Marty Robbins In Depth - Part Three

First published in Country Music People, May 1975

Part Three Conclusion

Marty Robbins' unique gift for adapting his voice to suit any style of music is outstanding. He can take you down South with his country drawl, and a minute later fly you to the Pacific with a stunning Hawaiian tune. His natural ability to interpret the music of the South Seas manifested itself early in his career. His second album, SONG OF THE ISLANDS way back in 1958 was a complete commitment to the Hawaiian style of music.

With a beautiful steel guitar, simple country accompaniment, Marty glides through a selection of Island tunes with ease. A standout is Crying Steel Guitar Waltz, which features Marty with his outstanding teardrop voice, the steel crying sadly in the background, creating a perfect country/Hawaiian combination. Don’t Sing Aloha When I Go is another gem. Marty sings it beautifully, there’s a nicely twisted chord progression and the interplay between steel and guitar gives the track a nice rhythmic feel.

Several of Marty’s hits like Devil Woman and Girl From Spanish Town have been influenced by Hawaiian styles, and two more albums, HAWAII’S CALLING ME and ISLAND WOMAN are in this style. The latter features the music from The West Indies ofg the Atlantic coast of America, with Spanish guitars and a typical West Indian beat. Marty moulds and shapes his voice to sound vaguely West Indian and manages to come out with songs that capture the environment and way of life of the Island people perfectly.

Another major influence on the Robbins’ career has been the people and music of Mexico. Having grown up not far from the Mexican border, the magical melodies and colourful people made an everlasting impression on Marty. He has been able to re-channel and use these influences throughout his music—most of his cowboy ballads retained a strong Mexican flavouring.
Eventually the Mexican themes worked their way into one of his best and biggest selling albums TONIGHT CARMEN. The title track was also a successful single, and it is another demonstration of the man’s talent for telling a story. Listen to him use his voice to paint the vivid images in his mind. A simple ballad about his wife returning home, everything is right there down to the last detail. The twist, the details, the production, everything is placed together with immaculate precision, yet it still retains the realism that country music is noted for.

The use of Spanish guitars and brass is masterful, the balance achieved with the rhythm section on the excellent Waiting In Reno is perfect. Is There Anything Left I Can Say is a slow, nostalgic look at days and places left behind. Fine, moody guitar work and a fade that floats as melancholy as that last glimpse in a rear view mirror.

Robbins has the unique talent of transporting a listener to the far-off places he is singing about. His music and words are for the escapist; he enables you to get away from the petty daily problems of living and to exist for a few brief moments in a dream world. It’s a world he recreates with perfection. Marty Robbins is a singer who is always looking for ways to present his fans with something different on record. In 1968 he needed something pretty powerful to follow his BY THE TIME I GET TO PHOENIX album. It was a record that only produced one notable hit single, Love Is In The Air, and he came up with I Walk Alone. An old Fred Rose song, it gave him a number one hit and a new styled album. The sound was bluesy, featuring organ, electric lead guitar and Robbins himself on piano.

His vocalising throughout the set just could not be faulted. He handles Merle Haggard’s Today I Started Loving You Again with skill and brings a fresh quality to Leon Payne’s They’ll Never Take Her Love From Me. The problem with the album was that the songs are all handled in a similar fashion; slow, plodding beat, mournful lyrics and that big, heavy organ and electric lead combination. It was quite a shock for his many fans, and it seemed that Marty had lost his way slightly.

He retained this style for a few singles like I Can’t Say Goodbye and Hello Daily News and also a second album in the same style, It’s A Sin, featuring Marty's big song You Gave Me A Mountain. Written especially for Frankie Laine, it is rated as one of the finest things Robbins has ever written. The pained, cracked vocals were executed by Marty perfectly, but all the time you felt there was something missing.

As compensation for this slight lapse in choice of material came the My Woman, My Woman, My Wife single followed by a series of singles which though not bit hits, were amongst the finest things that Robbins ever put down. I’m referring to songs like Padre, The City, Jolie Girl and Camelia. Robbins built the songs without being over-dramatic. He subdued the quiver in his voice and sang songs which were lyrically brilliantly constructed. They told unique stories about life, containing complicated phrases which a lesser singer could never have attempted.

But it is as a country singer that I really rate Marty Robbins. Whatever the source and nature of his musical style, there is no question about the authenticity of his country credentials.

His early singles testify to this understanding of the basic ingredients of country music, and later singles like The Shoe Goes On The Other Foot Tonight, Count Me Out, No Tears Milady, Two Gun Daddy and Ribbon of Darkness show that he has never forsaken this idiom.

Ask any Marty Robbins fan which album they prize most, and the answer will be instant—R.F.D. From the opening notes of Melba From Melbourne you know you are in for some extra special listening. Every song is a quality country tune. There is a wry sort of humour in songs like Everybody’s Darlin’ Plus Mine and You Won’t Have Her Long. The basic ingredient is lost love, a theme that Robbins can handle better than most.

Released in 1964, it was an album right back in the ‘Mr. Teardrop’ style of the 1950s. Southern Dixie Flyer is a train song with fine steel work and loping guitar. It deals with a Mother’s loss of her only child and Robbins brings a plaintive quality to this song that should touch the most unresponsive person. The themes of this album make it essential listening for anyone, especially those who wish to know where a country artist’s head is at.

More than any other singer, for me Marty Robbins makes country music seem closer somehow; more a reflection of common truths as understood by people everywhere, as opposed to something removed, esoteric. One always has the feeling, listening to his records, that Marty really knows the things he is singing about; his material speaks of personal experience and it comes across in a tremendously powerful way.

After an association lasting more than twenty years, it was quite a shock in Nashville when Marty left Columbia Records to join MCA while still at the peak of his career. The reasons were complex, but could be that Robbins felt the need to be more involved in producing his own recordings and having a record company behind him who believed in his ideals.

With MCA he got the freedom he needed plus the marketing and promotion that would be necessary to maintain him as a top record seller. His last album for Columbia, MARTY ROBBINS TODAY released in the summer of 1972 was produced by the singer himself. The songs were mostly very tasteful, but rather ordinary ballads that could really have been sung by anyone—
Early Morning Sunshine, I’m Not Blaming You and You Say It’s Over don’t offend anyone, but really they’re rather faceless numbers.

After the event I have a feeling that Marty had to record this album to fulfil his contract, yet the sleeve notes are probably the finest ever on a Marty Robbins album. It was a strange release, but there’s no faulting Robbins’ vocal technique. His own two songs Seventeen Years and The Chair are two classic vocal performances, though the production on both leaves a lot to be desired.

His first single for MCA, This Much A Man was a classic. Self-written, it was a stunning song, beautifully sung and produced to perfection. This album carrying the same name marked a new plateau in his long and successful career. The music was not a departure from his usual style, rather it was a logical progression in his career development and bears the distinctive sound that had already sold millions for Marty.

Less adventurous than I'd have liked, less perhaps than I even expected, the album nevertheless had a number of beautiful moments and throughout he sings with the sureness, poise and the occasional breathtaking inspiration that we've come to expect. He handles Donna Fargo’s Funny Face with originality, his voice with just the hint of emotion cracking behind it says vastly more in two-and-a-half minutes than it has any right to.

For years I have rated Merle Haggard as the finest talent to have entered country music, and his single, It’s Not Love (But It’s Not Bad) as one of his best performances. When Robbins came out with this number on his album I was a bit apprehensive. Robbins plays the song down, allows his voice a sadness that gets through immediately, and the bare country instrumentation especially the fiddle passages are magnificent.

On this debut album for MCA, Marty kept to a basic country sound employing fiddle, steel and acoustic guitars. This same style was retained for the next one, MARTY, but to fill out the sound, many tracks featured strings, which were blended into the songs with skill. Knock him as you may, but there’s no doubting the man’s considerable talent to compose songs. And his taste in other’s songs is as flawless as ever. The album is really good, even if purists of various kinds are scandalised by some of the arrangements and the inclusion of songs like Pretend.

He takes Kristofferson’s The Taker and proves there’s no other voice so beautifully sculptured in the upper ranges as he glides effortlessly into spine chilling falsetto phrases with Mexican trumpets in the background creating the perfect blend for the vocal perfection.

As a writer of intelligent, but deeply affected love songs, he has few peers, but even with other themes like the loss and nostalgia in Martha, Oh Martha he shows a unique gift for touching the most responsive areas. Robbins turned out a mellow and mainly peaceful album, it’s the music of a man at ease with himself and doing what he loves best.

For years country fans have pleaded with Marty to record more country albums. Every so often, as with the superb, MY KIND OF COUNTRY he obliges, but the sales of these albums have always been poor in comparison to his others. When he signed with MCA he promised all sorts of albums, and true to form, his first three albums for the new label has produced a variety of sounds. His third album, GOOD’N’COUNTRY had almost a bluegrass sound to it. His hit single, Twentieth Century Drifter is probably one of his most commercial songs for quite a while—superb banjo lines, the unusual story-line and an overall arrangement that is really quite infectious.

Whether it be the fast bluegrass styling of I Heard The Bluebirds Sing and I Couldn’t Believe It Was True or the slow, sad country love songs, like the excellent I’m Wanting To, this set shows that Robbins’ artistry is totally capable of channelling emotions to fit any occasion.

I might be wrong, but I have a suspicion that Marty's idea with this album was to prove once and for all to his many fans that rural country music has no real commercial market today. Certainly his last single, Two Gun Daddy holds to this theory. A Jimmie Rodgers-styled country blues, it is just about the best thing that Marty has ever recorded. Yet it failed to make the country top twenty, sure proof that however much some of us would like good country music to sell, the masses prefer the more pop-slanted material. Whichever direction Marty Robbins’ next recordings take, we can be sure of one thing, the man will never follow trends already set down. He is a talent that makes rules for himself in his musical career. It is this trait which I find so great about the man. He may take familiar songs, but he impresses them with his own spirit, and when singing his very own songs, he is in a class of his own. Maybe I praise Marty Robbins too highly, but for the past fifteen years he has been the greatest singer I’ve heard. His musical boundaries are so wide I cannot help but marvel at the man’s talent.