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Music / Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs

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"What is a gunfighter ballad? You see, that’s not country-and-western. That’s cowboy music, or western music. That’s how the stories were related back in the early days of the American West, just like in England, you know. Stories were told by different people. News went around by word of mouth, and that’s the way the early American cowboy songs were done. Folk music is songs about what happened in this country, and your cowboy songs — that’s American folk music."

Marty Robbins' fifth and most famous album, 1959's Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs was, true to its title, a Concept Album of songs about The Wild West. Though Robbins had already made a name as a rockabilly (he was the first singer to cover "That's All Right") and country singer, Gunfighter Ballads was conceived as a folk album. The album's success, both critical and commercial, helped codify a shift in Country Music in general, helping to differentiate it from rock and roll even after outlaw country narrowed the musical differences. Several figures in the Cowpunk movement of the early eighties, especially Jefferey Lee Pierce of The Gun Club, have also cited the album as a direct influence.

The number one single "El Paso" won Robbins the inaugural Grammy award for Best Country/Western Song over the singer's insistence that it does not belong in the genre at all. The other single released from the album, "Big Iron", saw an uptick in popularity after its appearance in 2010's Fallout: New Vegas, where a notorious glitch caused it to play twice as often as expected.



Side One

  1. "Big Iron" (3:55)
  2. "Cool Water" (3:09)
  3. "Billy the Kid" (2:19)
  4. "A Hundred and Sixty Acres" (1:40)
  5. "They're Hanging Me Tonight" (3:04)
  6. "The Strawberry Roan" (3:24)

Side Two

  1. "El Paso" (4:38)
  2. "In the Valley" (1:51)
  3. "The Master's Call" (3:09)
  4. "Running Gun" (2:10)
  5. "The Little Green Valley" (2:26)
  6. "Utah Carol" (3:13)

1999 Reissue Tracks:

  1. "El Paso" (Single version) (4:19)
  2. "The Hanging Tree" (2:50)
  3. "Saddle Tramp" (2:03)


One night, a wild young tropes list came here, wild as the west Texas wind!:

  • Aluminum Christmas Trees: Rosa's Cantina is a real place in El Paso. Not surprisingly, it gained a lot of fame after Robbins sang about it.
  • Concept Album: All songs are about life in the Wild West, featuring a lot of romanticism of the wild cowboy life.
  • Cover Version: Robbins has only four writing credits out of twelve songs, though some songs are old enough to be of indeterminate origin. In the other direction, "El Paso" is commonly associated with The Grateful Dead.
  • Dead All Along: The narrator of "El Paso"; shot upon his return and kisses Faleena as he dies.
  • Died in Your Arms Tonight: In "El Paso", the protagonist is shot down in the arms of his lover, with the final note drawn out to demonstrate a dying goodbye.
  • Face on the Cover: Gunfighter Ballads has seen several reissues through the years, but all feature Robbins in some pose or other.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Performed by the titular hero of Utah Carol, redirecting a stampeding herd of cattle to save the rancher's daughter before being trampled to death in her stead.
  • Location Song: "El Paso", about a cowboy who fled the town after shooting down a cowboy making advances at his girlfriend.
  • Murder Ballad: "El Paso", "They're Hanging Me Tonight"
  • My God, What Have I Done?: The protagonist in "El Paso" after murdering the cowboy flirting with Feleena.
  • One-Man Song: "Billy The Kid", about Billy the Kid.
  • Posthumous Narration: The cowboy from "El Paso".
  • Quick Draw: The nameless ranger in "Big Iron". Even the fearsome Texas Red can't get his gun out of the holster before the ranger drops him.
  • Real Men Love Jesus: The protagonist of "The Master's Call" suddenly sees a cross and hears the voice of God in a lightning strike. A second lightning strike then saves his life from a stampede with miraculous precision.
  • Sequel Song: "El Paso" received a sequel six years later following Faleena (named Feleena), the focus of the love triangle. She's Driven to Suicide. There's another called El Paso City set in the modern day when the (possibly) reincarnated protagonist traces the route of the action from a plane flying overhead.
  • Spiritual Successor: Robbins followed up the very next year with More Gunfighter Ballads And Trail Songs.
  • Thirsty Desert: "Cool Water", where the protagonist is in search for some cool water after crossing the desert for some long time.
  • Uncommon Time: Part of what makes "El Paso" so memorable is that it is largely in (4+3+4)/4, or 11/4 (there are occasional additional measures of 4/4 thrown in as needed to suit the flow of the song). It's an unusual, distinctive rhythm that makes the song stand out.
  • Villain Song: "Billy The Kid".
  • Western Characters:
    "There's many a man with a face fine and fair/Who start out in life with a chance to be square/Just like poor Billy they wander astray/They'll lose their lives in the very same way...''
    • Outlaw: "Running Gun", "They're Hanging Me Tonight", "Billy The Kid", and "The Master's Call"
      • Retired Outlaw: The protagonist of "The Master's Call" presumably gives up his life of crime after finding religion.
    • The Sheriff: Sherriff Pat Garrett shoots down Billy the Kid.


Example of: