Modern country music, while I still enjoy it, takes more cues from pop music, only with more songs about good family bonds between parent and child, and more patriotic songs. Otherwise they have the same themes: love won. love lost, having fun with friends, and not giving up in the face of adversity. Luckily country has no equivalent to Adele. I swear most of her released singles come off as creepy stalker songs. I have to wonder what the record company’s thinking.
In the old days however, country–especially country western–could also tell a strong tale. We saw that with “Ghost Riders In The Sky“, but it could also tell a stronger narrative than one man’s vision of impending eternal torment. For example Marty Robbins‘ “Big Iron”, which tells the story of an Arizona Ranger (like a Texas Ranger but from Arizona; unlike Texas I don’t know if they’re still around) seeking to bring in Texas Red, a killer with 20 men pushing up daisies via his shooting iron. The Ranger carries a big gun on his hip. Who will win this shootout?
Marty Robbins, born Martin Robinson, was a singer, songwriter, and actor who could play multiple instruments. He learned the guitar while serving in the Navy during World War II. He was also a top ten NASCAR driver. He got his first record deal thanks to country legend Little Jimmy Dickens and went on to release 52 original albums and a hundred singles, including another big hit and interesting story “El Paso”. I have to cover that sometime in this series. He died due to cardiovascular disease after doctors couldn’t save him from his third heart attack.
Agua Fria is, from what I can tell, is part of Santa Fe, New Mexico, what Wikipedia calls a “census-designated place (CDP)”. Even after reading what a CDP is I still couldn’t tell you what that means. The point is there really is an Agua Fria. Texas Red, however, may not have actually existed. Robbins was not inspired by a story like a number of our Sing Me A Story topics. It was actually inspired by a gun; specifically a “one-off custom handgun chambered in .45 Colt and featured a Great Western copy of the Colt Single Action Army frame, Colt 1860 Army backstrap, grip frame and grips and a cut down 9 1/2″ Marlin rifle barrel” according to Wikipeida. That’s surprisingly specific. I don’t know anything about firearms so I’m going to assume it was a big gun. Or Robbins was just really short. He saw it in a popular gun shop in Hollywood and it inspired the Ranger who came for Texas Red. I don’t know what inspired Red’s name, but it is easy to rhyme and not a bad name for a killer.
While the song was released in 1959 on the album “Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs“, gamers may have heard this song. It was featured in Fallout: New Vegas as part of the radio station Mohave Music Radio. From what I can tell it’s developed a new fan following because of it. Unless something has changed by the time you read this you may even note the title of the lyric video mentions the game. One user of a Reddit dedicated to the Fallout game series tried to connect this song to another Marty Robbins song (although apparently not one he wrote) called “Running Gun”, saying it was a sequel focused on Texas Red’s perspective. It might make for a good Sing Me A Story article in the future, but I have to disagree. The only similarities are the 20 notches on his gun noting 20 kills and that he didn’t even get the gun out of the holster before being shot. Even if Red had a girl he was hoping to call for and wanted to leave the life of a gunfighter, it takes place in the wrong town under too different circumstances. “Big Iron” isn’t even from the Ranger’s perspective, he’s just the main character and hero.
And yes, hero. Rolling Stone apparently disagrees, putting the song on a list of “10 Creepiest Murder Ballads“. Again, I don’t agree. The writer states: “Yes, Texas Red had it coming. Yes, Red has the blood of 20 men on his young hands. But, no, the Code of Hammurabi is not a viable reason for the Ranger with that titular iron to gun Red down.” First of all you don’t understand how old Westerns work besides the “Injun” who speaks broken English and a barfight, do you? Second of all, the Ranger had come wanting to bring him in. He may not have cared if Texas Red was alive or dead, but he was planning to bring him in alive. Red wanted the shootout, determined to make the Ranger the 21st notch on his gun. The writer even admitted that killing isn’t always murder. This was self defense in the Western style.
I heard this song sometime last week on Music Choice and knew it would make for a good Sing Me A Story. And it turned out there was an interesting story behind it…creatively. No connection to European plays or Norse mythology. Just a really cool gun in a Hollywood gun shop that has since disappeared in someone’s collection or a scrapyard somewhere. Inspiration can be a silly thing sometimes. The song was covered by Kingfish, Mike Ness, Carol Noonan, Michael Martin Murphey (who apparently did that fake duet thing where they play a recording by a late singer and the other one pretends to do a duet with him, Robbins had passed away in 1982 and the song came out in 1993), and the only name I’ve heard of, the late great Johnny Cash. And like I said it gained new life and a new audience in Fallout: New Vegas, showing a good story and a good song can stand the test of time. Maybe you should look up a few more country ballads?