Leave Your Guns At Home Son; Johnny Cash and the Death of Cowboy Ballads

Today marks the anniversary of Johnny Cash’s last #1 cowboy song, “Don’t Take Your Guns To Town,” recorded in 1959. His next stab at the genre, the television theme, “The Rebel – Johnny Yuma,” would come two years later and only climb to # 24. It would be sixteen years and a western concept album behind him before he charted another cowboy song in 1977 at #38, aptly named “The Last Gunfighter Ballad.” An era had past.

On the cusp of the 1960’s, music was in flux. Rock ‘n Roll was about to leave it’s rural trappings behind, country was shedding the coon skin caps and trying to move uptown and western music was being unceremoniously lowered into a grave. Bands like The Sons of the Pioneers sounded anachronistic compared to Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis, and songs about the open range and gunfighters and cows sounded like the past compared to Bobby Darin’s “Mack the Knife” and Frankie Avalon’s “Venus.”

The last gasp was a good one though, Marty Robbins hit a high water mark in the genre with his release of “Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs,” featuring songs line “El Paso,” “Big Iron,” and a gorgeous cover of the Sons of the Pioneers standard “Cool Water.” The days of popular western ballads though were numbered and songs like Johnny’s “Don’t Take Your Guns To Town” seemed to point toward their demise. None of this is to say that fine western music hasn’t been written, sung, and recorded over the years since, but it’s hard to argue their popular relevance.

The western genre was changing in other ways too. The singing cowboys and men in white hats of the silver screen were giving way to sullen, unshaven trail-hounds fit with melancholy and unsympathetic hearts. John Ford’s “The Searchers,” had come out three years prior and John Wayne’s portrayal of Ethan Edwards , a southern gunslinger on the hunt for his niece abducted by Comanche, not as rescuer, but rather destroyer, pointed the way toward Eastwood’s Man With No Name, Django, and the bloodbaths of Sam Peckinpah.

So, here is Cash, part time American prophet, with a cautionary tale predicting the violent decade before us. The man who wrote “I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die,” takes the other side of the story. A boy feeling grown and full of himself, guns strapped to his sides, about to ride into town, whose Mother pleads with him to leave the iron at home. He won’t of course, he can’t. In town he’s laughed at, goes to his hip, and is quickly shot down. It happens brutally quick in the song and then it’s over, and we’re left with the ironic moment of the dying boy quoting his Mother’s warning:

Don’t take your guns to town son
Leave your guns at home Bill
Don’t take your guns to town

It’s still pretty good advice.

Post Sciptumus ~ Adam Sheets, part whiskey drinker, conspiracy theorist, and C&W buff, notes the last #1 cowboy song was “Ringo” by Lorne Greene in 1964. Listen to it, it’s good for you. It’s also cool.


About Iaan Hughes

Iaan Hughes is a deejay on 91.3 KBCS in Seattle. He plays country & western music.
This entry was posted in Country, Film, Folk, Honky Tonk, Music, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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