Monday, January 02, 2006

Silent Stereo Reviews #3

Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs
Marty Robbins

Although we at Silent Stereo Reviews try to bring you reviews of albums or music you may have missed, we also like to use this space to write about some of our favorite albums, regardless of their popularity, in the hopes of sharing some great music with our readers. And when it comes to popular albums and great music, there may not be a more enduring and influential album than Marty Robbins' Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs.
Appearing in 1959, Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs is a concept album, a collection of songs that captured all the faded romance of the American West at a time when America was on the brink of a fairly significant cultural shift. The 1950's were a tumultous time in American history, as the nation faced the specter of Communism abroad and struggled with the fight for racial integration within. In one short year, President Kennedy would take office, the youngest president ever elected, and usher in the beginnings of the Great Society.
It is perhaps fitting that the man behind this album, Marty Robbins, reflected the widely divergent directions America was heading in. Robbins was born in 1925 in Arizona and as a child was regaled by fanciful tales of life on the range from his grandfather, Texas Bob Heckle, who worked as medicine show man. Robbins life before music was a classic American story: he worked first as a rancher, then lived briefly as a penniless hobo, before joining the Navy in 1943. In the service, he learned how to play guitar and when he returned to civilian life in 1947, he gigged regularly in his hometown of Glendale, AZ. After signing with Columbia in 1951, Robbins released a number of successful country and western singles, but never limited himself to that genre. In 1955, Robbins covered Chuck Berry's "Maybellene," and in 1957 released an album of Hawaiian music, a style he grew to love while in the Navy. Robbins also had some success with straight ahead teen pop when he released the single "A White Sport Coat (And A Pink Carnation)."
Thus, when Robbins arrived at Nashville's Bradley Studios in April of 1959, he brought a uniquely American musical perspective to the sessions. The album was also aided by the playing of guitarists Grady Martin and Jack Pruett, bassist Bob Moore, and the subtly effective back up vocals provided by the Glaser Brothers. The track list for the album consisted of three traditional western songs, "Billy The Kid," "Utah Carol," and "Strawberry Roan," which Robbins played when he auditioned for his first singing job at an Arizona radio station in the late 1940s, four original songs penned by Robbins, one song written by the Glaser Brothers, and four other western favorites.
The songs on the album are haunting and evocative, perfectly capturing the sense of an era fading to sepia tones in the nation's collective memory. The songs are stories unto themselves, telling tells of love gone wrong, as in "They're Hanging Me Tonight," and spiritual redemption in "The Master's Tale." With Marty Robbins masterpiece Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs playing and your eyes closed, you cannot help but imagine yourself lying on the cracked and parched Arizona soil under a sky populated by a million stars, living a lifestyle that only survives in the dreams of a nation.

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