By Gurf Morlix
(LSM Jan 2014/vol. 7 – issue 1)
I got an email from Richard Skanse. He asked if I’d be interested in writing an article about my favorite album.
My favorite album? Fuck. How many albums have I called my favorite over the years? I wrote back, in a stream of consciousness: “First one that comes to mind is Blonde on Blonde. Or ANY Beatles album. Of course, Dark Side of the Moon is a major classic. Moondance. For Everyman, or Late For The Sky. Hot Rats, by Zappa. Wheels of Fire. Trout Mask Replica. The Band. My parents had Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, and Artie Shaw records that I loved. Marty Robbins’ Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs! Sandanista. East West, by Paul Butterfield. The Great 28, by Chuck Berry. The Chess Box Set of Muddy Waters. Harry Belafonte’s calypso albums. The Chipmunks. Lefty Frizzell’s Greatest Hits. My Labors, by Nick Gravenites. It Crawled Into My Hand, Honest, by the Fugs. Robert Johnson — King of the Delta Blues. Sticky Fingers by the Stones. Let It Bleed, by the Stones. Live At the Old Quarter. Patti Smith’s Wave. What about Nirvana, or Nilsson? Thelonius Monk. Kiko, by Los Lobos. Run Devil Run, by McCartney. Ray Bonneville’s Roll It Down. Dixie Chicken. Sam Baker’s Mercy. The Harry Smith Anthology. Ray Charles. Jerry Lee. Snake Farm. 50 Guitars Go South of the Border. Gonna be mighty hard to pick.”
I coulda gone on and on. He wrote back, and said, “The one that stands out to me is Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs. How ’bout that one?” It was the one I had intended to write about all along, and I told him that. I said “That was the only one in my list that had an exclamation mark after it.” The punctuation hadn’t been lost on Richard.
Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs, by Marty Robbins, was the first album I ever bought. I was 8 years old. I had saved up the money, somehow. It cost $2.36. I asked my mom for a ride up to the drugstore to buy it. She said, “Don’t spend all your money. Just buy the single, ‘El Paso.’ It’s only 45 cents.” I told her I wanted ALL the songs. I knew I needed all of ’em. In 2005, I recorded the song “They’re Hanging Me Tonight” on my album Cut ’n’ Shoot. I knew when I wuz 8 that I needed all the songs.
The album has the best cover ever. Period. Iconic. Pink and black. So 1959. I walked into a room one time that had lots of album covers all over the walls, and that one popped out like a diamond shining in a box of dirt. There has never been a better cover.
1959 was a good year. The Golden Age. It seems to have been the pinnacle for electric guitars, and amplifiers. Miles Davis made Kind of Blue. The Twilight Zone premiered. Cars had big beautiful fins. The Guggenheim Museum, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, opened. Life was good. America was on a roll. Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs was recorded on April 7, 1959. Think about that. Recorded live. The best album ever made. Made in one day. In the Golden Age. Those guys knew what they were doin’. They were in the zone.
“El Paso,” the huge hit single, was 4 minutes and 38 seconds long, and considered too long for radio listeners to handle. Some record company executive decided to release it at that length, but also to release an edited version, cutting it down to around 3 minutes. The public overwhelmingly preferred the full-length version. The people had spoken. A win for the good guys. The song was featured prominently in the final episode of Breaking Bad. Perfect. Made me feel so good.
“El Paso” is a masterpiece of songwriting. But it’s not the only example on the album. “Big Iron,” the second single, was just as good. Another epic. Two classics on one album. I think you could teach a songwriting course based on “Big Iron.” How that song is structured is amazing to me. Marty was a master. He knew how much information needed to be included to tell the tale, but he also had an amazing ability to know what to leave out, to keep the listeners leaning forward, rapt. There has never been a better songwriter than Marty Robbins. I’ll jump up on Steve Earle’s coffee table with muddy boots on and shout that out. I might even break somethin’, gettin’ up there. Steve will understand. Muddy tracks on his carpet can be cleaned. He will agree with me.
I knew I wanted to play the guitar from the time I was maybe 5 years old. Ever since I saw some guy with one, shakin’ his hips and rockin’ out on the Ed Sullivan Show. The guitar playing on Gunfighter Ballads warped my young mind. Whoever it was, I had never heard anything so perfect in all my short life. They didn’t have credits on albums back then, but I found out decades later that it was Grady Martin. If Grady never played another note in his life, his playing on that album would last for all time. Seriously. Til the end of time.
Marty Robbins is without a doubt one of the finest singers to ever walk the earth. Smooth and sure. A natural voice. I knew that when I was 8, and I know it now. I wondered for years who the people singing harmony with him were. The background vocals floored me from my first listen. Many years later I learned it was Tompall Glaser and the Glaser Brothers. They sounded just like Marty. Sublime. Beyond sublime. They were perfect.
I own this album on vinyl, cassette, and CD, and if the format changes again soon, I’ll buy it again, no matter. I’ve probably listened to it more than any other album. There’s not a better representation of humanity anywhere in the universe. In my humble opinion.