Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Blood on the Saddle

I was painting an adobe wall in my cantina; blood red; found a stack of long playing albums. Tex Ritter’s “Blood on the Saddle” leaning on Marty Robbins’ “Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs.” If God made two better cowboy records (to paraphrase W.S. Burroughs) he kept them to his glorious self. Tex Ritter sang with the hang-dog snarl of a gravedigger with a thorn stuck in his craw. Bloody. Raw. His voice crawled up your backbone; the whisper of a hired killer pointing a gun at your back in a dark alley. “Barbara Allen,” “Streets of Laredo,” “Sam Hall,” “Sam Bass,” “Billy the Kid.” Deep Folklore from an authentico. Marty Robbins was the Pavarotti of Western song and was a helluva writer. Contemporary cowboy poetry and song pales by comparison. Non-dairy creamer. (Except for Ian Tyson and Pablo Zarzyski.) Ah, but Tex Ritter! Otis Blackwell, who wrote many of Elvis Presley’s early hits, told me once that Tex was his favorite singer. The Tex Ritter cowboy attitude, imbued within the rolling rhythms of Blackwell’s “All Shook Up” and “Don’t Be Cruel,” created the tone of some of the finest early rock.

Here’s a brief Tex Ritter anecdote: we were up in the French alps one dark night; visiting the widow of the famous painter Count Balthus - Countess Setsuko - a beautiful Japanese lady whom Balthus had often painted. We were invited to tea in the ancient chalet. A spectacular, five storey ornate structure on the side of forested mountain. Spooky. The countess received us in a formal manner; dressed in a kimono and wooden slippers. She began asking us questions about our lives. Picasso and Balthus paintings stared down from the wall. The conversation rattled safely and stiffly along; until I told her I wrote and sang songs. “What sort of songs?” she asked. “All sorts,” I said. Then she squinted and looked me in the eye: “Do you ever sing cowboy songs?” “Yes,” I said. “The dark ones?” she asked. “Dark? You mean like Tex Ritter?” I asked. Her eyes widened and she clapped her hands together and almost jumped out of her antique chair. “Ah, yes! Tex Ritta! Tex Ritta! I love Tex Ritta!” She called the house boy to bring the whiskey decanter and I sang a little of “High Noon.” I closed my eyes and somewhere a pisterlero was galloping his horse along a high ridge as a gunfighter was riding in on a train to kill Gary Cooper. Grace Kelly was catching the next stage out. “Do not forsake me, oh my darling, on this our wedding day…..”Tex Ritter’s voice castes a long shadow across our minstrel history. It resonates with the true grit and gen of the noir folklore stuff we’re looking for in cowboy and gunfighter ballads. Out on the eternal frontier. Go ask Countess Setsuko.

“There was blood on the saddle, and blood all around, and a great big puddle, of blood on the ground…a cowboy lay in it…”