In the ’40s and ’50s, country and old-timey gospel music were generally the sounds you heard on the radio. But among these rural rhythms and sacred melodies, there rose a smaller contingent of singers who had become enamored with the ideals and images of the Old West-of cowboys and Indians and the lonesome life of a man of the land. Serialized Westerns were nothing new, with films like “The Baron of Arizona” and “Across the Wide Missouri” playing to large audiences and giving people a new fascination with these iconic cultural archetypes.
The themes of isolation, masculinity and a need to forgo the luxuries of civilization for something more primal became immediately romanticized, appealing to those who saw the encroaching urbanization of cities to be needlessly destructive. This idea of living off the land and providing for oneself from hard work and ability was something that interested many people who felt that we had forgotten the lessons that had been handed down from previous generations and were looking to simplify their own lives. It was a need to see the past as something idyllic and free from compromise.
For singer Marty Robbins, this kind of music was just about getting the details and experience right. As a child, he was regaled by his grandfather about stories of the American West, which led to a lifelong fascination with this time period and its musical associations. He joined the Navy during World War II and was stationed in the Solomon Islands. As a way of coping with the long days, he taught himself how to play the guitar and began writing songs-it was also here that he developed a love for Hawaiian music.
After his discharge in 1947, he returned home to Arizona and took up residence in Phoenix, where he began performing at several local venues. He hosted his own radio show on KTYL and then got his own television show on KPHO-TV. Robbins convinced country singer Little Jimmy Dickens to pay a visit to his show, and, impressed with Robbins, Dickens helped him get a record contract with Columbia Records. Robbins would go on to become famous for his memorable and many visits to the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville.
After a collection of well-received singles and albums, including “I’ll Go On Alone,” “Singing the Blues” and “A White Sport Coat,” Robbins released what many consider his greatest record. Inspired by stories of the American West, “Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs” was his way of making these legends come alive in a way that few people had ever experienced. Cowboys, criminals and the harsh realities of living among both were fodder for his musical journey through the dusty, dangerous life in the West. Armed with only his guitar and some amazing session musicians (bassist Bob Moore, drummer Louis Dunn, singers Tompall & the Glaser Brothers, and guitarists Grady Martin and Jack Pruett), Robbins was able to convincingly evoke the noise and feeling of this landscape without ever sounding slight or careless.
“Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs” was Robbins’ highest-charting album, and it contains some of his most well-loved songs. The opening track, “Big Iron,” has become a country music staple and has been covered by everyone from Johnny Cash to Bob Weir & Kingfish, and was even used in the video game “Fallout: New Vegas.” The combination of detailed storytelling and compelling musical accompaniment gave this song an almost-mythic feel-this was a story of good and evil and the consequences of crossing the paths of righteous and unrighteous men.
This record is also home to “El Paso,” which, along with “A White Sport Coat” and “Big Iron,” is one of his most successful and beloved songs. But the adoration that this song currently enjoys (and you could say this about Robbins’ music in general) isn’t because he was doing anything revolutionary-it was because he was giving a voice to people who had long since left the consciousness of America. And people were ready to embrace these bucolic truisms in a way that felt honest and without any saccharine sentiment. This record came at a time when things were moving quickly for America, both in terms of technological and societal advances, and a majority of people wanted something simpler, something less tied to the fast pace of congested city life.
If you look deeper into this collection, you’ll find songs that feel as authentic and compelling as anything that actually went out over the radio as singles when the record was released. Tracks such as “The Master’s Call” and “In the Valley” are Robbins originals and stand out as some of his most-thought-out and fascinating pieces. You can almost see the dust covering each word and note-the way he sets the tone and space for each story is extraordinary and keeps you riveted as each story is given room to unfurl.
The musical stories of the American West may have faded from the public view, but they’re not forgotten, not entirely. And by looking back to records like “Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs,” you can get a glimpse, however brief, of the landscape that wound its way across America in the 18th century. This period of time was characterized by hard men and women working an equally hard and unforgiving land, but through their hard work, a burgeoning conglomeration of states turned into a nation of united individuals.
These stories changed from life to legend and inspired countless musicians Marty Robbins in their attempt to convey the sense of awe and romantic nostalgia that permeates this kind of music. Robbins may not have been the first person to inhabit these musical lands, but he certainly painted them brighter and more vividly than anyone else.
Joshua Pickard covers local and national music, film and other aspects of pop culture. You can contact him on Facebook, Twitter or by email. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.