"Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs"
1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die + 1000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die
Back in the day (and I mean back in the day), country music was labeled as “country-western” and was sung by people who lived in the country; not just the south. Although Burl Ives’s folk days might stand out to listeners as the signature Western voice, the biggest name in actual Western music was Marty Robbins, largely thanks to his album “Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs.” Robbins was established within the rock ‘n’ roll scene, and found more success when he turned to his Arizona childhood and old west tales for inspiration.
The record was a concept album in the sense that every song was about exactly what the title suggests: gunfighters and driving cattle. Robbins pulled eight already established tracks from other vocalists in the subgenre and western standards. For his purposes, it didn’t matter that he only wrote four original songs. It may have helped the album out however. Those four are among the best.
Album opener “Big Iron” is a typical tale of Texas Ranger versus notorious outlaw, and is actually the least appealing track that Robbins wrote. “El Paso” is a more intriguing tale about a cowboy with an overwhelming obsession with a waitress in the titular city. Listeners also found it captivating, awarding it the first Grammy for “Best Country/Western” song. One track that doesn’t get the attention it deserves is “The Master’s Call,” a tale of a cattle driver who survives a terrible storm and hears the voice of God. Perhaps the religious overtones overshadow the Western themes for some listeners, but it is still the best written song on this album.
Most country music, realistically most music in general, features lyrics that are addressed at singular individuals, whether the message is one of love, violence or the like. Robbins is different in that nearly every track is written in narrative form. All of the songs I mentioned in the previous paragraph as well as standards like “Utah Carol” and “The Strawberry Roan” are stories that have introductions, rising action and established conclusions. Metaphor is at an all time low, but the developing plots make for interesting listens.
Granted, Robbins’s voice is not gruff like an ideal, hardened trail-rider. He based his voice on cowboy movie star Gene Autry, a far shot from John Wayne, who is of course a long shot from Billy the Kid. Aside from his being from Arizona, Robbins’s tales aren’t meant to be packed with authenticity. Today however, Robbins’ narrative style stands out, and “Gunfighter Ballads” could be compared to a simpler version of a Decemberists album.
INTERESTING FACT: Rosa’s Cantina, the main setting of “El Paso,” is a real bar in the city that was open when Robbins wrote the album. I tried to research it, but the cantina does not have its own website and I couldn’t establish whether it dated back to the 19th century.