Country music has a problem. As I opined a while ago writing about a career retrospective of songwriter and singer Rodney Crowell, Nashville tends to eat its dead. At the first sign of weakness, great artists with storied careers eventually find themselves unable to get radio play, press attention, or a cup of coffee on the strength of their good name. Within Nashville society, this means that elders are given lip service but shunned in public. In the larger picture, this means that country oldies radio is at best a niche genre, relegated to a late-night set or the far reaches of the AM dial. Instead, most country radio dedicates itself to whatever’s hot on the Country Top 40 chart, wasting good time on fatuous dreck by Toby Keith (he’s a Ford Truck man!) or the animatronic wonder called Shania Twain.
From time to time, country does return to its roots. After the great Countrypolitan revolution of the 1980s came a revival of classic sounds, boosting the careers of Randy Travis and Clint Black among others. Currently artists like Faith Hill and LeAnn Rimes (talented ladies both) have released albums reasserting their down-home credibility, correctly sensing that actual people in Kentucky, Wyoming and even Maine mostly drive pickups and wear blue jeans, not BMWs and Manolo Blahniks.
But this unfortunately does not mean an actual rediscovery of the past. There are literally dozens of incredible artists who once had massive careers who now languish in semi-obscurity. The living at least have a chance at redemption through a comeback record. The departed are not so lucky, and it falls to dedicated cadres of fans at record labels, radio stations, and in the record-buying public to keep their flame alive.
In a fortunate confluence of purpose and commerce, Sony has been compiling excellent best-ofs from their catalog under the “Legacy Essential” series for several years now. Already country greats like Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, and Earl Scruggs have gotten their due, and now Legacy have added the great, half-forgotten Marty Robbins to this list.
Casual music fans might be forgiven for thinking Marty Robbins was a one hit wonder. Everybody knows “El Paso,” one of the biggest hits in the history of country music and one of the catchiest tunes ever written. The opening line “Down in the old Texas town of El Paso, I fell in love with a Mexican girl” is probably better known to most people than “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union….”
In truth, “El Paso” is only one hit among dozens more. Robbins spent the mid-1950s through the early 1980s in the country and pop charts, logging 81 country Top 40 hits, 31 pop crossover hits, and spending a collective 63 weeks at #1. That’s a run not unlike Sir Elton John’s, who nevertheless remains a household name while even casual country fans need to struggle to remember the name of… ohh… you know that one guy? Who did that song? You know, “Down in the old Texas town of El Paso?”
Moreover, just as Robbins was not only a country star, he was not merely a country singer. Indeed, the two disc The Essential Marty Robbins makes a case for Marty Robbins as the country-flavored counterpart to chameleonic phenomenon Bobby Darin. Like Darin, Robbins is remembered for a major novelty hit or two (“Mack The Knife,” “El Paso”) and a rock and roll hit or two (“Splish Splash,” “White Sport Coat (and a Pink Carnation).” Like Darin, Robbins worked in many styles throughout his career, defying easy pigeonholing. And like Darin, Marty Robbins was not blessed with a perfect voice. Not as rich as Elvis,’ not as resonant as Cash’s, and not as emotive as George Jones, his slightly brittle tenor nevertheless featured an affecting quaver and technical ability that made up for any shortcomings, and he turned in outstanding vocal performances in a wide variety of genres.
Also like Darin, Robbins’ legacy is a victim of his biggest hit. Although the chronological running order on Essential shows that Robbins excelled in many genres (rock and roll in several styles, Western swing, country, blues, countrypolitan, and straight pop) throughout his career, and although he wrote his own material, it is still necessary to for the compilation to prove that there was more to him than just one long story song set in New Mexico.
Discovered by Don Law and signed to Columbia in 1952, Robbins’ first hits were in the country style of the day, featuring acoustic and steel guitar and melodies reminiscent of Hank Williams. One of his early hits was an Elvis-like cover of Arthur Crudup’s “That’s All Right Mama,” suggesting that he had not quite yet figured out who he was going to be.
By 1957, however, the answer seemed clear: Marty Robbins was going to be everybody. In 1957 and 1958, he charted two doo-wop teen-love pop ballads (“A White Sport Coat (and a Pink Carnation),” “She Was Only Seventeen (And He Was One Year More”)), two country/rockabilly tunes (“Just Married,” “Ain’t I the Lucky One,”), a poppy tune reminiscent of “Mr. Sandman, Send Me a Dream” (“Stairway of Love”), a country blues (“Knee Deep in the Blues”), and the Hawaiian-tinged “Story of My Life.”
In 1959, Robbins was astute enough to pick up on Johnny Cash’s success singing cowboy songs, and began turning out western swing and Mexican-flavored tunes. The most famous of these was of course “El Paso,” one of the biggest hits of the year, but there was also “Ballad of the Alamo,” “Big Iron,” “Devil Woman,” and several others.
He would continue to have success in the western style throughout the 1960s, charting with songs like “The Cowboy in the Continental Suit,” and “Tonight Carmen,” all the while also turning out straight country hits like “The Shoe Goes on the Other Foot Tonight.”
The 1970s and 1980s blunted Robbins’ attack in the way it did so many others – by drowning his songs in an ocean of strings. His go-to producer in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s was Billy Shirell, known for his devotion to overproducing every song to the point of parody, and – yep – strong songs like “Among My Souvenirs” “Some Memories Just Won’t Die” are nearly unlistenable under the thick film of keyboards, strings, choirs, and noise-gated drums, forcing Robbins to belt like Jim Nabors to be heard over the din. Many songs from this era seem more suited to the tacky spectacle of Elvis’ Vegas showroom than to Robbins’ simple delivery.
The final song on Essentials is “Honkytonk Man,” the title song from the 1982 Clint Eastwood film of the same name. Though near death from chronic heart disease and nearly overpowered by the overproduction, Robbins nevertheless gives an affecting and lovely performance. His voice is deeper and rougher, and he seems finally to have discovered how to sing a ballad without crossing into maudlinness. It seems that Robbins died just as he was entering another chapter of his career, one where he finally figured it all out.
But Robbins’ voice wasn’t the main attraction. He was also top notch songwriter, and the diversity of the songs collected here make a strong case that he was one of the very best. He was audacious enough to write “El Paso” after all, which hit #1 on both the country and pop charts in 1959 despite clocking in at nearly 5 minutes long.
But not many people know about the followup song, “Faleena (from El Paso),” an 8-minute LP track from 1966 that tells the story of the ill-fated woman from “El Paso,” including the events from the original song from Feleena’s perspective. The songs together spend thirteen minutes on what is admittedly a maudlin and thin little tale, but Robbins’ songwriting is so strong that the two songs together come across as grandly, epically tragic.
Robbins would even return to this well again in 1972 with the #1 hit “El Paso City,” about a man visiting El Paso and half-remembering how “long ago he heard a song about a Texas Cowboy and a girl” though he “don’t recall who sang the song, as I looked down on the city I remembered each and every word.” That’s three songs drawn, Rashomon-style, from one little story of a love triangle and a gunfight. That’s talent to spare.
While far from comprehensive (more than half of his 81 Top 40 hits are missing) The Essential Marty Robbins is an outstanding introduction to one of the forgotten legends of country music. If ever we needed more proof that country, rock and roll, and pop were for much of the 20th century the same thing, we have it. With country starting once again to rediscover its roots, hopefully Marty Robbins will get the credit he deserves as one of the master songwriters and mainstays of country music for thirty years.