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Once Upon a Time in Marty Robbins' West
An appreciation of a masterful country-music storyteller
Welcome music lovers to another edition of ‘Listening Sessions’ and an especially warm welcome to those who have recently subscribed. Pleased to have your aboard!
Today’s essay centres on one of country music’s greatest tellers of the tales of the American West: Marty Robbins. ‘El Paso,’ by far the most famous piece of Robbins’ music, is just a small drop in the bucket of this important musical legacy. As always, I hope you enjoy it.
In July, I’ll be writing about two musicians I have written about it in the past: Duke Ellington and Elvis Presley. The Ellington essay should be out early on in July with the one on Elvis coming a bit later in the monyh.
Until next time, may good listening be with you all!
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“To the town of Aqua Fria rode a stranger one fine day
Hardly spoke to folks around him, didn’t have too much to say.
No one dared to know his business, no one dared to make a slip
For the stranger there among them had a big iron on his hip.”
‘Big Iron’ - lyrics by Marty Robbins
Like all genres of storytelling, a tale of the American West can explore many archetypes: a town besieged by a gang of outlaws, a loner gunman who will deliver frontier justice, stagecoaches, cattle drives, shootouts, fast draws, saloons, general stores, barber shops, churches, ranches, spittoons, flasks, moonshine, corn liquor, whiskey, Tombstone, Monument Valley, the OK Corral, Billy the Kid, Pat Garrett, Doc Holliday, Wyatt Earp, Clementine, Jesse James, Ford, Hawks, Leone, Peckinpah, John Wayne, Roy Rogers, Herb Jeffries, Clint, Randolph Scott, Katy Jurado, Ward Bond, James Coburn, Woody Strode, Lonesome Dove, Ride the High Country, Rio Bravo, My Darling Clementine…the facts and the legends intermingling into one thread telling How the West Was Won, how lawlessness was tamed and civilization triumphed over chaos. How much is truth? How much is fantasy? The answer may be found in Marshall Scott’s (Carelton Young) retort in Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962): “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
It’s then not surprising that when Marty Robbins recounted his grandfather on his mother’s side, “Texas Bob” Heckle, telling him Western tales as a youngster, he remarked that he was never entirely sure if Heckle was the Texas Ranger that he assured the young Robbins that he was.
Born in Glendale, Arizona in 1925, Robbins taught himself how to play guitar and write songs during the Second World War while he served in the United States Navy. Upon his return to civilian life in 1947, Robbins pursued the country-music life, playing around Arizona, eventually getting his own radio show and then, his own TV show. When “Little” Jimmy Dickens guested, Robbins impressed him so much that Dickens convinced his record label, Columbia, to take a flier on Robbins and sign him, an association that lasted into the seventies.
Robbins’ initial success came at the beginning of the first rock-and-roll explosion with a hybrid best described as pop music crossed with the driest of Western swing and an even dryer touch of the new rock music. Teaming up with soft-music legend Ray Conniff, no one would characterize these records as revolutionary, but the best of them endure as old home movies set to song, powerful exercises in nostalgia, especially ‘A White Sports Coat (and a Pink Carnation).’
Written by Robbins in less than half-an-hour, the song is as evocative of the fifties as malt shops, sock hops, and Leave it to Beaver, yet in the simple tale it tells, boiled down to its essentials “being all dressed up with nowhere to go” and the yearning of the soon-to-be-adult to experience the grown-up world of romance, it achieves a timelessness and at its centre, it’s Robbins who sells it. It’s partly in the details: the “white sports coat,” the “pink carnation,” the dashed dream of scoring a date to prom, our dapper protagonist stood up and in a “blue, blue mood.” It’s also in Robbins’ voice, a malleable, versatile and adaptable instrument, combining elements of George Jones (sincerity and a linkage to country music’s past), Don Gibson (an air of the cosmopolitan and a feel for the Nashville Sound) and Ray Price (an innate quality of diction and the ability to sing the standard pop repertoire). He could sing country, pop, light jazz, Hawaiian and gospel music with conviction. He was also a natural storyteller, a chronicler of the tales and rituals of the American West. In his way, he was country music’s John Ford.
One needn’t look further than the song upon which Robbins’ reputation still most strongly stands: ‘El Paso.’ Telling the tale of a cowboy’s all-consuming love for the dancer Feleena and where jealously inexorably leads him, ‘El Paso’ is a short story in verse set to song, the action unfolding employing the traditional verse-chorus structure.
Beyond the dazzling trick of seamlessly transitioning lines from chorus to verse—a feat of technical virtuosity on Robbins’ part—the song is packed with details to paint a vivid, unfolding mental image: the whirling of Feleena at Rosa’s Cantina, the rapid discharge from the narrator’s rifle that kills a rival for her love, the fleeing from Rosa’s, the ill-fated return as he is flanked on both sides by a posse that will inevitably render frontier justice, the final kiss and embrace from Feleena as he dies. It takes Robbins well over four minutes to relate this tale—an eternity by the standards of pop and country music at the end of the fifties—yet the involving, engrossing way he tells it turned ‘El Paso’ into a chart-topping sensation on both the Billboard pop and country singles charts. It also formed the heart of Robbins’ first full-length album dedicated solely to the Western song: Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs.
What astonishes on hearing the album 63 years after it was recorded in one eight-hour session on April 7, 1959 at Owen Bradley’s Film and Recording Studio, better known as the Quonset Hut and along with RCA’s Studio B the heart of country-music record making in the fifties and into the sixties in Nashville, is its’ ability to lure the listener in over the course of the record’s 12 songs, four of them written by Robbins.
If the cover, with Robbins all duded up and in the midst of drawing his pistol, suggests ill-advised cosplay, the music affirms Robbins as the ideal messenger of these songs. Even on those where the narratives are laden with details upon details like ‘The Strawberry Roan,’ a tale of a horse tamer who meets his match with the horse in the title of the song who proves to be “a regular outlaw,” and the closing ‘Utah Carol,’ in which the song’s narrator recounts the death of his partner who in an act of selflessness saves the life of their boss’s daughter, Lenore, during a stampede. Robbins, with his finely honed diction, navigates the arcs of these stories with ease. On ‘Utah Carol,’ hear how he shades the line at the beginning urging everyone to “run in your ponies closer and I’ll tell to you my tale” and at the end, relaying the wish of the preacher at Utah’s funeral, “I hope we’ll all meet Utah at the roundup far away.” He brings poignancy to the words and extracts emotional involvement from the listener.
On the opener, ‘Big Iron,’ Robbins imparts the drama and suspense as the visiting Arizona ranger—the mysterious, forbidding loner wearing his mission on his hip—looks to take “dead or alive” Texas Red, a 24-year old hot head with “one and 19 more” notched on his gun. The galloping introduction by Grady Martin on guitar is also critical to the song’s success and for that matter, the entire album.
Martin, as lithe and light a picker as there was in Nashville, was perhaps only rivaled by Chet Atkins and Hank Garland as the greatest guitarist of them all in Music City. Martin’s single-line runs are the most recognized element of ‘El Paso’ and his flamenco-like chording on ‘Billy the Kid’ elegantly signals the story’s progression to the Kid’s fateful encounter with sheriff Pat Garrett.
The background harmonies of the Glaser Brothers are also a key ingredient to Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Song’s stature. Comprising brothers Tompall, Chuck and Jim, their presence has the album both looking backward in homage to the Sons of the Pioneers, one of the first and most enduring of the cowboy singing groups, and remaining au courant with the Nashville Sound.
On Robbins’ version of ‘Cool Water,’ the Glaser Brothers with Robbins approximate the harmonies of the Sons of the Pioneers and make vivid the almost existential thirst for “cool, clear water” in Bob Nolan’s standard. Nolan was a founding member of the Sons of the Pioneers and ‘Cool Water’ is their most famous contribution to the country reperotire. This blend also distinguishes ‘A Hundred and Sixty Acres,’ ‘The Little Green Valley,’ ‘Running Gun’ and ‘In the Valley,’ with Robbins’ trademark glissandos stretching out “come back” in a cowboy lament of lost love.
Conversely, the backing of the Glaser Brothers on ‘Big Iron,’ and the masterful salvation tale in the midst of a stampede ‘The Master’s Call,’ follow the model of the Jordanaires, Nashville’s premier vocal group at the time.
All the elements combined to make Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs a massive hit—one of the first, if not the first, long-playing country album of distinction. If the outward feel is of a West where heroism is lionized, the land is sacred and the bad only triumph when redeemed, the transformative nature of the music—by that, I mean the way Robbins commands your attention—is what ultimately matters. Hence, it was no surprise that a sequel was soon in the works.
More Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs, released about a year after its forebear, doesn’t mess too much with the established formula. Robbins appears again awkwardly on the cover—in a tongue-in-cheek move, it’s Robbins as well in the wanted poster tacked to the tree—and Grady Martin and the Glaser Brothers once again provide vital musical accompaniment. While lighting doesn’t entirely strike the second time around, it doesn’t need to for the symbiosis between Robbins and the West is ingrained enough to see elements of an evolution in his contribution to this sub-genre of country.
There are the mariachi horns on ‘San Angelo,’ a Western twist on Romeo and Juliet (not to mention ‘El Paso’ too) and a deeply compelling tale woven over five-and-a-half minutes, the urgency of ‘Five Brothers,’ in which Martin’s guitar mimics the rush of the horses of the fraternal revenge seekers frantically searching to find the gambler who killed their father (wait until the end as Robbins delivers a warning against the thirst for vengeance) and the plaintive cover of the classic ‘Streets of Lardeo,’ in which Robbins wisely allows the words to do all the talking.
But, to counter these virtues, there are the vices of treacle in ‘Song of the Bandit’ even as Martin is superb and Robbins’ yodelling is the highest form of ear candy, the cynicism of ‘I’ve Got No Use for the Women’ and the overblown rhetoric of ‘This Peaceful Sod’ where Jim Glaser’s song has Robbins telling as opposed to showing the pleasures of the land.
In the final analysis however, the virtues linger long after the vices have been forgotten. They also manage to power through a further sequel of Western songs, The Return of the Gunfighter, released in 1963, in which two of the 12 tracks are re-recordings of songs on the previous volumes of cowboy music (‘The Master’s Call’ and ‘San Angelo’) and three others (‘Dusty Winds,’ ‘The Bend in the River’ and ‘Abilene Rose’) had appeared just a year earlier on A Portrait of Marty. If the former are unnecessary—in particular, the new version of ‘The Master’s Call’ is taken way too fast—the latter are wonderful examples of Robbins’ ease with singing with the Jordanaires, who appear instead of the Glaser Brothers on the album.
But, the question beckons, could Robbins have exhausted all he wanted to say about the West? The answer, coming three years later in the form of The Drifter, was a conclusive no. Even before the album appeared, Robbins had starred in a short-lived TV series, also called The Drifter, from which its songs came and in which he appeared as a wandering Western singing troubadour. Art imitating life.
The Drifter has Robbins finding renewed inspiration in the themes of good versus bad, fate, heartbreak, honour anr the divinity of nature, particularly on ‘Cry Stampede,’ in which Robbins is in full control of his instrument, ‘Cottonwood Tree,’ a mortality tale of a gambler facing an inevitable end and the opener, ‘Meet Me in Laredo’ where an outlaw is redeemed by the love of a good woman.
Yet, Robbins can’t resist gazing back to where it all started: ‘El Paso.’ The eight-minute-plus ‘Feleena’ takes us back to the Texas town but this time, from the perspective of the whirling woman at Rosa’s Cantina. We learn she ran away from home at 17 to wind up in Santa Fe and then to El Paso, was paid to dance at the Cantina and to flirt with the cowboys and we gain new perspective of the jealousy of the man whose love for her hastened himself to his doom and how after he was gunned down, Feleena turned his gun on herself.
It’s like that sometimes with artists. There’s a particular theme or story that resonates, that demands inspection and constant reinspectation, chipping away at it from different angles, trying to reach an elemental truth in the process. The American West and particular aspects of it have fascinated some of our greatest creative minds: Ford with ritual, Peckinpah with honour, Hawks with camaraderie and arguably Robbins with the people who resided in the towns and the lands that stretched out from them and more specifically, the narrative of ‘El Paso.’
Ten years after ‘Feleena’ and 17 after ‘El Paso,’ he wrote and recorded ‘El Paso City,’ where Robbins sings about flying over the city and remembering someone (himself!) singing a song about it, wondering if “could it be that I could be the cowboy in my story that died there in the desert so long ago?” Perhaps here is the ultimate key to why his Western music stands as Robbins’ most important and consequential work. It may not have been simply the filter of nostalgia of childhood yarns spun by a grandfather but perhaps something more mystical and mysterious at play, a sort of psychic connection that breached time and dimension. As Robbins asks: “Can it be that one can disappear from life and live another time?”
The answer is unknowable but what a thing to ponder while listening to this music. Is any of it fact? Is it all legend? Could it have been something else entirely?