K Paoletter 30: Big Iron On His Hip

As a ten-year-old, Marty Robbins would work all day in the cotton fields of Glendale, Arizona, to earn the change he needed for the movie house in Phoenix. “Well I would go in at 12:45 when it opened,” Robbins later remembered, “and I would stay ‘til Gene Autry was through that night. I’d walk back across the desert by myself. Just a little kid and I wasn’t afraid. Cause I’d just seen Gene Autry, and I was Gene Autry that night.” 

This being 1935, the walk between the movies and his home encompassed nine miles or so of open desert, but Robbins seemed to prefer the darkness and the fresh air to the crowded house where he lived with eight siblings, not to mention his bitter father, who up and left two years later. After that, Robbins had a tendency toward trouble: getting in fights and driving between farms to whip oranges at random buildings, an occupation locally known as “shack whappin.’” At the time, farmboys from Glendale like Robbins were downright notorious. Getting ready for a night out in Phoenix at Sarg’s Cow Town or the Riverside Ballroom, they were said to tape up their fists like professional boxers going into the ring.

Whatever trouble Robbins made for himself as a teenager, a stint in the Navy at the tail end of World War II straightened him out, though he came back scarred by the experience. Riven by anxiety, Robbins could hardly sit down to a meal with the family of the young lady named Marizona he’d end up marrying. Later on, after Marty died, Marizona reflected on her husband’s unwillingness to describe the conditions of his upbringing or his experience in the war. “It was hard for him to expose himself, because he — I mean, he couldn’t just come out and tell me those things,” she said, “But he could write it in a song.” 

What a songwriter he was. Robbins became a legendary Nashville figure after Little Jimmy Dickens appeared on the local TV show Robbins ended up hosting — “Chuck Wagon Time” — and recommended that his label give the young singer an audition. “I’d never heard that much control over a voice as he had,” Dickens said in 2003. Robbins broke through with the wistful “I’ll Go On Alone” in 1953, and his best known recording, 1959’s “El Paso,” sold five million copies. From there, Robbins recorded another 14 songs that topped the country charts and was a regular feature of the Grand Ole Opry for three decades. Hell, he even managed to be the first country act to headline in Vegas, when he drew crowds to the Fremont Hotel’s Fiesta Room. When Robbins died of a heart attack in 1982, 1,500 people packed into the funeral home in Nashville. The preacher had it right when he eulogized, “his songs touched the very soul of America.”

However famous he became after hitting it big, Robbins never quite lost his lonesome streak — indeed, it proved integral to his ability to translate cowboy stories into a modern context, providing a radio-friendly soundtrack to the post-war boom in Western nostalgia that also made box office hits of The Searchers and Giant. The sense of continuity that Robbins created between the old West and the economic machine that was turning the farms of his hometown into subdivisions had something to do with his grandfather, a fellow called “Texas Bob” Heckle. An authentic, 19th Century cowboy poet, Heckle published “Rhymes of the Frontier” once he’d settled down in Arizona after many years of service under George Crook, the U.S. Army general who waged war against the Yavapi, Sioux, and Comanche. When Robbins was a child, he’d sing songs to his grandfather in exchange for mostly made-up stories about the old man’s career. “He told me he was a Texas Ranger; that was just one of his big lies,” Robbins told the historian Marshall Trimble. “But they were all great stories.”

Though he was no slouch as a weaver of his own tall tales, most of Robbins’ appeal could be found in his elegant tenor, which allowed him to reach for a high note as effortlessly as his grandfather had mounted a horse. If the taciturn cowboy has become an American archetype, it has as much to do with Robbins as it does John Wayne. He sang with a deep ease; an undersized guitar tucked under the crook of his arm, Robbins was a man in no rush to step away from the campfire. 

In his excellent essay on Robbins, Ken Layne writes about the trips that Marty and Marizona would take between Nashville and Arizona around the holidays. “During these long drives across the open-sky country of New Mexico and West Texas, sometimes Marty would lounge in the back seat of his turquoise Cadillac with a guitar, playing with song ideas.” “El Paso” supposedly came out of one of these drives, as the lyrics and melody Robbins had been toying with on the road suddenly fell into place as they approached the city limits. 

“Out in the West Texas town of El Paso, I fell in love with a Mexican girl,” Robbins sings at the beginning of the song, accompanied by Grady Martin’s tinkling Spanish guitar. Despite his typically unassuming delivery, Robbins weaves a tragic ballad: the singer kills another cowboy for the love of a woman named Felina, runs for his life “to the badlands of New Mexico,” and then is shot down by a posse when he returns. To bring “El Paso” to a close, Robbins sings, “From out of nowhere Felina has found me, kissing my cheek as she kneels by my side. Cradled by two loving arms that I’ll die for, one little kiss and Felina, goodbye.”

The song has nothing to do with the actual city of El Paso, but that’s not the point: the city becomes a synecdoche for the mythologic West, a sentimental grounds for revenge and repose. For that reason, it has endured as a cultural touchstone, even playing a role in the final episode of Breaking Bad (itself titled “Felina”), when Walter White listens to a recording on a cassette tape during his exile from Albuquerque. As one fan illustrated in a supercut of the show set to the song, the narrative of “El Paso” mirrors that of the series, with love of the meth trade taking the place of the narrator’s adoration of Felina. Of course, the same observation could be made about any number of stories centered on a man whose obsession leads to violence. Whether or not “El Paso” and Breaking Bad share any particulars, the antihero at their center is the same.

If Robbins’ songs were always more Gene Autry than Glendale, Arizona, it was because that was his ambition: if he’d wanted to spend life picking cotton — or mowing a lawn — he’d never have picked up a guitar. Still, Robbins never wore fame quite as naturally as his idol. He was deathly afraid of his first TV appearance in 1951, even if it was for a local station, and though he eventually warmed to the spotlight, the persona he cultivated at the Grand Ole Opry was more aww shucks charmer than moody cowboy. 

The performance wore on Robbins. He was plagued by insomnia for much of his adult life and seemed to shy away from fully capitalizing on his stardom. “The people who like country music in New York are the same as the people who like country music in Douglas, Georgia,” he told a TV reporter in the early 1980s ahead of a concert in the latter. That night, he wore an immaculate white suit embroidered with glittering thread, playing to an oversized shed. The contradiction was the point. “I’m as sad as the willow that weeps in the valley,” Robbins sings in one song. In another: “I’m as free as the breeze and I ride where I please.”

I’m still not totally sure I enjoyed the experience of watching The African Desperate (now streaming on MUBI), but boy did it give me a lot to think about. The first feature from the artist Martine Syms, The African Desperate covers the final days of a visual artist named Palace’s MFA experience, from her incapacitating thesis defense to skinny dipping after a school-sponsored dance party. The film is steeped in the awkwardness of pretension, but whenever it threatens to degenerate into hollow buzzwords and allusion, the total inability of Palace’s peers to square their racist assumptions with their anti-racist posturing provides a refreshing intrusion of the blunt realities of American life. “I was thinking about the hierarchies of sentience,” one pink-haired white woman says about her video installation, “my work is more about hyperobjects than the dominance of capitalism.” “Have you heard of Sylvia Wynter?” Palace replies, before ostentatiously spelling out the Jamaican theorist’s name when the other artist says no. “Is she a black woman?” the white artist asks, provoking an excruciating silence. “Yeah,” Palace says. “Why?” 

That’s all for now. Thanks, as always, for reading and subscribing. I’m off to do some reporting in Las Vegas next week, after which I’ll be bunkering down for the winter to actually write this book I keep talking about. In the meantime, you can find me on my website, or at the Fremont Street Experience, gawking at SlotZilla under an ever-changing vault of 49,000 LEDs. 

Your pal,


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