Like movies? Like yodeling? Wow, is this a big week for you. And, as it happens, for Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings, who will be mixing it with Lady Gaga and Mary Poppins on the Oscars red carpet on Monday as Best Song nominees. If you haven’t yet seen The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, the Coen Brothers’ latest movie, then believe us that it’s worth the Netflix subscription, if only for the sight of Tim Blake Nelson singing “yippie-kay-yey” while floating through the sky with a celestial harp. Maybe it’s the fact that we’ve been bingeing on the Sergio Leone/Clint Eastwood Man with No Name trilogy this week (God bless you, Ennio Morricone), but it’s about time for a list of great songs about gunslingers. (Please note: we don’t think that shooting people is cool, or a viable alternative to an impartial judiciary.)
“Big Iron” – Marty Robbins
Robbins’s iconic 1959 album, Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs, is packed with sharpshooters and outlaws – from Billy the Kid, to Utah Carol, to the nameless man about to be hanged for killing Flo and her beau. Sure, it’s most famous for Robbins’s biggest hit (and Grammy winner) “El Paso.” But if you’re looking for the classic quick-draw at high-noon (or in this case, twenty past eleven), you won’t find better than the opening track, “Big Iron.” Written by Robbins himself, it’s a classic tale of good vs evil as a handsome stranger (and Arizona ranger) rides into town to bring down murderous outlaw Texas Red. If those backing harmonies – especially the incredible bass drop – don’t give you goosebumps, check your pulse. You may be technically dead.
“Gunslinger’s Glory” – The Dead South
If there’s one thing Canada’s premier punkgrassers love to write, it’s songs about Westerns. Maybe it’s because lead singer Nate Hilts’s uncle, back home in Saskatchewan, was (as he puts it) “a big ol’ cowboy”. Either way, their albums are littered with shootouts and bodies, and their high-energy, high-drama approach to performance lends itself well to the subject. This is one of their best, tackling the age-old problem of being a famed gunfighter: that everyone else wants to bring you down. Tell us about it, punks.
“The Last Gunfighter Ballad” – Guy Clark
Johnny Cash’s version – the titular track from his 1977 album – is better known than Guy Clark’s original, recorded a year earlier. But Cash’s spoken-word rendition, given with his trademark rhythmic trot, isn’t perhaps as melodious, or as affecting, as Clark’s. A simple guitar line underlies the story of an old man drinking at a bar, recalling his former life of shoot-outs in dusty streets and “the smell of the black powder smoke”, and the twist in the final chorus is a reminder that modern living isn’t without its own dangers. That’s Waylon Jennings on the harmonies in the chorus, by the way.
“When A Cowboy Trades His Spurs For Wings” – Gillian Welch and David Rawlings
Probably the best thing about the Coen Brothers’ portmanteau of short stories from the Wild West is its opening, with Tim Blake Nelson clip clopping into frame on his white horse, strumming a black guitar and singing Marty Robbins’s “Cool Water.” The second best comes seven minutes later, when Willie Watson shows up as his nemesis. The duet that Welch and Rawlings penned for the pair may be a parody of a cowboy song, but the music’s so en pointe and beautifully sung that the humour takes second place to the artistry. Also, Welch and Rawlings invented a new word – “bindling” – for the song, which has got to be worth the Oscar nom.
“Gunslinging Rambler” – Gangstagrass
There’s a fair amount of reference to guns and violence in the songs of the world’s first (and only) hip-hop bluegrass fusion band. Despite the title, and the assertion of the protagonist that “you gonna wind up another notch on my gun belt”, you realise as the lyrics progress that this one’s not actually about a gunfight, but its modern-day equivalent, the rap battle. R-SON recorded this track for their 2012 album, Rappalachia, and it contains arguably the most devastating lines on the album. “I’m not killing these guys, please let me explain/But when I’m done, there’ll be very little left of their brains.”
“Two Gunslingers” – Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
What’s the best kind of story about gun violence? One where everyone agrees to give it up. Released in 1991 on Into The Great Wide Open, it’s a glorious moment of self-revelation that subverts both the genre and our expectations. As one of the gunslingers so eloquently puts it: what are we fighting for?
Photo courtesy of Netflix