My Kind of Country

Country music from a fan's point of view since 2008

Tag Archives: Bob Nolan

Classic Review: Marty Robbins – ‘Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs’

71yKlXRWvsL._SL1072_Marty Robbins was that rare bird, a jack of all trades and the master of all of them. It didn’t matter whether the source of the music was rock and roll, rockabilly, R&B, cowboy, western swing, country, pop or Spanish-tinged, Marty could sing it and sing it well. Since Marty was born in Arizona, his first love was western songs and his western albums were indeed labors of love and represent the apogee of his career.

Released in 1959, Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs was a massive seller that has remained in print almost continuously since it was released 56 years ago. The album sold platinum, reached #6 on the pop album charts and #20 in the United Kingdom, and spawned two hugely successful singles in “El Paso” (#1 Country/#1 Pop/ #19 UK) and “Big Iron” (#5 Country / #26 Pop/ #48 UK).  Most critics regard the album as the most influential album of western and cowboy songs in American music history, and I couldn’t disagree with them since I wore out two vinyl copies and a cassette copy before the album was finally released on CD. Story songs sometimes get old from re-telling but every time I play this album, it seems new and fresh to me. The vocals are clear and melodious, the subdued and tasteful vocal harmonies (Jim, Tompall & Chuck Glaser) never intrude on the lead and the instrumental accompaniment, mostly the guitars of Grady Martin, and Jack Pruett, with Bob Moore on upright bass, are crisp and clear.

The album opens with “Big Iron”, the second single from the album, a Marty Robbins that is still often performed by western singing groups. The song concernes the fate of a bad outlaw who meets his fate

It was over in a moment and the crowd all gathered ’round
There before them lay the body of the outlaw on the ground
Oh, he might have went on livin’ but he made one fatal slip
When he tried to match the ranger with the big iron on his hip,
Big iron on his hip

Big iron, big iron,
Oh he tried to match the ranger with the big iron on his hip,
Big iron on his hip

Next up is the Bob Nolan classic “Cool Water”, forever associated with Bob’s group the Sons of the Pioneers. I liked the Sons version but Marty and the Glaser Brothers own the song

“Billy The Kid” is a traditional western ballad abut a western villain who is often lionized in ballad.

Dave Kapp’s “A Hundred and Sixty Acres is next up.

“They’re Hanging Me Tonight” by Jimmy Lowe and Art Wolfe, is the tale of a man being hung for gunning down his woman and the man who stole her:

As I walked by a dim cafe
And I looked through the door
I saw my Flo with her new love
And I couldn’t stand no more
I couldn’t stand no more
I took my pistol from my hip
And with a tremblin’ hand
I took the life of pretty Flo
And that good for nothin’ man
That good for nothin’ man

I think about the thing I’ve done
I know it wasn’t right
They’ll bury Flo tomorrow
But they’re hangin’ me tonight
They’re hangin’ me tonight

The final track on Side One of the original vinyl album is “Strawberry Roan” a traditional western ballad that has been sung by hundreds of artists; however, rarely with the aplomb of Marty Robbins.

Side Two opens with “El Paso”. For many years polls taken of the top country songs of all time usually listed this song in the top three, mostly at the very top. In my humble opinion, it is still the greatest country record of all time (with “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry by Hank Williams at #2). Because of its length (4:23) Columbia hedged its bets by releasing a shorter version of the song on the flip side of the record so DJs could decide which version to play. In my area, the DJs ignored the short version of the song and played the full song. The song spent six weeks at #1 and has been performed by all manner of performers over the years, including The Grateful Dead who performed the song 389 times before disbanding. The song recounts the tale of a young cowboy who, in a jealous rage, kills another man who had eyes for his girl Felina, then flees Texas until he is driven by loneliness to return. Upon returning he is gunned down, probably for the act of stealing a horse when he escaped before.

Out in the West Texas town of El Paso
I fell in love with a Mexican  girl
Nighttime would find me in Rosa’s Cantina
Music would play and Felina would  whirl

Blacker than night were the eyes of Felina
Wicked and evil while casting a spell.
My love was strong for this  Mexican maiden
I was in love, but in vain I could  tell.

Next up is another Marty Robbins original “In the Valley” about a guy pining for his gal’s return. The next song is “The Master’s Call”, another Marty Robbins original, this one about a young hellion caught up in  cattle stampede, saved for unknown reasons:

My wicked past unfolded, I thought of wasted years
When another bolt of lightning killed a hundred head of steers
And the others rushed on by me, and I was left to live
The Master had a reason, life is His to take and give.
A miracle performed that night, I wasn’t meant to die
The dead ones formed a barricade least 6 or 7 high
Right behind it, there was I, afraid but safe and sound
I cried and begged for mercy kneeling there upon the ground
A pardon I was granted, my sinful soul set free,
No more to fear the angry waves upon life’s stormy sea
Forgiven by the love of God, a love that will remain,
I gave my life and soul the night the Saviour called my name

One generally doesn’t associate Jim and Tompall Glaser with western gunfighter ballads but they produced an excellent one in “Running Gun”, a song which would have made an excellent single. In this song the protagonist meets his end at the hands of a bounty hunter


I knew someday I’d meet him for his hand like lightning flashed
My own gun stayed in leather as his bullet tore it’s path
As my strength was slowly fading, I could see him walk away
And I knew that where I lie today, he too must lie some day

Now the crowd is slowly gathering and my eyes are growing dim
And my thoughts return to Jeannie and the home that we had planned
Oh please tell her won’t you mister that she’s still the only one
But a woman’s love is wasted when she loves a running gun

The “Little Green Valley” comes from the pen of the legendary Carson Robison, a contemporary of Vernon Dalhart and a singing star in his own right. The song is a gentle ballad about the singer’s idyllic home

The original album closes out with “Utah Carol” a traditional song about a cowboy friend of the narrator who dies in a cattle stampede  saving the life of the boss’s daughter.

This album has been reissued numerous times, sometimes with the songs in a different sequence than on the original album. No  matter – the songs are all great and most listeners simply listen to the album, all the way through. In 1999 Sony issued an extended version of the album with the longest version of “El Paso” as a bonus cut, along with “The Hanging Tree” which was issued as a single the following year and “Saddle Tramp” which was the B-side of “Big Iron”.

Marty would revisit western themes on subsequent albums and release several sequels to “El Paso”.  Although all are very worthwhile, this is Marty’s masterpiece, an album any true country music fan will want in his collection.

Country Heritage: Leonard Slye (1911-1998)

The Billboard Chart career of Leonard Slye ran from 1946 to 1991, a lengthy span of time that only resulted in a total of twelve chart records of which only four hit the top ten and only three more reached the top twenty. Moreover, there were some long gaps in charting records. After a #8 record in 1950 with “Stampede”, Leonard would not chart again until 1970 when “Money Can’t Buy Love” reached #35, followed in 1971 by “Lovenworth” (#12), “Happy Anniversary” (1971 – #47), “These Are The Good Old Days” (1972- #73) and “Hoppy, Gene and Me” (1975 – #15). After that only two more chart singles, one in 1980 and one in 1991 a duet with Clint Black on “Hold On Partner”.

This sounds like I am writing about a singer on the fringes of stardom, and based solely upon his Billboard success, that might be a fair assessment. But please read on …

Leonard Franklin Slye was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, although he raised and grew up in Lucasville, Ohio. In 1921, young Leonard traveled to California where he joined a western group called the Rocky Mountain Pioneers. While with the group, Leonard met Bob Nolan and Tim Spencer, fine singers and writers both. In 1933 Leonard, Bob and Tim split off and formed the Pioneer Trio and performed on KFWB radio. Leonard played guitar and sang lead on many of the trio’s songs. As the group expanded, adding additional musicians and singers, the name was changed to The Sons of The Pioneers. Under this name, the group had many hit records, most occurring before the advent of Billboard’s Country Charts on January 1, 1944.

The Sons of The Pioneers were major recording stars during the period 1935-1949. Moreover, they had the opportunity to appear in many films of the newly emerging “singing cowboy” genre, including major roles in films starring Gene Autry. In at least one of these films, Leonard was billed as Dick Weston and played a villain who turned into a good guy by the end of the film.

In 1938, a studio dispute between Autry and Republic Pictures, left Republic without a star for the upcoming film Under Western Skies. Republic transformed Leonard Slye into Roy Rogers and a star was born. From that point forward Roy left the Sons of The Pioneers as a member but continued his association with them through numerous recordings and films.

Other than Gene Autry, Roy Rogers was the most successful star of western movies and there were years in which Roy was the top dog. Roy was listed in the Motion Picture Herald ‘Top Ten Money-Making Western Stars’ poll, for fifteen consecutive years from 1939 to 1954, holding first place from 1943 to 1954. He was in the top ten for all movie genres in 1945 and 1946. So big a star was Roy, that most of his post-war films were shot in color when most western films were still shot in black and white.

Roy’s first wife Arline died in childbirth in 1946 during the birth of Roy “Dusty” Rogers, Jr. Prior to that, Roy and Arline had a daughter and had adopted a daughter. In late 1947, Roy married Dale Evans, an actress who had appeared in a film with Roy in 1944. They remained married and maintained largely joint careers until Roy’s death in 1998. Roy and Dale adopted several children during their marriage, and had a daughter with Downs Syndrome who died at age two from complications of the mumps. They remained active in charity work and as active advocates of adoption throughout their lives.

Roy’s films were always kid-friendly so it was natural that Roy Rogers would emerge as one of the early stars of television, moving his radio show of nine years duration to television, where it ran from 1951-1957.

All told Roy Rogers appeared in over ninety movies, sold countless millions of records, both as a member of The Sons of The Pioneers and as a solo artist. While best remembered today for his television show and his theme song “Happy Trails To You” (written by his wife Dale Evans), Roy Rogers was a giant figure in the world of county music. Roy was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame as part of the original Sons of The Pioneers in 1980 and elected as a solo artist in 1988, the only artist elevated to the pantheon twice.

DISCOGRAPHY

VINYL
Roy Rogers was most active as a recording artist during the 1930s and 1940s, meaning that much of his original output was on 78 rpm records. During the 1950s and later relatively few albums were issued, including some aimed at children and some religious album. To be honest, I don’t have much Roy Rogers vinyl in my collection.

COMPACT DISC
Roy is fairly well represented on CD. My usual source, the Ernest Tubb Record Shop currently has eight titles available. I’d recommend the following

The Best of Roy Rogers (Curb Records) collects all of Roy’s Capitol singles from the early 1970s, including “Money Can’t Buy Love”, Lovenworth”, “Happy Anniversary” and “These Are The Good Old Days” plus some covers of some classic county songs. Twelve songs in all – budget priced.

Biography: Musical Anthology (Capitol Records) – this was the soundtrack, so to speak, for an episode of television show Biography. This album is a mixed bag, some Capitol songs from the 1970s, some songs with Dale Evans from the 1950s including two songs (“Happy Trails” and “The Bible Tells Me So”) that will always be associated with Roy, and some songs from the 1940s including his biggest Billboard charting record, “My Chickashay Gal” which hit #4 in 1947.

A Cowboy Has To Sing – three CDs – 43 songs – I don’t know the source material but it’s nicely priced and the titles sound like they are from the 1940s.

Other titles have been available in the past and may be found with a little effort. CDs of the Sons of The Pioneers from 1935-1937 often feature lead vocals by Roy Rogers, as well as fabulous harmonies and hot instrumental work.

Not currently in print, but worth finding:

Roy Rogers Tribute – issued in 1991 by BMG. Although not so credited, I think the driving force behind this CD was Clint Black, whose duet with Roy, “Hold On Partner”, was the single released from the album. Other duet partners on the album include The Kentucky Headhunters, Randy Travis, KT Oslin & Restless Heart, Emmylou Harris, Ricky Van Shelton, Willie Nelson (of course), Kathy Mattea, Lorrie Morgan & The Oak Ridge Boys and Dusty Rogers. Riders In The Sky provide background vocals on some of the songs and “Happy Trails” features everyone named earlier plus Daniele Alexander, Baillie & The Boys, Holly Dunn, Roger Miller, Johnny Rodriguez, Eddie Rabbitt and Tanya Tucker.