MARTY ROBBINS – GUNFIGHTER BALLADS & TRAIL SONGS
Released September 1959 – 57 years ago
Robbins’ fifth studio album is arguably one of the most influential country & western releases of all time. Featuring a range of tracks that include love songs, spirituals, murder ballads, and traditional covers all told from a master storyteller’s perspective, this release recalls the “old west” of myth, legend, and 50s western movies. More nostalgic than dated, these songs still carry weight.
The Classic Pick is a weekly feature at 4 p.m. Monday-Friday on The Home Stretch, sponsored by the Good Oak Bar and curated by Kris Kerry. Each Monday at 4 p.m. Kris stops by KXCI’s studio to give us insight on this classic album at 91.3 FM and KXCI.org.
Marty Robbins was one of the most popular and successful country and western singers of all time with a career that spanned four decades. Born Martin David Robinson September 26, 1925, in Glendale, Arizona, he was one of ten children.
A fan of the western lore as a child, he often noted being told stories of western heroes and gunfighters from his grandfather.
Growing up in a alcoholic home, and his parents were divorced by 1937, and in 1942 Robbins left home at the age of 17 to serve in the US Navy in World War II. Stationed in the Solomon Islands, he learned how to play the guitar and started writing songs to pass the time. While in the Pacific, he learned to love Hawaiian and Polynesian Music – a love he kept his entire life, releasing two Hawaiian-themed albums during his career.
After his discharge from the navy in 1947, Robbins returned to the Phoenix area and began playing local venues and soon found himself hosting his own local country & western radio show, and soon thereafter a local television show on KPHO. Connections made via his TV and radio shows soon led to a record deal with Columbia Records.
In addition to being a recording artist, Robbins was an avid racecar driver, competing in 35 NASCAR Grand National races with six top-ten finishes. His last race was in 1982, just a month before he died from his third heart attack (December 8, 1982). Less than a year after his death, NASCAR honored Robbins by naming the annual race in Nashville the “Marty Robins 420.”
Robbins starred in the 1973 western Guns of a Stranger, playing the part of a sheriff who becomes drifter. He also played the part of a musician in Clint Eastwood’s 1982 movie Honkytonk Man just months before he died.
Gunfighter Ballads & Trail Songs was a hit upon its release, garnering both gold and platinum status within a few years. It is best known for Robbins’ most successful single of his career, “El Paso,” which was a major hit on both the country and pop music charts, reaching #1 on both charts in early 1960. “El Paso” won the Grammy Award for Best Country & Western Recording in 1960. The album produced two other smash singles as well: “Big Iron” and “Cool Water.” All three of these singles were included in the Western Writers of America’s list of the Top 100 Western Songs of All Time.
Gunfighter Ballads & Trail Songs was recorded at Nashville’s Bradley Studios in April 1959. Bradley Studios, later called Columbia Studio B, and now known as Quonset Hut Studios, was the first major recording studio on what would later be known as Music Row in Nashville, Tennessee. Other artists that recorded here include Simon &Garfunkel, Elvis Costello, The Byrds, Johnny Cash, and Bobby Vinton among others. This is the same studio that Brenda Lee’s “I’m Sorry,” and Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” was recorded.
Production credit goes to Don Law, and English-born American record executive and producer who became head of Columbia’s country division in the late 1940s. In addition to working with Robbins, Law also produced records for Bob Willis, Carl Smith, Lefty Frizzell, Ray Price, Johnny Horton, and Johnny Cash.
Robbins has been covered and written about by many bands, including the Grateful Dead who covered “El Paso,” Johnny Cash covering “Big Iron” as part of his American Recordings series, and other songs covered by Elvis Presley, Bob Weir, and others. The Who also penned a song entitled “God Speaks of Marty Robbins.”
The city of El Paso, Texas, honored Robbins by naming a park and recreational center after him and his song.
The character of Faleena in “El Paso” was based on a fifth grade schoolmate of Robbins’ whom he had a schoolboy crush on.
“El Paso” is featured in the video game Fallout: New Vegas, and on the final episode of AMC’s Breaking Bad.
Robbins was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1982, and was awarded a Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 1988. He also has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.