TV spots right now. We’re all gonna be down in Austin for MJM, this benefit we do with Coach Mack [Brown] and Jack Ingram and Matthew McConaughey. It’s a fundraiser we do every year there. I think maybe me and Jack are figurin’ out some shows that we can show up and just crash the party and maybe play a few songs in the middle of that. But yeah, we’ll get out there and hang out with [Miranda] some this summer.
You mentioned Miranda’s next project, which she has also mentioned in the press. So no tellin’ tales out of school on that one. I’m not sure what Jack’s got in the works. Tell me about what you’ve got coming up. Have you got any projects that you have produced recently that are lookin’ to come alive or something in the works? Or a personal project?
(Laughs) All of the above! I’m workin’ on Miranda’s next record, producin’. I’m workin’ on Dierks Bentley’s next record, producin’ and writin’ on both of those. I’m workin’ on Parker McCollum’s record, I’m workin’ on Chase Bryant’s record, and then I just put out an EP of my own. So I’m busy! (Laughs) I’m really, really busy right now– and I’m lovin’ every minute of it! I’m gettin’ to collaborate with all of my friends! They are the ones that really encouraged me and pushed me into puttin’ some music out. And I’m really glad that they did! But yeah, I’m busy, man! We’re workin’ hard! I think there’s a Nash Ramblers record coming out this year too, an Emmylou Harris and The Nash Ramblers record that we made back in 1990.
I’d be very excited to hear that, please!
I’ll keep you posted.
Please do! I would love to hear more about that! That Live at the Ryman, The Nash Ramblers at the Ryman– what a fantastic record!
Yeah, that was fun! When we were at the ACMs the other night, right outside our dressing room was a picture from that night, and everybody got a good, good laugh at my mullet (laughs)!
I wasn’t going to bring that up! I really came close to it because in the course of doin’ research, you dig back and you see things… That was a glorious mane you had, Jon!
Oh, dude, it was quite the mullet! Now, I’ve got my head shaved. We’ve been wearin’ our cowboy hats ’cause it’s like, “Well, we grew up wearin’ hats, playin’ music, and we’re back in Texas! Let’s wear our hats!” Somebody brought up the hats and I said, “Well, for me, it’s a Texas toupee right now!”