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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 887

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This is the grave of Marty Robbins.

Born in 1925 in Glendale, Arizona, Martin Robinson grew up in not great circumstances. His family was poor, with his mother Paiute and his father a drunk. Moreover, he was one of 10 kids. His parents divorced in 1937. He joined the military soon as he could. In 1942, that was not hard to do. He served in World War II, mostly in the Pacific as a coxswain in the Navy. He already was interested in music and had a great voice. He started taking that seriously during the war, practiced his guitar, and also got interested in Hawaiian music while based there, which most certainly influenced his later music.

Robbins left the military in 1947 and went back to Phoenix, determined to make it in music. Now, making it in Phoenix was definitely not the same thing as making it in music. It was a backwater at that time, growing but most certainly not a center of country music. But as a small market, Robbins was able to get himself a local TV show. Well, the next year, Little Jimmy Dickens came through town. The thing about Dickens is that he was one of those Nashville guys always on the lookout for new talent. His music might not be the best in the genre’s history and he was a super mainstream singer. But he was also a mentor, which a lot of country guys were not. He saw what talent Robbins had when he appeared on said TV show and got the young crooner a record deal. Robbins was far from the only country star who counted Dickens as the guy who gave him his break. He joined the Grand Ole Opry in 1953 and moved to Nashville. His first #1 hit was “Singing the Blues,” in 1956.

Robbins came of age in the country music industry with the so-called Nashville Sound. This is usually explained as when country music went slick and pop. Well….it’s more complicated than this. If you want a multi-hour exploration of this, I strongly recommend listening to the presently in-progress second season of Cocaine and Rhinestones, the podcast on 20th century country music hosted by Tyler Mahan Coe. The second episode, on the producer and session master Owen Bradley, and the third episode, on the Nashville A-Team of musicians, will learn you more than you ever thought you needed to know on the topic. And what Coe convincingly makes the case around is that what the Nashville Sound really should be defined as a series of production techniques, not a particular pop sound. After all, it’s true enough that Bradley and Chet Atkins and others made some very pop records. But Bradley also used the same techniques and musicians to produce Loretta Lynn. And if Loretta ain’t country, then country doesn’t exist. There were many reasons why Nashville went more pop, mostly because those albums sold.

In any case, Robbins was definitely someone who could fall on either side of the country/pop divide, such as it was. He was nothing if not a crooner. But he did bring something different to this world. He wasn’t a Frank Sinatra. And he wasn’t a George Jones either. But he was also not quite a Roy Rogers or Gene Autry. He was a western singer, at a time when “country AND western music” did indeed mean two different things and wasn’t just a joke in The Blues Brothers. But this was as much attitude and choice of material as anything. Robbins made his mark doing pretty mainstream pop country, which songs such as “A White Sport Court and a Pink Carnation,” from 1957, which he wrote and which became a huge hit. Is that even country music? Who cares. Some of this I find it a bit too smooth and edgeless. But he could certainly sing.

What most people know Robbins for today are the two iconic songs of his 1959 album Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs. “Big Iron” and especially “El Paso” are two of the great songs in country music history. Both go full old West, the former a classic gunfighter song and the last a key song in the whore and knife genre of country music. Everyone knows “El Paso.” Everyone has covered it. The guitar at the beginning is iconic. It was used in the last episode of Breaking Bad. These are simply two wonderful songs. The rest of the album is pretty excellent as well, from a cover of Sons of the Pioneers’ “Cool Water” to a good murdering your cheating wife song in “They’re Hanging Me Tonight.” Somehow though, I actually prefer, as a whole album, his 1966 album Saddle Tramp. There’s not that iconic song here. But he sings beautifully in Spanish, “Maria Elena” is one of those excellent songs about a brave cowboy trying to save his girl from the Indians, “Cowboy in a Continental Suit” is an amusing song about a dude winning a rodeo, and the whole thing just coheres really great. Robbins would switch back from western music to more love song country. RFD Marty Robbins is another favorite of mine, from 1964, more in this latter style. Robbins would also go back into the “El Paso” bag for more hits. He created a song about Feelena, with that name as the title to tell the story from her point of view. And then, he recorded “El Paso City” later in the city, about flying over El Paso and thinking about the older song and how awesome it is. Yes, that’s right, Marty recorded a song about how awesome his earlier song was. Very hip-hop move. It’s completely, utterly, and yet wonderfully ridiculous. Robbins had many fine albums through his career–Devil Woman, from 1962 and with that classic song as its lead, 1963’s Return of the Gunfighter, 1966’s The Drifter, and yes, even 1976’s El Paso City, with the previously discussed song. Moreover, unlike many of the pop-country stars of the era, he wrote most of his big hits himself.

Robbins also had a very serious hobby: driving NASCAR. In fact, over his career, he raced in 35 full-fledged NASCAR races, which given that it was very much not a full-time job, is impressive, even if that entire circuit was a lot more amateur in those decades than in the last 30 or 40 years. Not only did he run a few races every year, he pulled in six top-10 finishes, though he never won a race. Naturally enough, in the late 1960s-1970s era of men behind the wheel being an iconic vision of independent masculinity, Robbins got to play himself in the film Hell on Wheels, from 1967. Connie Smith also stars in it and both of them sing. I have not seen it and rather doubt I am missing anything. He also had a few short-lived TV shows over the years, from Western Caravan early in his career to the Marty Robbins Spotlight in the late 1970s.

It should not surprise anyone at this point that Robbins was a hard-core right-winger. Between being a white guy from Arizona, a country star, and a NASCAR driver, let’s just say that all signs pointed in the same direction. He was a big Goldwater guy and actively worked on the 1964 campaign. He tried to join the parade of country musicians writing right-wing anti-hippie songs in the late 60s and early 70s. But Columbia Records put its foot down on that. Robbins was a big star. They didn’t need him blowing up his career by recording songs that would lead people to hate him, even if other people would love him. Leave that risk to washed up stars like Lester Flatt or never was novelty acts trying to break through like Autry Inman. But really, if you think Merle Haggard’s “The Fighting Side of Me” is bad, and it is, you should see just how low this far-right turn went in the Nashville of the late 60s and early 70s. Robbins’ songs did get recorded eventually, but by his friend and bandmate Bobby Sykes, who recorded such fine Robbins’ penned tunes as “Ain’t I Right” and “My Own Native Land” under the stage name of Johnny Freedom. Shudder.

While Robbins did like to live on the edge, it wasn’t his car racing that did him in. He had a bum ticker. In 1982, although only 57 years old and in pretty fair physical condition, he had his third heart attack. He survived the first two, but this time, after undergoing a quadruple bypass, he died six days later.

Let’s listen to some Marty Robbins.

Marty Robbins is buried in Woodlawn Memorial Park, Nashville, Tennessee.

If you would like this series to visit other members of the Country Music Hall of Fame, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Marty was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1982, just before his death. Lefty Frizzell, also inducted in 1982, is in Goodlettsville, Tennessee and country music executive Roy Horton, the third member of the 1982 class, is in Broad Top City, Pennsylvania. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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