John Sieger
Sieger on Songs

Marty Robbins’ Radical Experiment

Country star’s pathbreaking “Don't Worry About Me” boasted a massive guitar fuzztone.

By - Aug 25th, 2016 02:44 pm
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Marty Robbins. Photo is in the Public Domain.

Marty Robbins. Photo is in the Public Domain.

Music makes strange bedfellows. Here’s the story of a romantic balladeer whose song featured a massive guitar fuzztone well before The Yardbirds or Jimi Hendrix had dreamed of it. It’s an odd tale in an unlikely place — part of a constantly evolving discussion trying to pinpoint the date in history when guitars evolved into something that can sound like screaming rats or jets taking off. You wouldn’t think Nashville would be a part of that discussion, but it is, as this song demonstrates.

The exquisite suffering in Marty Robbin’s voice is something to behold. It was rapidly going out of style in early 1960’s. Like Roy Orbison, the torture of love was key to Robbin’s appeal, mixed, in his case, with bullets and horses charging across dusty landscapes. Their giant voices might have been at home on the Metropolitan Opera’s stage and were unexpected in the honky tonks they came up in.

It was an aesthetic that was quickly going the way of the buffalo. Revived in later years by singers like Chris Isaak and Raoul Malo of The Mavericks, it added just the faintest whiff of kitsch to what was undoubtedly real devotion. Robbin’s classic tales of the southwest put the accent on the cowboy part of Country and Western Music. With Grady Martin, a founding member of Nashville’s A Team, playing the Spanish style licks, it’s not hard to imagine some of their songs being a hit on both sides of the Rio Grande. “El Paso” could have been a movie directed by John Ford. But the fuzztone in our song for this week, Don’t Worry About Me? was such a departure it makes you wonder who came up with the idea.

It was Grady, a man of many sounds. There are many different takes on this story, but most agree with these simple facts. He was playing a baritone guitar (some say a six string bass, but it’s really a horse apiece — both instruments go way deeper than a regularly tuned guitar). The microphone on his amp went through a recording console that had a faulty channel. That caused the crazy overdrive. The sound was more than amazing — it was shocking to those who heard it. Some in the control room thought it was great, others didn’t. In the end, with Robbin’s approval, it stayed on the record and became a hit. That novel sound contributed to the song’s success at least as as much his supple tenor.

There are earlier instances of distorted guitar. Johnny Burnett’s Rock and Roll Trio was credited with getting there first. It’s now known that it was Grady Martin who played on those tracks using a different technique to make his low E string growl on tracks like “Train Kept A Rollin.” You could spend days following threads of guitar geeks batting this one back and forth and putting up other contenders, but this particular rude noise was something altogether different — all the more so on a country hit. The fuzz level was at a new high on this track. Out of place, you would think, in this pretty, heartbroken plaint and yet… it works. With metal and heavy rock in late middle age, this may sound tame by comparison. But you can pin a #1 on it and credit Grady, Marty and whoever else was in that room with whatever sonic crimes or joys are blasting out of your speakers nowadays.

The song, even without the gimmick, is a wonder. A product of its time, no doubt, but some emotions never change.

Don’t worry ’bout me, it’s all over now
Though I may be blue, I’ll manage somehow.
Love can’t be explained, can’t be controlled
One day it’s warm, next day it’s cold.

Don’t pity me, ’cause I’m feeling blue
Don’t be ashamed it might happen to you.
Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, love, kiss me
One time then go love, I’ll understand
Don’t worry ’bout me.

Sweet, sweet, sweet, love will I want you to be
As happy as I when you love me
I’ll never forget you your sweet memory it’s all over now Don’t worry bout me.

When one heart tells one heart, one heart goodbye
One heart is free, one heart will cry
Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh sweet, sweet baby, sweet baby, sweet
It’s all right don’t worry ’bout me…

© Marty Robbins

It would be easy to mock this lyric, it’s hardly Dylan or Gershwin — but Robbins singing puts it on the high shelf. This vocal is acrobatic, but not in the faux-soul manner that has swept the pop landscape and somehow scrubbed much of it free of feeling. You do feel for this wounded soldier of love and his gallantry. He aches and and you feel it and then comes that disruptive, game-changing guitar solo. Then, because sad songs can make you feel so good, you rejoice a little in his pain. Marty and Grady knew what they were doing.

3 thoughts on “Sieger on Songs: Marty Robbins’ Radical Experiment”

  1. Brian J says:

    Another great selection, John! I regularly played Marty when I was a WBCS jock back in the day, and I remember wondering how that incredible fuzztone bass line came about. Thanks for the backstory.

  2. Christina Zawadiwsky says:

    Chances are that the other heart wasn’t worrying about him, although our protaganist would like to believe that was true!

  3. dudemeister says:

    Good read! I had discovered Robbin’s cowboy hits earlier this year whilst hiking around Big Bend and NM (thanks to Fallout: New Vegas for introducing a new generation, myself incl, to “Big Iron”). Upon hearing this track in a Marty playlist, I thought someone had actually remixed it!

    It sounds so late-Sixties, and badass indeed; altogether different from the rugged emotional aspect the Country Great usually went for. It was a good contrast, akin to Lindsey Stirling’s mixing of “Classical” and “Dubstep” a few years back.

    If I recall correctly, Marty later said he wanted to fix the bass and have Grady redo it, but changed his mind and thereby started a wave of hippie obsession with fuzz. Interesting stuff!

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