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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!:

  • Always Someone Better: The unnamed Arizona Ranger is this to the outlaw Texas Red in "Big Iron". While Texas Red was notorious for having killed the previous 20 men who tried to take him, even he is unable to unholster his gun before the Ranger shoots him dead in a Quick Draw.
  • Assumed Win: In "Big Iron", Texas Red already easily killed 20 men who tried to arrest him in the past— thanks to his extreme sharpshooting skills. The citizens of Agua Fria assumed that this Arizonan Ranger was going to be another casualty— the 21st kill; instead, the Ranger's quickdraw was so fast and precise that Texas Red was killed instantly before the latter could even draw his gun.
  • Broken Win/Loss Streak: In "Big Iron", the outlaw Texas Red had killed his 20 previous opponents, putting a notch on his pistol for each kill. His duel against the Arizona Ranger ends both his win streak and his life.
  • Concept Album: All songs are about life in the Wild West, featuring a lot of romanticism and tragedy 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.
  • 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.
  • Dogged Nice Guy: The protagonist of "El Paso" is madly in love with a Mexican woman named Faleena, who doesn't give him the time of day. When her boyfriend, a wild cowboy, arrives and starts flirting with her, he murders the man and runs off out the back door, steals a horse, and flees to the New Mexico badlands. This seemingly earns her love, as she cradles him in her arms and kisses his forehead as he bleeds out after choosing to back, preferring to die at the hands of a posse rather than live without her, but it could also be interpreted as him imagining receiving the affections of the object of his obsession in a Dying Dream. The Sequel Song “Feleena (From El Paso)" subverts this, fleshing out both characters. There, it’s told that Feleena and the narrator had been courting for six weeks before the fateful gunfight.
  • Downer Ending: Pretty much all of the songs except for "Big Iron" end on a low note. Special mention for "El Paso" and "They're Hanging Me Tonight".
  • Evil Redhead: Texas Red from "Big Iron" is a notorious outlaw who has killed twenty lawmen.
  • Face on the Cover: Gunfighter Ballads has seen several reissues through the years, but all feature Robbins in some pose or other.
  • Fastest Gun in the West: Both Texas Red and Billy the Kid are introduced as such, having taken down twenty comers each. But, as the protagonist of "Running Gun" reflects, looking at his killer's back, everyone's luck runs out eventually...
    "As my strength was slowly fading, I could see him walk away/ And I knew that where I lie tonight, he too must lie some day...''
  • Hand Cannon: The titular Big Iron is a huge gun for a pistol. It was inspired by a real-life version of this trope, a custom pistol with a rifle barrel.
  • 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.
  • Historical Biography Song: "Billy the Kid", the only cut about an actual person, tells the true story of the notorious gunfighter who killed 21 men, with his first at the age of 12, then finally being shot himself by his former friend, Sheriff Pat Garrett.
  • Location Song: "El Paso", about a cowboy who fled the town after shooting down a cowboy making advances at the girl he was sweet on, only to come back rather than bear life without her.
  • Murder Ballad: "El Paso", "They're Hanging Me Tonight"
  • Murder the Hypotenuse: The murderer in "They're Hanging Me Tonight" comes to kill a suitor pursuing the woman he loves, and is filled with remorse as he awaits his hanging after murdering both of them.
  • 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.
  • Outlaw: Multiple examples:
    • Texas Red, the cocky antagonist in "Big Iron," and a fearless and ruthless killer who's slain twenty men despite being only twenty-four years old. He meets his match in the Arizona Ranger wielding the titular weapon.
    • "Running Gun" features one, tired of his life of crime, trying to run off to Mexico and hoping to meet up with his woman, Jeanie, there. He gets gunned down by a bounty hunter in Amarillo.
    • "Billy The Kid" tells the story of the famous titular outlaw, ending in his death at the hands of former friend Pat Garrett.
    • "The Master's Call" features an outlaw who, while rustling cattle, sees signs of the cross and the face of Christ and the voice of God in lightning strikes, then, after nearly perishing in the resulting stampede, is saved by another lightning strike that kills several cattle and prevents his being trampled, causing him to abandon his lawless ways and resolve to devote his life to God in gratitude.
  • Posthumous Narration: The cowboy from "El Paso".
  • Quick Draw: Being a Wild West concept album, they're all over the place.
    • The nameless Arizona ranger in "Big Iron". Even the fearsome Texas Red can't get his gun out of the holster before the ranger drops him.
    • The protagonist of "Running Gun" finds himself on the other end, sadly describing how his killer's weapon "flashed like lightning" before he even had the chance to get his own gun out.
  • A Real Man Is a Killer: The protagonist of "El Paso" seemingly wins Faleena's love after months of failing to do so after murdering her boyfriend, unless his final moments in her arms are just a Dying Dream.
  • Real Men Love Jesus: The protagonist of "The Master's Call" suddenly sees a cross and the face of Christ, and hears the voice of God in a pair of lightning strikes. A third lightning strike then saves his life from a stampede with miraculous precision.
  • Retired Outlaw: The protagonist of "The Master's Call" presumably gives up his life of crime after finding religion. The protagonist of "Running Gun" tries to pull this, but perishes before he can reach Mexico.
  • 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.
  • The Sheriff: Sheriff Pat Garrett shoots down Billy the Kid.
  • Showdown at High Noon: "Big Iron", where The Ranger duels Texas Red. Technically the duel started at '20 past 11', but is essentially the same kind of duel.
  • Spiritual Successor: Robbins followed up the very next year with More Gunfighter Ballads And Trail Songs.
  • Super-Reflexes: Implied with the Arizona Ranger in "Big Iron", who manages to shoot Texas Red dead in a Quick Draw before the outlaw could even unholster his pistol. This same outlaw was notorious for his reflexes and gunfighting skill, having killed 20 others before in quick draws.
  • 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.
  • Underestimating Badassery: In "Big Iron", Texas Red isn't very concerned with the nameless ranger, having killed 20 other men before him and convinced he'll just be the 21st. He learns to his fatal regret he shouldn't have pushed his luck.
  • Villain Protagonist: Both Murder Ballads and "Billy the Kid."