Old/New Albums: Marty Robbins’ “Gunfighter Ballads And Trail Songs”

gunfighterballadsI did a Glen Campbell album earlier in this blog series, and I thought I had struck the goldmine of old-fashioned Country ’n’ Western music. I now think I was wrong. Marty Robbins and his album Gunfighter Ballads And Trail Songs is the pinnacle of old-timey country music to me. GBATS is full of narrative, songs about outlaws, redemption, owning land, unrequited love and the like. If you’re itching for some good country music, start here.

Musically, it’s got the classic plonky-wonky country sound. This whole album feels like it has one consistent rhythmic pattern, fitting it perfectly in the country/western pigeonhole. If you’re partial to that sound, you’ll love listening to this.

Robbins has a silken voice. He never overdoes it with the vibrato (looking at you, Glen Campbell). This might be one of the biggest reasons I like this old country music so much. Robbins has no need to vocally prove to the listener that he’s from the South. Current country music is all about the twang, singing about “mah gurl,” “Gawd ba-less the USA,” and “surchin’ you fer ticks.” The Southern accents are so heavy-handed in pop country music, as though you’ll see right through the sheer plasticity of the country spirit unless you can geographically place where the vocalist was born. Classic country music isn’t anything like that.

The album is also replete with period-specific vocal harmonies. This is the kind of vocal harmonic layering that groups like Crosby, Stills & Nash repurposed in the late ‘60s. Bluegrass fans will get a kick out of that element, even if they don’t groove on the overall country sound.

While I didn’t fall in love with every single song on the album, the entire thing is enjoyable to listen to. Nothing abrasive, nothing inaccessible. And the stand-outs are really awesome. “Big Iron” was featured on an in-game radio station in a recent popular video game, and fans of Breaking Bad might recognize “El Paso” as the song that Walt listens to as he plots his return journey in the final episode.

Sidebar: while “El Paso” wasn’t one of my favorites on the album, the way Vince Gilligan used it in the series finale of the show was truly inspired. Listening closely to the lyrics, the entire story of “El Paso” mirrors the narrative arc of Walter White. It’s about a cowboy who falls in love with a dangerous Mexican woman by the name of Feleena (the name of the series finale is actually “Felina.” Gilligan slightly changed the spelling of the woman’s name to be an anagram of “finale,” as well as three separate chemical symbols: Fe, Li, and Na, or three elements in blood, meth, and tears. That show was truly remarkable).

But “Big Iron” is the high point of the album for me. It tells the saga of a deadly outlaw and a ranger who duel with the eponymous pistol. Not sure what it is about this song I like so much, but it seems to tie together so many of the elements about this old style of country that I like so well. Fantastic melody line, understated vocal layering and unique speech cadence, all on top of a plonky little chord progression. One of the more memorable Old/New songs I’ve heard in this blog series, thus far.

This is just good ol’ cowboy country, and Marty Robbins embodies the ideals and spirit of country much more fully than any modern country vocalist. If modern country could reclaim half of the country soul in this album, I would listen. And look at him. It takes a true cowboy badass to look that awesome against that Pepto-Bismol-pink background.

Top 3 Tunes:

  1. Big Iron
  2. Master’s Call
  3. Billy The Kid

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