Marty Robbins’ 1959 album Gunfighter Ballads And Trail Songs served as the culmination of 25 years of Western music as a popular genre. (There’s a reason why, for decades, country music was known as country & western). Beginning in the 1930’s, acts like Gene Autry, The Sons Of The Pioneers, and Roy Rogers gained immense popularity singing songs about cowboys, cattle, and cactuses, and how their horse, or their gal, or their gun was pretty awesome, and how lonesome it could get on the prairie without their horse, their gal, or their gun.
Growing up in Arizona, Robbins idolized Gene Autry, “The Singing Cowboy,” and saved up his pennies to see Autry’s latest heroic movie exploits. Robbins also used to sit at the knee of his grandfather, who regaled him with stirring tales of the Old West, romanticized and dramatized accounts of quick-draw gunfighters, black-hatted thieves, strong-jawed lawmen … and the ladies who loved them. His grandfather told tales, as well, of his time as a Texas Ranger (a claim which may or may not have been true), and that memory later inspired Robbins in his songwriting.
After successfully beginning his country singing career in the early 1950’s sounding like Hank Williams (hey, who didn’t?), Robbins scored even more big hits on the country and pop charts by adding some of the new-fangled rock ‘n’ roll sound to his music. Always a restless artist, at the end of the decade he about-faced and recorded an album of both new and traditional Western-themed songs.
Robbins based his originals on the countless cowboy classics he watched as a kid, but also the many tales told by his grandfather, particularly those about his time as a Texas Ranger. It was those stories that led Robbins to write “Big Iron,” a ballad about a brave Ranger tracking down a gunslinging desperado until they meet in a final, deadly showdown.
“Big Iron” served as the opening track on 1959’s Gunfighter Ballads And Trail Songs, and went Top 5 when released as a single the following year. Robbins had bigger hits (this album had a #1 song on it) but when all is said and done, “Big Iron” might prove the most enduring.
Although the 1960’s saw TV shows like Bonanza and Gunsmoke rule the ratings while Clint Eastwood and Sergio Leone reinvented the Western movie, cowboy singers soon fell out of favor. Except for Marty Robbins, that is, who had continued success as a country and western singer until the day he packed his saddlebags and rode off into the sunset.