The Last Cowboy Song

February 1, 2020   •   By Drew Bratcher

IN “THE SEARCHERS,” a photograph from David Levinthal’s 2015 series History, a cowboy in a high-crowned hat stands on a ridge watching the sun go down. The sky and the desert landscape fuse and flare in the distance. The cowboy, his back to the camera, hip cocked, rifle resting on his shoulder, looks simultaneously spent and imperious, at once a bemused sheriff and an escaped outlaw. As the title of the picture indicates, the cowboy in question is Ethan Edwards, the ornery rebel played by an indignant John Wayne in John Ford’s 1956 vigilante Western, The Searchers. But the figure in the photograph isn’t really Edwards either. A closer look reveals him to be neither a cowboy nor a Hollywood leading man pretending to be a cowboy but rather a plastic figurine of an actor playing the part.

“The Searchers,” in other words, isn’t really about The Searchers. Although the toy is meticulously outfitted after Wayne’s character in the early minutes of the movie (red button-down shirt, high-waisted jeans cupped at the bottom, holstered pistol hanging off the hip) and its rectilinear stance evokes Wayne, an actor for whom standing still was high drama, you won’t find this particular moment in the film. Sure, it’s the kind of scene that could have been in the film. Levinthal’s diorama convincingly evokes Monument Valley, that intransigent stretch of Arizona desert where a gaggle of Texas rangers trail the formidable Comanche warrior who has murdered Edward’s brother and sister-in-law and kidnapped his niece (Natalie Wood). Indeed, it’s a scene you’re almost certain must have been in the film, but one that, alas, does not exist.

Instead, “The Searchers” depicts a valediction that the film makes possible. It describes the afterlife of images in the imaginations of impressionable kids who, by way of plastic toys scattered across bedroom floors, become their Hollywood heroes for a moment that lasts forever. Inflating the figurine in the foreground to near-human scale, Levinthal, who was born in San Francisco in 1949, exalts childhood fantasy while at the same time reducing the American frontier, as glorified by Hollywood Westerns of the ’40s and ’50s, to the stuff of toy boxes and playgrounds. “My subject,” Levinthal once said, “is a West that never was but always will be.”

Recently, I found myself in mind of “The Searchers” when my daughter Rosie asked, from the backseat of the Pilot, if instead of NPR we could listen to “those old cowboy songs.” I knew what she meant. In the glove compartment, crammed among Jiffy Lube receipts, ice-scrapers, trash, and various paperwork, I keep a scuffed yet stealthy CD copy of Marty Robbins’s 1959 album Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs — a Western set to music if Nashville ever produced one.

Like OutKast’s ATLiens (1996) and Arcade Fire’s Funeral (2004), Gunfighter Ballads is a near-perfect album to listen to while driving. This has to do with the music, which evokes swift movement across great distances, and it has to do with Marty Robbins, who, in addition to being a popular Golden Age country singer, raced stock cars professionally, sometimes running a purple and yellow Dodge Charger, sometimes a Plymouth Belvedere with the number 777 on the door. In a NASCAR career that included some 35 races, Robbins finished in the top 10 six times. His yellow track suit is behind glass at the Ryman Auditorium, where Robbins, who died from a heart attack in 1982, regularly performed as a cast member on the Grand Ole Opry.

One of my father’s good friends, a forklift salesman with checker-flag dreams, used to hang out in the infield of the racetrack at the Nashville fairgrounds. He told me a story about how Robbins was once winning a race with 10 laps left to go when, to the surprise of his crew and the crowd alike, he veered off the track. People went running. “What’s wrong, Marty?” they said. “Is the engine on fire? Is it going to blow?” Robbins took off his helmet and climbed out of the cabin. “No,” he said. “I’ve got to go on at the Opry in about 15 minutes and I don’t want to be late.”

Racing is about sustained focus. What looks like recklessness is really negotiated restraint. The way to keep moving is to never stop holding back until you let go. It takes muscle and dash, a heavy foot and a flicking wrist. The impossible combo figures prominently in Hell on Wheels, a B-movie from 1967 in which Robbins, 42 at the time, plays a car-racing country singer whose jealous brother, hoping to challenge Robbins for the checkered flag, falls in with a local toughie who happens to be running a local moonshine racket.

In the final scenes, the film devolves into a high-speed shootout on windy Tennessee backroads. Windshields shatter. Tires kick up loose gravel. Robbins’s brother takes a bullet in the side. Heading into a sharp curve by a pond, Robbins lays off the gas and steers into the slide before gunning it again when the road straightens out. The moonshine king is reckless, all power and no grace. He hits the curve at full bore, and the curve hits back. Rolling into the water, the moonshiner’s car erupts in flames. The film concludes with Robbins singing a cautionary ditty to his niece: “So don’t fly too high in the sky butterfly / If you fly very high in the sky you’ll find the sun may burn your wings.”

Do I drive faster when I’m listening to Marty Robbins, or does it only feel that way? Speed, in any case, is an essential aspect of Gunfighter Ballads. The album, Robbins’s fourth and most enduring (the Library of Congress added it to the National Recording Registry in 2017), was recorded in a single day at Bradley’s Film and Recording Studio, on the stretch of Nashville’s 16th Avenue South that would become known as Music Row. The 12 tracks blow by in a little over 35 minutes. They come at you one right after the other, and yet they feel neither dashed off nor prematurely halted but like the efficient and sometimes giddy expressions of an elusive love.

Instead of a figurine of a famous Hollywood cowboy, the cover of Gunfighter Ballads features Robbins in costume. Dressed in black from hat to boot heel, he is crouched down and ready. His right hand is on his six-shooter. He’s a split second from drawing, from firing. Pow.

Robbins was born in Glendale, Arizona, in 1925. His grandfather, a former Texas Ranger with a Wild Bill mustache, gave him firsthand accounts of cattle drives and train robberies. As with Levinthal, Westerns were an orienting influence. Robbins’s leading man, however, wasn’t John Wayne but Gene Autry, the Singing Cowboy. Per the conventions of the genre, Autry’s black-and-white pictures, which lit up the screens of Southwestern cinemas before World War II, were full of outlaws, horses, saloons, duels. The difference was that, in an Autry Western, songs had agency.

Autry’s ballads often delivered lessons about working hard (“Back in the Saddle Again”) and doing good (“Have I Told You Lately That I Love You”), but the real moral of any Autry Western was that all could be forgiven so long as you could fashion it into a handsome melody. In the middle of a stick-up on a dusty street, Autry would start playing his guitar, often while still riding his horse, and the pistol-wielders, hell-bent on bloodshed only a moment earlier, would be so taken with his singing, which reflected back something of their own way of living, that they’d lower their rifles and break into applause.

Robbins’s voice bore Autry’s imprimatur. His velvety baritone, better suited for brass than banjos, combined regal crooning with a touch of lachrymosity. One Texas DJ took to calling him “the boy with a teardrop in his voice.” Physically, though, Robbins projected a lively toughness. His face was flinty, visor-like. “You’ve got eyes,” June Carter joked with him once on the Opry, “like two deep blue pools of water, with a diving board right between them.” The sea winds in the Solomon Islands, where Robbins had served as a Navy coxswain during the war, had sculpted his cheeks and jowls into their own shield.

Robbins was a gas on stage. Between verses in live performances, he was always toying with the crowd, always winking and rolling his eyes. Was he bored by the sound of his own voice? Quite the opposite: he was amused by it. It was as if he knew he had gotten away with something. His onstage gestures, sometimes endearing, sometimes distracting, were attempts to bring the audience into complicity. “I’m in this business,’’ he told one interviewer, ‘‘because I despise honest labor.”

Robbins’s first records for Columbia were feints in several possible directions. On his debut, Rock’n Roll’n Robbins (1956), he covered Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally,” Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene,” and Hank Williams’s “Long Gone Lonesome Blues.” The breakthrough came with 1958’s Marty Robbins, a slick collection of do-wop and whistle pop-country chestnuts about teenage lust and let-down. Arranged by Ray Conniff, who had worked with Johnny Mathis and Rosemary Clooney, the single “A White Sport Coat (and a Pink Carnation)” sold a million copies. With its concise evocation of pre-prom awkwardness, the song rose to number two on the Billboard pop charts and became a staple of high school dances. 

Robbins could make passable music in any number of genres, fashioning himself as a bebopper, a blues singer, or a country crooner, but in each case he sounded derivative, noncommittal. His covers of Hank Williams weren’t sufficiently wretched, his rockabilly numbers were too sedate, and his stint as a teen heartthrob was impracticable. He was already in his mid-30s. 

Gunfighter Ballads was hardly a predictable pivot. Then again, it didn’t emerge ex nihilo. Two years before the album was released, Robbins had played a mercenary in a minor Western called Raiders of Old California (1957). Shortly thereafter, he penned a one-off title song for The Hanging Tree (1959), a film about greedy Montana gold-diggers starring Gary Cooper and Maria Schell. But what was surprising about Gunfighter Ballads was just how totally the teenybopper became the troubadour. The songs were removed enough from Robbins’s life experience to liberate him from the pretense of authenticity and yet near enough to his heart to call forth his best instincts. From the first song, the hard-charging “Big Iron,” Robbins’s need for speed and concern with control fell into stride.

“Big Iron,” one of four Robbins originals on the album, is every Western you’ve ever seen fast-forwarded through the slow parts. An Arizona ranger and an outlaw named Texas Red meet in an unnamed town. Four minutes after the first charging guitar lick, a body lies dead in the street. It won’t be the last one. Violence stalks the plains and lurks along the ridges. There are lynchings (“They’re Hanging Me Tonight”), shootings (“Billy the Kid”), electrocutions (“The Master’s Call”), buckings (“The Strawberry Roan”), more shootings (“Running Gun”), and a deadly cattle stampede (“Utah Carol”). A sense of resigned paranoia prevails.

The album, like many produced in Nashville in the late ’50s and early ’60s, shares a certain DNA with mid-’90s hip-hop, much of which channeled, sampled, and adapted personas from genre films — if not Westerns, then mafioso and Chinese wuxia classics like Goodfellas (1990) and Master of the Flying Guillotine (1976). Don Law, the Englishman who produced Robbins and like-styled artists such as Bob Wills and Johnny Horton, was country music’s RZA, its Dr. Dre. He not only crafted an indelible sound but also directed a kind of sonic cinema. Gunfighter Ballads was his Deep Cover (1992), his Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… (1995).

The deadly firefights on Gunfighter Ballads are interrupted by trail songs, oases in the action that also establish something of the stakes. In “A Hundred and Sixty Acres” and the “The Little Green Valley,” two cowboy standards, Robbins rhapsodizes about the comforts of home. His full-band take on Bob Nolan’s “Cool Water,” led by a snake charm of a fiddle and with harmony provided by Tompall & the Glaser Brothers, foregrounds the song’s thirst-driven delusions, making them all the more tantalizing. When Robbins croons the title phrase, drawing out the word “water” as if to wring it dry, you feel the disappointment. You taste it. It’s the vocal equivalent of discovering that the Pepsi in your paper cup is tobacco spit.

The centerpiece of Gunfighter Ballads is “El Paso.” Having put his deferential spin on the cowboy repertoire, Robbins here tries to push the ball. If the other songs are black-and-white, “El Paso” arrives in Technicolor. The longest track on Gunfighter Ballads, it is also the most cinematic. To hear Robbins tell it, the song’s narrative verve was characteristic of its composition. “I didn’t know how it was going to end,” he once told an interviewer. “It just kept on coming out, and coming out, and the tune was coming out at the same time. […] I kept waiting for the end to come to see what was going to happen.”

What happens is both surprising and inevitable. The setting is a place called Rose’s Cantina. The narrator is a jealous, impulsive cowpoke. He’s smitten with a dancer named Faleena, and he isn’t alone. About a third of the way through “El Paso,” a young cowboy comes into the bar and makes a move and it’s just too much for the narrator. Feeling threatened, he does the only thing he knows how to do: shoots the youngster dead in the street.

Most cowboy songs would end there, content to make a point about the hazards of unconsummated desire, but “El Paso” keeps going. The narrator steals a big horse and gallops to safety in New Mexico, and here again “El Paso” lets the tape run. The killer’s rival might be dead, but his lover is still living, and so, against his better instincts, he returns to El Paso, hoping that his heart might just win the day. Within eyeshot of the bar, five mounted cowboys open fire, yet still “El Paso” continues. Revived by the thought of Faleena twirling, the narrator, seriously wounded, manages to keep himself up in the saddle until he feels a “bullet go deep in my chest.” This time he falls. As he takes his last breath, Faleena appears. The last thing he feels before he passes away is the touch of her lips on his cheek.

“El Paso” features Grady Martin on guitar. Part of Nashville’s A-Team, a group of session musicians known for their versatility and technical precision, Martin played on Roy Orbison’s “Oh, Pretty Woman,” Loretta Lynn’s “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” Lefty Frizzell’s “Saginaw, Michigan,” and Patsy Cline’s “Walkin’ After Midnight.” He was part of Hank Williams’s band, the Drifting Cowboys, but Hank never really let him cut loose. On “El Paso,” which Martin would also record for his 1965 solo record, Instrumentally Yours, he picks a mean, meandering Spanish guitar. The nylon strings dance all around Robbins’s vocals, as if taunting the narrator, spinning a web.

I suppose the song is about love and revenge and frustrated desire, but in truth, it’s all in Robbins’s performance, which is a marvel of over-commitment. “El Paso” is a cowboy ballad all right, but it’s a mid-20th-century cowboy ballad, which is to say it’s a tribute not to the West and not really even to Western movies but rather (not unlike Levinthal’s photograph) to the imagination that lies under the Western’s spell. There’s a postwar disorientation to Robbins’s surrender to his material. A sense of denial, personal as well as aesthetic, inflects his fervor. Fear of the future, after all, is the flip side of nostalgia. In light of V-E Day, in light of Elvis, Robbins seems to ask without asking: What does it mean to be a country singer? What does it mean to be an American man?

That there is something slightly juvenile about “El Paso” and, for that matter, the whole of Gunfighter Ballads, is a given. There are reasons why Rosie, aged five and in stubborn custody of a legit Southern accent despite our Chicagoland digs, wants to listen to it on the regular — more so than, say, the Louvin Brothers’ My Baby’s Gone (1960) or Lucinda Williams’s Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (1998), both of which keep Robbins company in the glove box. She is genuinely invested in the fates of Robbins’s characters: Faleena, Texas Red, Billy the Kid. Unlike so much of the kids’ music and Disney soundtracks she requests but that I can’t stomach, Robbins’s polished collection of character-driven story songs is engaging enough on its face, even if the face also functions as a mask.

Whether as a diversion, a provocation, or an immersive musical experience, “El Paso” went to number one on both the country and pop charts in January 1960. It won the Grammy for best country song the following year. Hippies, hillbillies, and even heavy-metalheads adopted the track. The Grateful Dead covered it in concert for three decades, and groups from Metallica to the Killers performed versions on the Texas leg of their tours. In 2014, Rolling Stone listed “El Paso” among the 100 greatest country songs of all time.

Even as the song found other suitors, “El Paso” kept working on Robbins, so much so that he recorded a sequel in 1966, and yet another installment a decade after that. Called “El Paso City,” the third song in the trilogy is written from the perspective of a plane passenger who, while flying over the Texas border, is reminded of the first time he heard the original.

But Robbins isn’t fooling anybody. He’s singing about himself. History might be the great cure for nostalgia, but it’s fun to imagine how life might have been better, more exciting, in another age. By being so out of step with the times, Robbins was actually perfectly in step with them. Unable to register the present, let alone predict the future, he looked back until the looking back became something worth singing about.

“Can it be,” Robbins sings,

that man can disappear from life
and live another time
And does the mystery deepen
’cause you think that you yourself
lived in that other time? 

The toy outfitted in cowboy clothes becomes the cowboy. From a certain distance, it’s tough to tell the singer from the song.


Drew Bratcher was born in Nashville. He received his MFA from the University of Iowa. He lives in Chicagoland.


Banner image: "Marty robbins" by Cliff is licensed under CC BY 2.0.