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.