- The guy who is getting hanged TONIGHT
“They’re Hanging Me Tonight” is one of the songs that gets stuck in my head the most and it might be the prettiest ballad on the album. As for the narrator of this track…not so pretty. The way the story unfolds is clever – it throws you for a loop by starting out as a simple breakup song. This dude is sad because it’s raining and it reminds him of the night his girlfriend, Flo, left him for another man. That’s rough. It turns out this story is being told from the dude’s jail cell on the night of his execution because he straight up killed his ex and her new boyfriend. The twist of the line “they’ll bury Flo tomorrow/but they’re hanging me tonight” makes for good storytelling but this dude is still terrible and it rings too true to shit that is still being done. Flo was probably pretty smart for trying to leave.
- The guy who heard the Master’s Call
“The Master’s Call” is about a BAD DUDE who became an outlaw when he was only a teenager, grieving his parents to know that “their only boy was bad.” He repents from his sinful ways when he is saved from a lightning storm and a stampede by a barricade of already dead horses by what can only be a miracle from God and honestly it goes on kind of long and is hard to visualize. Point is, the narrator of this song converted and loves to talk about the time he almost died. He pulls out this story at every social event. He’s the speaker that comes to teen youth group events called, I don’t know – cRAVE in a jagged lime green font – and shares his edgy testimony about how he used to have sex and do drugs but now doesn’t and is still cool because see he has a printed t-shirt and jewelry on. What.
- The narrator of “El Paso”
The most famous song on the album! This is another man who killed a guy out of jealousy. He is in unrequited love with a Mexican dancer named Felina and at least has the self-awareness to know she’s just not that into him. When a handsome cowboy waltzes in and buys her a drink, my man snaps and challenges him to a duel. One of the reasons the narrator here is leaps and bounds better than the guy getting hanged TONIGHT is because he definitely knows he’s kind of a dumbass. The man he kills in a duel also has some agency in, you know, agreeing to it. So our guy escapes El Paso and rides out into New Mexico, the Land of Enchantment, but he’s so stupid and in love that he goes right back and gets himself killed. His final consolation is that he gets his “Little Fall of Rain” moment when Felina kisses him on the cheek as he dies. I probably would have ranked this man higher when I was younger because it is a good story and I was enough of an idiot to find it romantic.
A kind of bullshit thing that happened is Robbins wrote a sequel to the song called “Felina (from El Paso)” that retcons the whole thing into a story about how she was actually into him and she shoots herself immediately after his death. We do not accept this as canon.
- Sad Guy in the Valley
This is a simple song, pretty sparse on the details, sung by a man who wants someone to come back to the valley and “back to this poor cowboy’s arms.” If he’s anything like certain other characters on this album, he 100% deserved to be left. Maybe it’s just a relatively harmless breakup song! There’s not enough information for me to make the call on whether or not this sad man is toxic and there’s certainly not enough information for me to be attracted to him.
- Thirsty Man
“Cool Water” is about actual, literal thirst. The narrator and Dan (more on that later) are travelling in the desert and extremely parched. He seems to be drifting in and out of reality, fantasizing about water but also hallucinating some sort of sinister figure (Dont’cha listen to him, Dan/he’s a devil not a man”). Not really fuckable. Not really his fault. Hope he got a drink.
Our dehydrated protagonist is travelling with and addressing someone named “Old Dan.” I have a few questions. I’m not totally sure Dan is real. Or if he is real, actually present during these events. Furthermore, “Keep a-movin, Dan/dontcha listen to him, Dan/He’s a devil, not a man” seems to be spoken in a different tone than the rest of the song ALMOST as if there is a sort of Greek chorus telling Dan that the narrator has just completely lost the plot at this point. Or Dan could be a different aspect of the Narrator’s personality. There is also nothing to contradict the possibility that Dan is a horse. Huge if true.
- The Bounty Hunter
Yeah, It’s a living! Since this is my list and I don’t have to make sense to anyone but me, I don’t like the bounty hunter on “Running Gun” because I have a soft spot for the titular Gun and the bounty hunter screws up what is one of the more stable romantic relationships on this album full of…not that.
- Sheriff Pat Garrett
He’s a cop.
- The guy who wants to go back to the green valley
The next three entries are a string of ultimately well adjusted, settled men whose biggest offense is being boring, not monstrous. The guy who wishes he were back in the little green valley has a home and a girl waiting for him, and it’s one of the peppier songs so maybe he’s just like, on a business trip. It is probably also the least compelling song on the album as far as narratives go. Also, this being Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs, there’s a chance he’s not at home because he left to do something incredibly stupid, so leave space for that.
- The guy who left his heart on the Hanging Tree
“The Hanging Tree” is about a man who learns that the real gold was the friends we made along the way. He’s in town to make his fortune and even has a perfectly nice woman fall in love with him but he’d “left my heart on the hangin’ tree/I’d left my heart with a memory/And a faded dream on the hangin’ tree.” The song was written for a movie of the same name but as we are looking at the text in front of us only, this guy’s haunted past is never explained. This does make him a bit irritating because he’s the type to, when asked about a scar, look into the distance and say “ah…yes, the incident.” BUT. I give him credit because this song is a story about second chances and finding out what really matters and he’s pretty ok in the end. Some men steal his gold but spare his life, and he walks away poorer but RICHER IN LOVE.
- The guy with 160 acres
Here’s the happiest person in all of these songs. He has a lot of land, he has cash in his jeans pockets, he has an old paint hoss, he’s the guy who’s boss. My only reservation about him is that I feel like he could very easily be one of those people who’s way too into being a “self-made man” and if he made room on his enormous 160 acres for a family, he would insist on being Head of the Household. I also wonder if there is a Valley musical universe happening on this album. Maybe “In the Valley,” “Down in the Little Green Valley,” and “A Hundred and Sixty Acres” are about the same man. If you listen to them in broadcast order, it is a story about how an independent man found love, lost it, and found it again (though he’s still on a business trip or whatever).
- The Bronc Fighter
As I found out by watching the upsettingly captivating movie The Rider, horse taming is neat as hell to watch. The Bronc Fighter in “Strawberry Roan” is basically just a guy with a specialized job who needs a gig, but he gets stuck with the grouchiest horse ever and complains about it/develops a begrudging respect for the horse. Bitching about work is the right of every working person even if they have a “cool” job and I would gladly get a few drinks and listen to this dude’s stories.
- The Strawberry Roan
Unlike Dan, we are 100% clear that this is a horse. This is a good time for me to confess that prior to getting weirdly into this album, I forgot “roan” was a horse word and saw the song title and assumed it was some kind of strawberry patch or field. How wholesome. But the Strawberry Roan is not only a horse, but the worst, most grisled middle-aged man of a horse. So, the horse version of my type of man. He deserves a place on this list because the song really goes in on building up his personality. The Bronc Fighter wants to see “if this outlaw can buck.” This guy bucks.
- Texas Red
Things we know about Texas Red:
- Vicious and a killer
- Youth of 24
- Notches on his pistol number one and 19 more
Normally I would be all over the bad guy, but Texas Red doesn’t get much development beyond being bad unlike his fellow young villain below. Maybe he was a ginger?
- Billy the Kid
Like Texas Red, Billy the Kid was an outlaw in his early 20s but Billy has one up on Texas Red since he’s killed 21 men. Whereas “Big Iron” is written from the perspective of awe at the Arizona Ranger who shoots Texas Red, “Billy the Kid” is a cautionary tale and as such is more sympathetic to Billy, urging us to consider his wasted potential. It also includes the important detail that he was a very pretty man. And! I love the phrase “boy bandit king” and it’s hard not to be a little into him after that. We don’t know if Texas Red and the Ranger ever crossed paths before – seems not – but Billy’s fatal decision to try and kill Sheriff Pat Garrett involves how they used to be friends. I want to know more and that sounds like it could be a great, angsty ship.
- The Running Gun
“Running Gun” is a bop of a tune about a very sad thing. A man who is very dedicated to his girlfriend but broke, apparently, has sold his services as a hit man too many times and has to go on the lam. He’s running away to salvage the dream of creating a home with his girl but he gets killed by a bounty hunter before he can make it. He gets points from me because unlike the idiot in, say, “El Paso,” he’s making bad decisions despite/because of an actual, requited relationship and he just! Really loves his girlfriend! It’s cute! I wish he had made it. “Running Gun” also has two of my favorite lines on this album:
- “I know that where I lie tonight/he too must lie someday.” I have a memento mori phrase tattooed on my body so this is my whole deal.
- “A woman’s love is wasted when she loves a running gun.” Seems legit, probably would still do it anyway!
- Utah’s Best Friend
All the men on this CD whining about how their girlfriends left them can stand aside because THIS is the real tragic love story of Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs. The unnamed narrator of “Utah Carol” is not much interested in talking about himself except to mention how close he was with Utah Carol and how much he loved him. Spoiler: Utah Carol does not survive his song. As I will shortly elaborate on, a man like Utah Carol deserves the love of such a devoted friend and partner as this guy clearly wanted to be with forever and ever.
This is, embarrassingly, my own voice
- The Saddle Tramp
This whole whole song is about being an unrepentant fuccboi. The Saddle Tramp blows from town to town, visiting ladies and cute little misses and sweet little someones but never staying, like a very family friendly Weeknd song. If the Saddle Tramp had a phone he would text “heyyyyyy” at 11:30 p.m. on a Tuesday even though you haven’t talked to him in weeks. But you know what? This guy is extremely honest about what he wants and who he is, so I can respect that. He is probably pretty good in bed. I’m ok with this!
- The Arizona Ranger
This was a morally complicated decision for me because while he may be on a different point on the spectrum than Sheriff Pat Garrett, the Arizona Ranger is still kind of a cop. The Arizona Rangers are interesting to read about and it seems that the one in this song would be from the short lived 1905-1909 iteration of the company. If you have that historical context then it makes sense in the story that people would be immediately impressed with him. More importantly though, he has a big iron on his hip (a big iron on his hip). He is also explicitly called the “handsome ranger” and again, no verdict on whether Texas Red was hot. True strength is not having a big iron on your hip, but knowing when to use it and this guy knows when the moment is right. Daddy.
- The guy that NTR’d the guy getting hanged TONIGHT
Also known as “that good for nothing man.” To hammer in more about how the narrator of “They’re Hanging Me Tonight” is the absolute worst, he pays lip service to feeling bad about killing his ex girlfriend but still is very insistent that we should hate this unnamed guy who cucked him. Flo was smart enough to leave her creep of a boyfriend and we only have said creep’s word that her new guy was bad so I feel we can probably extrapolate that he was much hotter, cooler, and nicer than the man getting hanged TONIGHT. But, I mean, he is unfortunately dead.
- The Wild Young Cowboy
This is another case of only hearing about “the other man” from the POV of a jealous narrator. Unlike the terrible guy sentenced to death, though, the MC of “El Paso” will admit that his competition is cool and hot. He calls him “dashing and daring” and a “handsome young stranger.” It fits in with Incel Paso’s weird self-deprecating and self-aware but still just an inappropriate dumbass vibe. And I guess we’re supposed to think the cowboy is a chad but like in the last example, I think it’s safe to adjust for him being a regular cool and hot guy in actuality!
- Utah Carol
Run your ponies in closer because this is the absolute MVP of this album. A friend, a partner, a hard worker, beloved by all, SaCrificed his life to save a child!! “Utah Carol” is a good melody and one of the better story songs. It’s told from the perspective of #6 up there mourning his best friend Utah, who died saving the boss’s young daughter from a stampede. Maybe I should have ranked the narrator higher because thanks to his obvious, undying love for Utah that pours out of the song and makes it clear what a dude he was, we also love Utah. I’ve always thought the phrase “stand up guy” was odd and meaningless and overused by men when talking about football coaches and state politicians but occasionally you do meet a guy who is, QED, stand up. Utah Carol is such a man. “I hope we all meet Utah in the roundup far away.” Makes you think.
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