We recently attended a going away party for some friends moving to Texas that was, naturally, a western-themed party. So it seemed only appropriate to listen to Marty Robbins singing about cowboys, gunfighters, and saddle tramps on the drive over — which, to my delight, my kids loved. Since then, Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs has been in nigh-constant rotation around the Opus homestead.
To be clear, Robbins’ vision of the American West is as idealized as a Roy Rogers film. Hence, you get songs like “A Hundred and Sixty Acres” (where Robbins cheerfully sings the praises of his property) and “The Strawberry Roan” (in which a man tries, and fails, to tame “the worst bucker I’ve seen on the range”). So yes, idealized… but never schmaltzy.
Robbins is such a gifted singer with such a rich voice (and backed by the Glaser Brothers’ immaculate harmonies), his storytelling is both evocative and efficient, and the music is so fluid and graceful (thanks to Grady Martin and Jack Pruett’s dextrous guitar work) that it’s impossible not to get swept up alongside him in those western vistas and wish you were out there riding the trail, too. And yet, there are shades of darkness and melancholy in Robbins’ storytelling that gives it a weight and drama belying its glossy, radio-friendly nature.
While certainly not as grim as, say, Nick Cave, Robbins knows how to spin tales of violence and murder (e.g., “Big Iron,” with its suspenseful account of a duel, the sorrowful “They’re Hanging Me Tonight” and “El Paso,” arguably his biggest hit). On my favorite song, “Running Gun,” Robbins sings from the perspective of a gunfighter who can’t outrun his violent past; in his final moments, he comes to the poignant realization that “a woman’s love is wasted when she loves a running gun.” Even the carefree “Saddle Tramp,” which revels in wandering the range “free as the breeze,” is tinged with regret: “At night I will rest ‘neath a blanket of blue/Doubt if I ever will change/I might even dream of a lady I knew/Might even whisper her name.”
Earlier this year, Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs was inducted into the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry “because of [its] cultural, artistic and historical importance to American society and the nation’s audio heritage.” Even so, some may scoff at Robbins’ seemingly simplistic narratives and morality, or at his idealized vision of America’s past — but those are ultimately the album’s strengths.
In Robbins’ western (not country, let’s be clear about that) music, hard work, sacrifice, and camaraderie are celebrated, nature’s beauty is a privilege to enjoy, and though the bad guys may seem the flashiest and most daring, their sins and violence always find them out. Ultimately, Robbins’ tales, for all their studio polish and eminent catchiness, evoke America’s wildest and most mythical times and spaces.