Marty Robbins has been haunting me my whole life.
I only figured this out last week.
A glimmer of that realization started a couple weeks ago, when I returned to my parents’ place staggering under a load of books and LPs. I’d just had lunch with two of my former advisors, and one of them was moving...meaning he was getting rid of stuff that I totally covet. Among the treasures was a box set of Marty Robbins. When I showed my mother, she laughed and said, “You and Grandpa would have been such good friends.”
It’s true that my grandfather loved Marty and all the other (now classic) country that was released in his younger days. He passed away when I was 14, so I have very few memories of him, but one of them is him showing me how to play pedal steel in his office. His musical obsessions gravitated toward Hawaiian music – Jerry Byrd and such – and the way its melodies and instrumentation changed American country.
Unfortunately, I was pretty adamant about my hatred for country in my early teen years, declaring that Color Me Badd and other terrible groups were the only bands worthy of my attention. My connection with my grandpa was mostly limited to softball; he’d given me a special glove when I started playing, and even though I gave it up after a year, I used the glove whenever I tossed a ball around with my brothers.
When I did start listening to country more, and then began studying it seriously, I heard Robbins songs here and there, on compilations or when other people covered him. I appreciated his ability to go between genres, and the way his rich voice delivered melodies that few others can perform well. I liked the occasional appearance of Mexican and Hawaiian influences, the more overtly pop (sometimes cringe-worthy) songs, the classic tales of the cowboy hero who doesn’t always prevail against all odds, but is revered nonetheless. When faced with a huge collection of his material, I’m surprised at the way he moved through genres, seeming to pick songs to record based on how well he could sing them, rather than on creating a genre identity that he fit into nicely. Of course, that’s indicative of his era, a time when radio formats weren’t defined by the narrowness they are today. Stations were much more willing to play country alongside pop, jazz, or rock, in part because there were fewer stations. They had to be more diverse.
I have a soft spot for this one:
I often thought that holding a wedding might have been an excuse to plan a honeymoon that took place in Nashville, Memphis, and Clarksdale. The moment I always remember from that trip is walking into a club on Broadway on the first day and discovering a singer who had been playing the local spots for years, and whose voice paralleled Marty’s. He covered many Robbins songs, convincing us in the end to buy his album. Now, whenever I hear “El Paso”, I think of that day.
I’m working on a long-term project that partly involves interviewing my family. I sat my mom down last week to ask her about her parents and what they used to listen to, and she ran off a list of singers like Hank Williams, Wilf Carter, Eddy Arnold, Hank Snow, and of course, Marty, when she told me about her father. Later that day, when we were talking about some of those singers, she requested that my dad find Eddy Arnold’s “Cattle Call” on his tablet and she sang along with it by memory, even though she probably hadn’t heard the track in 40 years.
But I digress. Throughout the remainder of last week, I’d be sitting with friends and musicians from back home, and inevitably Marty Robbins’s name or one of his songs would come up. But I never clued into how much I was hearing about him until I started up the box set....the first song was “Love is Blue”, the only song I can still play on the piano without sheet music. I think I played it for my grade 7 talent show, in front of the whole school (who, by the way, ensured that I was told incessantly what a nerd I was). (I do know that it’s ridiculous that I’ve played piano for 30 years and I’ve got nothing memorized.)
And when that record started up last week, I realized I can’t deny it anymore. This dude is in my bones.