The single most influential album of Western songs in post-World War II American music, Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs touched a whole range of unexpected bases in its own time and has endured extraordinarily well across the ensuing four decades. The longevity of the album's appeal is a result of Marty Robbins' love of the repertory at hand and the mix of his youthful dynamism and prodigious talent that he brought to the recordings, and the use of the best music production techniques of the era. Add to that the presence of a pair of killer original songs that were ready-made singles, "El Paso" and "Big Iron," and a third, "The Master's Call," that was startlingly personal, and the results are well-nigh irresistible. The range of material on this album is extraordinary, from love songs to spirituals, songs so old they have no known author, and originals by the singer, all of which seamlessly fit together. Robbins' subject is mostly the west of myth and movie, which benefits from his ability as a storyteller -- "Big Iron" or "El Paso" may tell tales heard or seen 100 times onscreen, but he makes listeners feel like this is the first time they're hearing them, complete with excitement and anticipation of a poet in the middle of a spellbinding recital. The guitars, played by Robbins, Grady Martin, and Jack Pruett, and Bob Moore's upright bass all have a crisp sound, and the Glaser Brothers' understated vocal accompaniment embellishes the singing in key spots without intruding on the spell cast by Robbins' singing. Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs has been reissued several times on CD, paired with its follow-up, More Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs, as part of Bear Family Records' Under Western Skies box, and in an expanded edition in 1999 with three bonus tracks. "The Hanging Tree," written for the 1959 movie of the same name, was actually Robbins' first commercial recording of a cowboy song, predating the album by six months. Meanwhile, "Saddle Tramp" was a Robbins original recorded eight months after the album -- their presence adds another significant dimension to the album and its scope. There was a reason why the Western movies and television shows started to be called "horse operas" -- at their best, they had a sense of drama and were driven by charismatic leads. "Saddle Tramp" and "The Hanging Tree" both show Robbins as a kind of cowboy heldentenor creating two beautifully wrought vestpocket Western dramas that significantly add to the appeal of the original album, with the chorus on "Saddle Tramp" among Robbins' most beautiful moments on record.
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AllMusic Review by Bruce Eder