“We got both kinds, we got Country and Western.” If you’ve seen the 1980 movie The Blues Brothers (and if you haven’t, you should), you’re probably familiar with this old joke as Jake and Elwood Blues walk into a honky-tonk and ask the barkeep what kind of live music they usually have. And while it was a joke in the 1980s—and even now—back in 1959, “Western” music was alive and well when Marty Robbins recorded Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs. Marty recorded the epic cowboy album at the Bradley Film & Recording Studio in Nashville 63 years ago on April 7, 1959.
Marty reinvigorated cowboy music with Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs, his best-selling album ever. Of course, Marty was a master of the Western musical genre. Born into humble beginnings in 1925 in Glendale, Arizona—one of 10 children in a struggling family—Marty got his kicks listening to his maternal grandfather, Texas Bob Heckle, spin stories about Texas Rangers and cowboys. Not surprisingly, Marty took a liking to Gene Autry movies.
Marty made an indelible impression with Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs when it was released. Not only did Marty cover cowboy tunes like the Sons of the Pioneers’ mesmerizing “Cool Water” and traditional songs like “The Strawberry Roan,” but he infused new life into the Old West with the Top 5 hit, “Big Iron,” and his genre-bending No. 1 single, “El Paso.” The ballad topped the country charts for seven weeks and earned Marty his first Grammy for Best Country & Western Recording in 1961. Marty’s crossover tune also reached No. 1 on the pop charts.
There are a few interesting sidebars when it comes to Marty’s Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs album.
First, “El Paso” was 4:40 in length, which was considered a marathon in the 1950s and 1960s. Most radio tunes were under three minutes. But Marty bucked the trend with his haunting storytelling. And the tune stayed No. 1 for seven weeks.
Second, “Big Iron,” which reached No. 5 on the country chart in 1960, became an enduring meme 50 years later after being featured in the 2010 video game, Fallout: New Vegas. At 96,000,000 streams on Spotify, it almost doubles that of “El Paso,” which has 49,000,000.
Third, Marty’s musical success allowed him to pursue his expensive hobby: racing. In 1959, Marty Robbins began racing Micros before moving to the dirt track. By 1966, Marty had moved up the NASCAR ladder to the Grand National Division.
The Great Marty Robbins
Marty scored 16 No. 1 hits during his music career, including chart-toppers in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. In addition, he had multiple Top 10 hits in the 1980s. Marty was named the ACM Artist of the Decade for the 1960s. Marty earned his second Grammy in 1971 for “My Woman, My Woman, My Wife.”
He was elected into the Country Music Hall of Fame in October 1982. Marty died on Dec. 8, 1982, at the age of 57 after suffering a heart attack.
For my money, “Western” music doesn’t get any better than Marty’s Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs. Give it a spin on vinyl, and you’ll see what I mean.