A Tribute To The Storyteller
This weekend marks the 30th anniversary since the passing away of Marty Robbins. Eric Montfort explains why his music remains so valid even in this era of disposable talents.
Marty Robbins was a fine singer and songwriter, and one of the first of his kind. His laidback style made him stand out from many others in his genre, and was also one of the last major artistes in the so-called country and western style, as it continued to develop itself, first with the sound of Bakersfield in the late 1950s and eventually, with more pop music inflections in the late 1960s. Moreover, Marty Robbins’ influence extended beyond the realms of country and western and even left an impact on some notable artistes on the other side of the Atlantic.
Marty Robbins is synonymous with El Paso, a song about a cowboy who falls in love with a Mexican dancer at Rosina’s Cantina and often crossed to Mexico from this border town, across the Rio Grande, to meet her. When another cowboy makes advances towards his lover, the narrator guns down the challenger, then flees El Paso for fear of being hanged for murder or killed in revenge by his victim's friends. It was arguably one of the best narratives, which was at one time even played live by The Rolling Stones, when they performed there in 2006. “That would have also been Keith Richard’s initiative when one considers his love for country music”, added Paul Mifsud, a former salesperson at Exotique and Record Centre, and also a former rock music programme host on Radio 101. He also feels sad that the song is almost impossible to obtain, online or otherwise.
Aptly dubbed The Storyteller, Marty Robbins had good songwriting skills. He was also a very good at guitar, piano and dobro playing. Marty Robbins had a very tough upbringing. Born and raised in a suburb of Phoenix, Arizona, he was one of ten children, and his parents divorced when he was just ten, due to his father’s alcohol problem. As a youth, he had a great interest in country music and, like many other youths of his time, cars, an interest which then, developed into sports-cars and also led him to become a quoted NASCAR figure. Marty Robbins however took his music seriously and after having completed a stint with the US Navy, he got more committed in performing onstage, and a supporting role in a tour with Little Jimmy Dickens led to a recommendation to, and eventually, a contract with Columbia Records.
Marty Robbins was a little bit different from other country and western talents of his time, because he was also interested in rhythm and blues. Like many other talents in his genre, he also covered other pop songs like Singing The Blues, but few other country talents would cover Maybellene, which Marty Robbins did in his own way. Robbins even recorded a version of the Arthur Crudup song That’s Alright Mama, around the same time that Elvis Presley did his version.
The late 1950s saw Marty Robbins succeed with his own compositions, notably the aforementioned El Paso, now a US pop standard and also A White Sport Coat and a Pink Carnation, which was soon covered by two British acts, Terry Dene and The King Brothers. Then, Marty Robbins music was a regular fixture on the BBC Light Services and his tours in the UK during the 1960s were often warmly received. His album Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs was one of the biggest sellers in country music at that time and it showcased his narrative style at his best. More hits ensued over the 1960s with songs like 'Ruby Ann', 'Begging To You', 'Carmen, Devil Woman', 'I Walk Alone', and 'My Woman, My Woman, My Wife' all making the top of the USA country charts. The latter was a song about fidelity and commitment to a wife who was of so much support and who eventually died in 2001, without completing the biography she was writing about her late husband.
His hits endured throughout the 1970s too with two songs, El Paso City and Among My Souveniers making the top of the USA country music charts. The former was actually a sequel to his classic 1959 hit, with the story and even some guitar riffs rotating around the original version.
Marty Robbins was one of a kind. He may not have expressed the same versatility as Johnny Cash, or moreover, Hank Williams but he was also very good in his own way and a crafty yet unpretentious songwriter. He did not invent anything new in country, as Buck Owens helped to do with The Bakersville Sound, but he did manage to stamp his own mark in country and western story-telling. It is significant that two Marty Robbins’ songs, Big Iron and This Time You Gave Me a Mountain were covered by Johnny Cash and Frankie Laine respectively. “It is also significant that a song that Marty Robbins did in 1960 apparently inspired a young Ohio band to do a rock and roll, keyboard laden version,” added Radio Malta host Vincent Scerri. He currently hosts a drive-time show and the weekend breakfast shows on the national broadcaster. Vincent went on to tell me that the song in question was Red River Valley, a traditional American folk song, which Marty Robbins did in his own laidback way. “The Ohio band, Johnny and The Hurricanes did it their own way as Red River Rock. It was a huge hit and time and again, it would end up as a signature tune to many pop programmes on Rediffusion,” added Vincent Scerri who recalled Marty Robbins as a unique talent, when he started following pop music as a youth in the late 1950s. “It is sad if people like him, Jim Reeves and Buck Owens are ignored in the future, especially at a time when country music has lost a lot of its true musical values,”concluded Vincent Scerri.