Gunfighter Ballads

Marty Robbins : Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs (#22)

Marty Robbins | Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs (September 1959)
CBS (USA)
Classic Country – 35:55

”I’m not afraid to die like a man fighting…”

The Wild West was a dangerous, dirty, fatal place to live; trying to eke out an existence amid in a barren wilderness, crawling with disease and killer beasts, on a desolate land and under an unforgiving sun, never knowing whether the natives or a band of outlaws would attack the homestead, slaughtering the men, raping the women and stealing the livestock. It was a place that screamed, if not certain death, then a rather unhappy life. And yet it is amazing how powerful rose-tinted spectacles can be. Instead of the horror, we tend to have emphasised the romance. The rugged West with its sprawling landscapes and towering cliff faces has become the epitome of a land where men were men and only the toughest can survive. It is the place where even the vicious outlaws – from Butch and Sundance to Jesse James – have instead become anti-heroes.

The Western genre has become somewhat side-lined in recent years. Apart from the occasional venture into the wastes (such as the brilliant Open Range in 2003 or the Oscar-winning True Grit in 2010), the days when the cowboys ruled the movie houses have long since passed. Going back to my teenage years, the best I could hope for was the pseudo-Western Young Guns – a fun if light reworking of the Billy the Kid saga featuring the Brat Pack at their height. You have to look to the 1950s and 1960s for the heyday of the Western. It was during that time, when the likes of John Wayne and Gary Cooper strode out, that the romanticism of the Old West really took a hold. And helping to add to that mythology building were singers like Marty Robbins.

Childhood was an unhappy time for Martin Robinson, as he was then. With nine brothers and sisters, his father had to take on odd jobs to support his family. It soon took its toll and, by 1937, the heavy drinking of Marty’s father led to divorce. But the young man, growing up in an Arizona town, had places to turn to escape the hardships. He had the films of cowboy superstar Gene Autry in the cinema; he had his job as a horse breaker with his brother; and he had his grandfather, Texas Bob Heckle. Heckle had a fascinating history – scout, cowboy, frontiersman, soldier and poet, he served during the American Civil War before becoming a Texas Ranger. His books and poetry focused on the Open Range, and it was these stories which kept Marty enthralled. So it should come as little surprise that Robbins would turn to this way of life when he began his recording career.

We’ve already ascertained that I am not a fan of Country music; I still shudder to think about the Louvin Brothers’ record towards the start of this list. So turning to Robbins’ Gunfighter Ballads did not feel me with any sense of enthusiasm. Here was a man who won the first Grammy for a Country song. And yet, rather than have me wincing at the screeching attempts at singing, I was instead drawn into a wonderful world of gunslingers and sweeping vistas. Part of the joy was Robbins’ voice; his tone had more of the sound of Frank Sinatra performing a concept album than a rough and ready cowhand out in the wild. The other strength to the album is the strength of the tracks themselves. Although there isn’t a single narrative that stretches the length of the LP, each songs tells a story that entertains the listener with its storytelling techniques. Kicking things off with Big Iron, one of four tracks penned by Robbins. The song relates the tale of an unnamed Ranger who takes on outlaw Texas Red. While many believe the Ranger is facing a certain death – the 21st to be killed by his fearsome opponent, it is Texas Red who ends up being killed. It is a story you can picture being turned into a film; the chisel-edged jaw of Gary Cooper taking on the vile villain Lee Van Cleef (and not for the first time in film history) would easily fit the bill. Rather than jar, the musical style – which is a popified version of Country music – helps to build up the picture being painted by the lyrics.

It does help that, rather than a fully-fledged Country and Western long player, this is a more mainstream attempt at invoking the Wild West. A Hundred and Sixty Acres, the fourth song on the album, has a gentle feel that allows you to imagine sitting out under a red sky, looking out over a beautiful landscape and feeling the breeze blowing through your hair. Admittedly, it does sound a little like Laurel and Hardy’s version of The Trail of the Lonesome Pine, but that is no bad thing – any song which can match that is doing something right. Real pathos can be heard in the following song, They’re Hanging Me Tonight, a tragic tale of a man waiting to be hanged after killing the love of his life, Flo, and the man she was having an affair with. Your heart is drawn to this poor soul, wronged in romance, as he awaits his fate – a credit to the writing as much as to the singing.

Things slow down a little in the middle; El Paso, which is considered a classic by many, seems to outstay its welcome, dragging on a little too long (at 4 minutes 26 seconds, the longest track on the album – and it feels it by the end), while In The Valley seems to go nowhere during its running time. But things pick up again with The Master’s Call, the fourth and final song by Robbins, which looks at an outlaw finding faith – and one of three Robbin’s songs here which were chosen by members of the Western Writers of America (a group promoting literature praising the American West) as being among the 100 greatest Western songs of all time. Things round of nicely from here with the final three numbers, ending with the wonderful Utah Carole, the tale of a cowboy who gives his life to save his love during a stampede. Life in the old world was rough, but it was always romantic, and, with Marty Robbins to sing us through it, even the most tragic of stories can be a place you want to be. This may be Country-lite but, for me, it is a step in the right direction. At this rate, I may even end up liking a Country and Western album. Now that really would be tragic…

If you have a Spotify account, you can listen to Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs here:

Next time: Time Out by The Dave Brubeck Quartet

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Kind of Blue

Miles Davis : Kind of Blue (#21)

Miles Davis | Kind of Blue (1959)
Columbia (USA)
Modal Jazz – 45:44

“Life is a lot like jazz…it’s best when you improvise…”

I have a recurring nightmare. I’ve been given a major role in a play that I’ve always dreamed of appearing in. I head out to my first rehearsal, excited to be finally stepping on to the stage and beginning an adventure. Except things begin to unravel. Instead of simply walking into a read-through, slowly trawling through the script with my fellow actors for the first time, I find myself entering backstage only to be told ‘It’s opening night!’. Despite my protestations that I’ve not even begun to look through the script, I’m pushed out from behind the curtain to a packed audience, waiting for me to begin my first speech. Only I can just stand there and stutter. I look about me for help; frantically, my eyes appeal to those standing in the wings, desperate for any assistance. But instead, I’m left to fend for myself, unable to do anything but falter and, finally, to awake in a cold sweat.

Fortunately, my experience on stage has been a little less heart-stopping. But that doesn’t mean I’ve never had moments when I’ve been left lost for words while treading the boards. Rather than coming out in a cold sweat, though, like my anxiety nightmare, I admit that I rather enjoy it. Not through some strange desire to torture myself; I simply like the art of improvisation. Since taking to the stage as a teenager with a fellow actor (and close friend) who seemed unable to remember the words and would consequently come up with his own (particularly impressive in a Shakespeare play), I’ve enjoyed the thrill of thinking on my feet and seeing where it would take it us. Having taken part in occasional impro nights (think amateur Who’s Line Is It Anyway), there is a real joy to taking a subject out of the blue and creating something for an audience to enjoy from it.

Spontaneity when performing is all about trust; you have to rely on those around you to help each other stay afloat. It’s the same whether you are improvising when acting or creating music. You need to surround yourself with performers you can rely on to have your back. It was something which Miles Davis certainly knew when he went about creating a whole new genre of jazz music – modal jazz. In technical terms, to quote the font of all knowledge that is Wikipedia, modal jazz “uses musical modes rather than chord progressions as a harmonic framework”. Or, to get down to the nub of it, chords are used to create a theme which other musicians then improvise harmonies over the top. At least, I think that’s what it means. I could be wrong. It’s at times like this that the words of another jazz great, Thelonious Monk, spring to mind: “Talking about music is like dancing about architecture.” I am trying to use one medium to explain another; and, it has to be noted, it is not always an adequate method.

But before I go about destroying my own blog through some existential crisis, let’s turn to an album regarded as the best-selling jazz record of all time. I say ‘regarded’ as sales figures are a little hazy but, given that many critics and fellow musicians consider it the pinnacle of perfection, it’s probably safe to say that it has sold more than a few copies. But, as with all of these things, the real question should really be: ‘Is it any good?’ After all, when bands like One Direction are able to achieve worldwide fame, faith in the public’s ability to spot a good tune suddenly becomes rather tainted. (Please note: I make no apologies for dismissing One Direction so casually; they are one of many ‘pop’ bands that are truly awful and have no right to even exist. I may have upset a few followers of those particular pre-pubescent warblers, although, if you’re reading this blog, it’s unlikely that you’re a fan of that particular band. You have the ability to read for a start. But I digress…)

There is no doubting that Kind of Blue is a beautiful album. Given the improvised nature of it, it would hard to call it beautifully composed, but certainly there is a structure behind it (despite Davis’ refusal to rehearse the album with his musicians before recording began). The opening track, So What, has a light, breezy feel to it; the notes seem to float over the chord structures. Unlike some of the jazz I have already encountered on this list, this is a much easier listen; something which surprised me. Perhaps it’s because I have become more accustomed to the sounds of the genre and have begun to pick it up; perhaps it is the skill of Davis and his fellow musicians to create something accessible despite pushing the boundaries of jazz itself. Either way, I have to admit to rather enjoying it. True, I am still struggling to recognise the difference between the tracks; it may be that, without lyrics (and bearing in mind that, as I said earlier, words are more preferred medium), I struggle to capture differences in my mind without words as markers. Is it the greatest album of all time? It’s debatable. But it can arguably be considered the greatest jazz album of all time. But, regardless of whether this is your style of music, this is certainly album worth listening to.

If you have a Spotify account, you can listen to Kind of Blue here:

Next time: Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs by Marty Robbins