With news that the Coen Brothers’ remake of “True Grit” has landed a prestigious Christmas Day opening, it seems a good time to talk about cowboy movies — and particularly memorable cowboy-story songs — because the original 1969 film has one of the best of that musical breed.
With Jeff Bridges on board in John Wayne’s Oscar-winning role, I’m relatively confident that Ethan and Joel will come up with a worthy winner of a film remake. I hope they do as well with the movie’s theme song, if they opt to include one. Glen Campbell, who played the Texas Ranger in the original, also nailed the mix of strength and vulnerability of the title song, an Oscar nominee.
Two other “cowboy movies” — well, actually one, on a technicality — have theme songs that perfectly set the dramatic mood:
• The older of the two, Tex Ritter’s version of “Do Not Forsake Me,” the theme song for 1952’s “High Noon,” tells you just enough to hook you on the “one man stands alone” plot, and that’s reinforced in this tautly edited train-arrival sequence. The “High Noon” theme won the Oscar for best song. (Gary Cooper, by the way, won the Oscar for best actor as Marshal Will Kane in the film and is featured on a new postage stamp honoring his work.)
• Likewise, the planned theme song for legendary Western director John Ford’s “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” would have been perfect. Gene Pitney’s version of the Burt Bacharach-Hal David song “(The Man Who Shot) Liberty Valance” beautifully captures the key plot nuances without giving away the major twist in the 1962 film, which teamed John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart for the first time. However, the song never was used because of a publishing spat between Famous Music and Paramount Pictures. At least it turned out to be a big hit, reaching No. 4 on the Billboard charts.
(“Liberty Valance,” I can’t help but note, is awfully hard on frontier journalists, who, in fairness, seem to deserve it. In flashbacks, the movie portrays the pioneer publisher of the Shinbone Star as the town drunk. The paper’s “modern-day” publisher doesn’t fare much better. He pompously pushes his way into a private setting, badgers Jimmy Stewart and then, when he actually learns the truth, decides to cover it up.)
There’s a good chance you’ll be humming some of these unforgettable cowboy songs for the next couple of weeks. Several of the ones below are so evocative of their settings that the lyrics will make you almost visualize what a great movie scene they’d make. Two of the best are by Marty Robbins:
• The better-known of the two, “El Paso” settled in at No. 1 for two weeks and became the first country song to win a Grammy. At 5 minutes, it was one of the longest No. 1 songs of the pop era, at least until the likes of The Doors’ long-version “Light My Fire” and Don McLean’s “American Pie” came along.
As wonderful as “El Paso” is, I actually like Robbins’ follow-up, “Big Iron,” better, even though it wasn’t as big a hit and only reached No. 26. The song’s lyrics offer as much detail as a movie script. Here are two samples that help me envision the scene right down to imagining the rider’s three-day growth of beard:
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 . . .
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, he was after Texas Red,
After Texas Red . . .
And three more saga songs:
• Johnny Cash’s “Streets of Laredo”
• Jay and the Americans’ “Come a Little Bit Closer”
• And “Ringo,” an unlikely No. 1 song from Lorne Greene, best known as Ben Cartwright, head of the “Bonanza” clan at the Ponderosa. This version has a seldom-heard introduction.
The following two make my list as intriguing story songs of the era, even though they’re very dated in terms of political correctness, particularly in their portrayals of American Indians. The first even has a Minnesota connection.
• “Half Breed,” written by the great John D. Loudermilk and performed by Marvin Rainwater, a 25 percent Cherokee who in recent years moved to Minnesota. The 1959 song only got up to No. 66 nationally but was a much bigger hit in the Twin Cities.
• “The Sound of the Hammer,” a 1962 song by Vicki Tasso that never made Billboard’s Hot 100 but got summertime airplay around here. It tells the tale of railroad construction worker “Tall Tex” and his eventual involvement at the Alamo.
I wanted to end with an unlikely cowboy song from, of all people, that city-slicker sophisticate, Cole Porter. Here’s a great version of “Don’t Fence Me In,” teaming Bing Crosby and Minnesota’s Andrews Sisters.
But leave it to “The King of the Cowboys” to upstage that powerhouse pairing! Cue Roy Rogers — and a dancing Trigger.