‘Big Iron On His Hip . . .’

Sometimes, when I look for something that matches a date, I struggle to find something fun or even interesting. I look through the reference library, the CD and LP logs, through the lists of tracks recorded on that date and through the Wikipedia entry on that date . . . and I sit here dithering, trying to select the best option from any number of uninspiring choices.

Today is not one of those days. It was on April 7, 1959, that Marty Robbins was in the studio, laying down one of the tracks for his album, Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs, which would be released that September. The track was “Big Iron,” the tale of a confrontation between an Arizona ranger and an outlaw named Texas Red:

To the town of Agua Fria rode a stranger one fine day
Hardly spoke to folks around him, didn’t have too much to say
No one dared to ask his business, no one dared to make a slip
For the stranger there among them had a big iron on his hip
Big iron on his hip

It was early in the morning when he rode into the town
He came riding from the south side, slowly lookin’ all around
He’s an outlaw loose and running came the whisper from each lip
And he’s here to do some business with the big iron on his hip
Big iron on his hip

In this town there lived an outlaw by the name of Texas Red
Many men had tried to take him and that many men were dead
He was vicious and a killer though a youth of twenty four
And the notches on his pistol numbered one and nineteen more
One and nineteen more

Now the stranger started talking, made it plain to folks around
Was an Arizona ranger, wouldn’t be too long in town
He came here to take an outlaw back alive or maybe dead
And he said it didn’t matter, that he was after Texas Red
After Texas Red

Wasn’t long before the story was relayed to Texas Red
But the outlaw didn’t worry, men that tried before were dead
Twenty men had tried to take him, twenty men had made a slip
Twenty one would be the ranger with the big iron on his hip
Big iron on his hip

The morning passed so quickly, it was time for them to meet
It was twenty past eleven when they walked out in the street
Folks were watching from the windows, everybody held their breath
They knew this handsome ranger was about to meet his death
About to meet his death

There was forty feet between them when they stopped to make their play
And the swiftness of the ranger is still talked about today
Texas Red had not cleared leather ’fore a bullet fairly ripped
And the ranger’s aim was deadly with the big iron on his hip
Big iron on his hip

It was over in a moment and the folks had gathered ’round
There before them lay the body of the outlaw on the ground
Oh, he might have went on living but he made one fatal slip
When he tried to match the ranger with the big iron on his hip
Big iron on his hip

The album was released in September 1959 and went to No. 6 on the Billboard 200. “Big Iron” was released as a single in early 1960; it went to No. 26 on the Billboard Hot 100 and to No. 5 on the magazine’s country chart. (The classic track “El Paso,” which was included on the same album, was also recorded fifty-six years ago today. Released as a single in late 1959, it was No. 1 on the Hot 100 for two weeks and No. 1 on the country chart for seven weeks.)

Marty Robbins has shown up here before, first in the chart-digging discovery of his 1970 folk-rock piece “Jolie Girl” and then when his 1957 hit, “A White Sport Coat & A Pink Carnation,” was part of “White” in our exploration of what we called Floyd’s Prism. Today’s track, “Big Iron,” is one I hadn’t heard until about a year ago, when I collected a five-CD set titled Columbia Country Classics. It’s left me thinking I need to dig up a copy of Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs for myself.

Revised slightly after initial posting.

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