Marty Robbins should be in the all-time top echelon of country artists even if we’re just only talking about “El Paso,” one of the 10 greatest songs of all time. But he’s not usually accorded that kind of status—most people who don’t know much about country music have this idea of Robbins as a one-hit wonder. What this two-disc set proves beyond a shadow of a doubt is that it didn’t stop there. Robbins was one of the best singers and songwriters in Nashville history, and an artist who took bigger risks than any ol’ George-ass Jones or Patsy “Oh Poor Me” Cline. In fact, he should stand right up there on the mountaintop with Jones, Cline, Hank Williams, Willie Nelson, Loretta Lynn, and whoever else you think deserves to be up there. Marty Robbins might well be more of an influence on country music than any of them.
He started out as a pleasant-voiced singer without a lot else to recommend him, as the first song (“I’ll Go on Alone”, #1 in 1952) proves. He then did a little style-surfing to become an Elvis Presley slash Conway Twitty imitator in 1954—it’s hilarious here to hear him on Disc One doing “That’s All Right”, but why no inclusion of his cover of “Maybelline”? Come on, Columbia, don’t be afraid of black people! Robbins also spent a spell as a so-fresh-so-clean pop crooner backed by the über-lite Ray Conniff Orchestra. Even when the songs are as patently easy-listening as his first huge smash, “A White Sport Coat (and a Pink Carnation)”, there is still a depth to his voice that very few singers of the time could touch. (Roy Orbison is a fair comparison on that score, perhaps, except that Robbins wasn’t an art-rocker like ol’ Roy—his octave jumps were always in service of the song, instead of show-off-itude.)
It’s thrilling to hear him make his move towards a more original vision. “El Paso” was a huge groundbreaking smash in 1959 - not just a #1 hit on both the pop and country charts, but one at an unheard-of length of four minutes and thirty-eight seconds. Even after hearing this song hundreds of times, the operatic swoop of his voice could raise goosebumps on an ice sculpture. The off-kilter blank verse narrative is pure gangsta rap; there’s no real penitence when our narrator kills a man in cold blood for flirting with Faleena, just sadness that he has to flee her, and then the tragic stupidity of his return. Rarely have dead men sung so beautifully before. Also, hard to imagine any “outlaw country” without this song, and impossible to think that “El Paso” didn’t influence untold legions of garage bands and surf-music combos with its Latin stylings.
(Extra-awesome: the other-side-of-the-story tune “Faleena (From El Paso)”, from 1966—and completely ignored at the time—which clocks in at a lean 8:18, and the official follow-up “El Paso City”, which hit #1 ten years later. MAN I love two-disc sets.)
32 of the 40 songs here were Top 10 country hits, and it’s a very interesting history lesson to hear how Robbins changed and adapted over the years, especially since the market usually changed AFTER he did. Shel Silverstein’s great weirdo country tunes seem to follow in the veins of “The Cowboy in the Continental Suit”; a whole battalion of 1970s revenge/rage songs might have followed in the bootsteps of “The Shoe Goes on the Other Foot Tonight”; the romantic punchline of “Tonight Carmen” is the blueprint for a ton of 1980s pop-country tunes, as well as the good half of Brad Paisley’s career (the other half… well, sorry about that). (Also, Charlie Robison seems to be 100% a Marty Robbins guy, but I mostly just wanted to infuriate him by mentioning him and his mortal enemy Paisley in the same paragraph.)
And these are just the songs Marty Robbins wrote. He was also a top interpreter, as is shown in his cover of Gordon Lightfoot’s “Ribbon of Darkness” (a spooky damn #1 country hippie-folk song in 1965) and his hauntingly minimal version of “Among My Souvenirs”. I cannot think of a more beautiful voice, or one that adapted so flawlessly to so many styles.
That’s all that can be conveyed in print. This is the only absolutely essential “Essential” comp I’ve ever seen. It’s a stroll through American history, narrated by one of the best radio guides we ever had.