season 1 episode 6 transcription
Have Gun Will Travel, Fury, Maverick, these were just 3 of the 39 westerns newly released to television for the 1958 season—and this was when there was only 3 networks and a smattering of independent stations. But what about the movies? Well according to my sources there were 54 Western themed films released that year. Films with titles like:
Fort Dobbs (clip)
And Crooked Trail (clip)
Not to mention, The Fiend Who Walked the West, Flaming Frontier, A Lust to Kill, The Proud Rebel, Saddle the Wind, and so many, many more. So to release a record in September of 1959 called Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs seemed like an attempt to ride a cultural wave—Then why didn’t anyone—including Marty Robbins—think it would be a hit?
Martin David Robinson was born in Glendale Arizona in 1925. He lived with his large family in very poor conditions. Living in tents and shacks in the deserts of America’s Southwest with a loving mother and an abusive, alcoholic father produced a young man who used humor and music to mask his shyness, and, what must have been, a hard and often traumatic existence. Like so many future entertainers, he became the class clown. When 11 year old Martin saw the movie The Yodelin’ Kid From Pine Ridge starring Gene Autry, he found both a hero and a goal: to be a singing cowboy
Marty Robbins, the country music superstar, commented later, quote, I was down there sitting in front. I would sit so close to the screen that I would get powder burns when the guns would go off. I tell you, I’d get sand kicked in my face, tumbleweeds rolled across me. Unquote.
Later, he wrote of this experience in his song Gene Autry, My Hero
After a stint in the Navy in the last years of World War 2, Martin Robinson was sitting in a bar when he heard the song that would change the course of his life. The singer was Eddy Arnold
When country star Little Jimmy Dickens heard Martin Robinson perform he decided to introduce him to the folks at Columbia records. This led to a one year contract and a name change. Although never legally, Martin David Robinson became Marty Robbins.
Marty released four records fo Columbia in the 1950s. They were all considered country, but he was clearly searching for a sound. His first release, Rock'n Roll'n Robbins was straight up rockabilly
In 1957 it was Song Of the Islands, perhaps a shot at cashing in on the Calypso craze
A recurring theme throughout this podcast is the magic of what happens when artists return to their roots—when they listen to and produce the sound in their heads, not the heads of a studio executive or producer. Marty had built up enough cred with Columbia Records to release a little pet project of Western songs. They expected to sell about 500. It did that, and then went on to be certified Gold in 1965 and then platinum in 1986. The breakout single, El Paso, Held the number one position on both the country and Pop charts at the same time, and, to this day, the ballad shows up for study in the curriculum of the Texas public schools. In 2017, Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs was selected for preservation in
the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or artistically significant.” The record was a smash. The entire album was recorded on April 7, 1959 in one, eight hour session.
According to Marty, the idea for the first track, Big Iron, came from one of the many stories his grandfather, Texas Bob Heckle, told him as a boy. Like many other of the songs on Gunfighter Ballads, the song is a mini-Western movie. I never quite understood how the term ballad has come to mean a slow song in popular music. The true meaning of the word relates
to songs that tell stories. Stories like Big Iron.
As you listen to Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs, and I hope you do, focus in on the astounding harmonies and background vocals provided by Bobby Sykes and Tompall and the Glaser Brothers. It is a master class in harmony and arrangement. Many of those arrangements and subtleties were worked out in the backseat of cars traveling the hundreds of miles to and from gigs leading up to this eight hour session. Speaking of harmony, next up, Marty draws from another of his early influences, The Sons Of the Pioneers with Cool Water.
The song was written by Bob Nolan in 1936 and is considered to be one of the most important Western songs of all time. Ranger Doug will comment on the style of their harmony singing a little later on in the podcast, so stick around for that.
Track 3 digs down into the tradition for another song that often makes the top 100 western songs list, Billy the Kid. Recorded earlier by Carson Robison and Vernon Dalhart, the song does a great job propping up the myths and legend of the outlaw.
You may remember from episode 5 on Woody Guthrie’s Dustbowl Ballads that Woody’s melody for his song, So Long It’s Been Good To Know You, borrowed heavily from Billy the Kid.
A Hundred and Sixty acres occupies just one minute and forty seconds of the album. It was written by David Kapp about the romantic and carefree life of the cowboy.
Side one closes with the popular western song Strawberry Roan—one of the most widely sung and recorded cowboy songs. Written by Curley Fletcher, originally a poem, the song relates the tale of the match-up between a braggart cowboy and the horse that tamed him. I really like the cowboy’s description of the horse:
I also love how these studio musicians, Grady Martin, guitar, Bob Moore, bass, Jack Pruett, rhythm guitar, and Louis Dunn, drums play so tastefully while leaving the exact space needed to tell the story.
Side two of Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs by Marty Robbins opens with, as I’ve already said, one of the greatest of all Western songs. People of all ages, throughout generations can name that tune nine seconds:
Let’s talk about Grady Martin.
Widely regarded as a musical genius in Nashville and beyond, Grady Martin’s guitar work is just a thing of beauty. Merle Haggard once said. “He understood some things about music that nobody else understood. When he’d put that down on your record, it was like a gift.” Grady Martin was an undisputed member of Nashville’s A Team of studio musicians. He worked his magic with Hank Williams, Elvis, Patsy Cline, Johnny Horton, this list goes on and on. He was also, of course, the one who invented and played this:
Now, for more on Grady Martin, I recommend you check out the amazing podcast Cocaine & Rhinestones hosted by Tyler Mahan Coe. His devotion to the deep-dive history of 20th century country music is a marvel, and it’s the inspiration for the podcast you’re listening to right now. Cocaine & Rhinestones—check it out. As for El Paso, Grady martins guitar is like a character in the story. No solos—all fills. Oh, and those backing vocals…I could seriously devote a whole episode to the song but for now, here’s the ending…
By the way—I read in the book 20th Century Drifter The Life Of Marty Robins by Diane Dickman, that Felina was actually the name of one of Marty’s classmates in grade school. Someone asked Marty once how many times he’s sung El Paso on stage. He said something to the effect of—just count up how many personal appearances I’ve done since 1959 and you’ll have your answer. He sang it at every one of them.
Marty wrote the next two songs on the Album as well. The Master’s Call, a nod to the religious cowboy genre of songs and In the Valley—just a perfect little piece full of cowboy love and longing.
Another exquisite example of how much you can do with a great singer, impeccable guitar fills and perfect harmony.
Next up is a sweet little tune from the pen of Carson Robison. Compact and laden with nature images, it’s another song of the cowboy out on the trail and fantasizing about life back home. In his case, in that little green valley
For the final track on Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs, Marty reaches back for one of those tried and true traditional cowboy ballads, Utah Carol. It’s got it all. Friendship, loyalty, a woman in peril, the man who loves her enough to put his life on the line to save her, horses…you know, a cowboy ballad…
Researching and producing this podcast has really given me some interesting perspective on how music used to be made. Marty Robbins, along with eight other stellar musicians, recorded Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs in one eight hour session 63 years ago. These 12 songs, totaling only 35 Minutes and 25 seconds, continue to have an impact on listeners, performers, and writers well into the start of the 21st century. The songs show up in modern films, on television programs and in video games. Almost no one predicted that this record would be successful. Marty Robbins maintained his country superstar status right up to his death by heart attack (his fourth, by the way) at the age of 57 in 1982. In his career he recorded 52 studio albums and released 100 singles. He transformed from the guy who stared at his shoes at his first Gand Ol Opry appearance into one of the most engaging and charismatic performers of American roots music.
We are so fortunate to have as our guest on this episode none other than the idol of American youth, the governor of the great state of rhythm, a phenomenal musician and a scholar of American western music, Douglas Green, AKA, Ranger Doug. Thousands know him as the guitarist and singer with Rider’s In the Sky—the cowboy quartet still going strong since 1977. He is also a member of the Nashville super group, The Time Jumpers. His book, Singing in the Saddle has become THE go to for anyone wanting to know more about the American singing cowboy. His next book, due out in 2023 will be about the life of the songwriter, Carson Robison. I caught up with Ranger Doug at his home in Nashville and asked him if Marty Robins and Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs had an influence on him.
Oh, yeah, definitely. Of course I heard a lot of Western music growing up on the radio. I heard Cool Water and Riders In the Sky and on TV I heard all the, you know, theme from Maverick and Sugarfoot, Cheyenne and, uh, just Western music was something I always loved. But, uh, when I was a kid, I was about 13 when El Paso came out. It was a big hit. Running Gun and…what’s the other one that was a hit for him right around ’59 and ’60? So I was listening to the radio… big iron. I was listening to those on the radio as well. And I guess about 1971 or so I had, well, maybe a little later, roughly— I got an eight track tape of this album, gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs, and I popped that eight track tape into the little blue van and I played it over and over and over again. The harmony was so right and the songs were so interesting. He just had such a respectful approach to that music yet It was different than, than anyone else’s. And he had such a marvelous voice too. So I played that tape a thousand times until I wore it thin in that van.
For those of you who don’t remember listening to 8 track tapes, allow me to simulate one of the reasons the format was quickly replaced by cassettes. When it was time to switch tracks, it didn’t care where you were in the song. Sort of like this…
I asked Ranger Doug if El Paso and Gunfighter Ballads inspired him to learn, sing and perform cowboy music.
Uh, listening to that album certainly shoved me in that direction. What probably shoved me even more was in 1974 I went to the first and apparently the last Western Swing Festival in Tulsa. And for some reason they'd booked the Sons Of the Pioneers on that show, which I didn't think they would, you know, that's not a band that really swung in the same way a western dance band does. And man, after all those beer drinking and heartbreak songs, they got up there and sang about the Timber Trail and Cool Water and Way Out There, and suddenly, you know, it just brought back my whole childhood to me and I said, ‘yes, this, I love this music of the outdoors.’ And that that's what really propelled the beginnings of Riders In the Sky.
Next, Ranger Doug commented on what may have influenced Marty Robbins
Well, he had grown up loving western music. I think gene Autry was one of his heroes and obviously he knew the repertoire of the Sons Of the Pioneers, because he picked some of Bob Nolan's greatest tunes, like Song Of the Bandit. He was what we call a polymath. He did Caribbean, he did rockabilly, He did straight country, he did, as you say, two Hawaiian albums. He's just an incredible entertainer. I'm glad I got to know him and sing with him a little bit.
How, how did that happen under what circumstances did you get to know him and sing with him?
A guy named Chuck Morgan used to, do the late night show on WSM, and he would get different entertainers up there. And one night it just happened that Ricky Skaggs and Marty Robbins and I were up there getting interviewed and we just sang some songs over WSM. I was still in my softball uniform. I'd played a game earlier that evening.
Doug also talked about the influence of guitarist, Grady Martin
Oh, he was a huge, huge part of it because western music, it sort of petered out by then. It was fiddle in accordion, and sometimes steel guitar. And just to have just the solo guitar playing was, you know, completely a unique sound. And Marty had a unique voice and it just was a fantastic combination. I don't know why, why they came up with it. There's very little fiddle on that.
It's interesting. Marty didn't do the Pioneer style harmony either— where they would switch leads all the time. They would sing in a range, you know, and it didn't matter where the melody went. The singers would stay in the same range. Marty Robbins, like the bluegrass players, he just sang the melody all the time and Bobby Sykes sang the baritone. They would have to just follow his lead the whole way.
Bringing the sense of the adult Western into the genre was a particular gift that Marty Robbins brought. The Pioneer's music was all about nature and the outdoors, and some love songs, but very few songs about bandits, outlaws and gunfights. Yet, the Western had evolved from the sunny optimism of Gene Autry to the adult westerns of the early fifties and middle fifties. And I think Marty Robbins saw a little space there to create, as you say, little movies in song, and, it was brilliant. It was a brilliant concept and he was a brilliant writer.
I asked Doug to comment on Marty’s choice of including the cowboy classic strawberry Roan and the writer of the song, Curley Fletcher
Well, he was an early cowboy poet, and, he also wrote the Bad Brahma Bull that Tex Ritter had a good record of. The strawberry Roan was quite a sensation in its day. It was really just about the first cowboy hit. I know When the Work's All Done This Fall was considered the first cowboy hit, but the Strawberry Roan was right behind it.
Who would have had a hit with the Strawberry Roan?
The Arizona Wranglers, the group that never, no one's ever heard of since. Nubbins, step up here nubbins and sing the Strawberry Roan.
What, what do you think it is about that song that has made it enduring? I mean, it's, it's been around a long time. People still sing it.
Yeah. Well, it's, uh, it tells a funny tale. It's just memorable in the way that a lot of those songs aren’t, and It's very visual—like a lot of Western music, extremely visual. You can just see the cowboy going up in the air and coming down on nothing.
In the next clip, Ranger Doug refers to the verse that Marty Robbins left out of his version of Carson Robison’s song, Little Green Valley. In older music, verses were often as sort of a lead in to the first chorus of a song. Some of the most well known songs have verses that almost no one is familiar with. If you heard was Ella Fitzgerald singing this
You might not realize what the song was until she sings this:
Same thing with Little Green Valley
That's probably my favorite song on the record, but he doesn't do the verse and the Vernan Dalhaart record of it does do the verse, and it’s a really sweet little verse.
I asked Ranger Doug if he had any final thoughts on Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs
Well, I would say it was one of the building blocks that made Riders In the Sky possible because I got Slim interested in it too. There were several things that led to my interest in forming a group and playing western music and one of them was the radio transcriptions that the FOY Williams and the Riders of the Purple Sage and the Sons Of the Pioneers did in the late forties. And that was a couple of big building blocks, but this Marty Robbins, Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs was certainly a huge building block because those songs were accessible, and they were so different than the feeling sorry for yourself and falling off the bar stool and hitting on your neighbor's wife songs, you know? It was just music about the outdoors, and it brought all that back to me. That's one of the three or four foundational records that, that meant so much to me.