Marty Robbins | Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs (September 1959)
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…
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Next time: Time Out by The Dave Brubeck Quartet