Country music legend Marty Robbins was born on this date eighty-five years ago, and in thinking back with the dim recesses that pass for my mind nowadays, I can’t ever remember when his music wasn’t a part of our household. At the always reliable IMDb, an entry for Marty reads: “He is known for many styles of music—pure honky-tonk, rockabilly, gospel, straight-ahead pop, blues and Hawaiian. But fans remember Marty Robbins best for his cowboy songs. Songs like Big Iron, Running Gun, The Hanging Tree and of course El Paso established Robbins as the master of the style of country music.
After serving a hitch in the Navy—where he learned to play the guitar and write songs—Robbins began his music career in Phoenix around 1945, eventually getting exposure on radio station KTYL. He landed a television show on KPHO-TV after that, and after inviting country star “Little” Jimmy Dickens on his program Dickens got him a contract with Columbia Records, resulting in his first record, Love Me or Leave Me Alone in 1951. That same year, his first record to chart at #1 was released, I’ll Go On Alone, and he would go on to have fifteen more just like it; among them Singing the Blues, A White Sport Coat (and a Pink Carnation), Don’t Worry, Devil Woman, Ruby Ann, Ribbon of Darkness*, My Woman, My Woman, My Wife and El Paso City—a sequel to his 1959 smash, El Paso. Marty scored a total of forty-six Top Ten country hits during his recording career, the last one being Honkytonk Man, which hit the #10 spot in 1983 shortly after his death. (The song was the theme for a Clint Eastwood film in which Robbins had a small role…and Marty was one of the best things about the film, to be honest.)
I wasn’t around at the time El Paso was at the top of both the pop music and country charts, but I was fairly young when I first heard the song. My family and I were visiting my father’s parents one Sunday and for some odd reason my grandparents had an old record player out, sitting on top of the table in their kitchen…and this was sort of odd to me, because they weren’t really the type of people I would associate with listening to music or even having a record collection. I leafed through a pile of 45’s that was lying beside the phonograph and found a copy of El Paso with Robbins’ picture on the cover. One listen to the record, and I ended up playing it over and over and over…I’m surprised I didn’t completely wear the grooves out of the thing. (I also thought it was funny to see a photo of Marty, because he sort of resembled my Dad’s younger brother Marvin.)
In addition to his singing-songwriting duties, Marty was a fervent race car fanatic—he competed in 35 NASCAR races from 1966 to 1982, with six Top 10 finishes (his best being a fifth place win in Michigan in June of 1974). After his death in 1982, NASCAR honored him by renaming the race in Nashville the Marty Robbins 420. He also appeared in a few “flickers,” notably B-westerns like The Badge of Marshal Brennan (1957) and Raiders of Old California (1957)—with starring roles in Ballad of a Gunfighter (1964) and Guns of a Stranger (1973). I’ve got a goodly amount of Marty Robbins songs in the old computer catalog so believe me, it was sort of hard to choose one for today’s birthday shout-out (I was leaning toward his second-to-last Top Ten hit, Some Memories Just Won’t Die)—but I think Big Iron may be my favorite Marty tune of them all.
And as an added bonus, here’s Michael Martin Murphey’s cover version of Big Iron from his album Cowboy Songs 3—a version that’s a “duet” with Marty:
*Yes, Vince...I'm aware Gordon Lightfoot wrote this.