I was in Oklahoma City in the spring of 1979 attending an event
at the National Cowboy Hall of Fame when I checked into the
host hotel headed for an empty elevator. I pressed the button
and just as the door was closing the legendary Marty Robbins
stepped in. l always make it a practice in the presence of famous
people to give them their space, probably because I fear making
a fool of myself. I pulled my hat down and humbly starred at the
floor. Next thing I knew a face was peering at me from under the
brim of my hat.
He grinned, stuck out his hand and said, “Hi, I’m Marty
I’d heard he was one of the most popular members of the Grand
Ole Opry, now I knew why.
“Yep, I know who you are,” I replied then blurted out, “I used to
see you on local television in Phoenix and I know your wife’s name
is Marizona because she was born in Maricopa County, Arizona.”
“How’d you know that?” he asked.
“I wrote a book on Arizona history and the two of you are in it.”
“How about you and me go to dinner,” he said.
And that’s how I came to meet Marty Robbins.
We spent the next two hours talking about gunfighters and his
ballads about gunfighters. He told me about how he came to write
“El Paso” while returning from a family visit in Texas. Marty had
deep roots in the Texas and Arizona history. He was the nephew of
“Sandy Bob” Heckle, who was featured in Gail Gardner’s famous
cowboy poem, “Sierry Petes” or “Tyin’ Knots in the Devil’s Tale.” It
told the story of two drunken cowboys who were accosted by the
Devil on their way back to the ranch after a wild night on Prescott’s
Instead of the Devil gatherin’ in their souls “Buster Jig” and
“Sandy Bob” roped him, notched his ears, de-horned and branded
him, tied knots in his tail and then rode off leaving him necked up
to a blackjack oak tree.
Marty could sure tell a good story and that’s what he did with
his ballads about gunfighters. Jim Varnado has taken those lyrics
and created a literary postscript to three of Robbins’ best-known
western ballads, “Big Iron,” “Feleena” and “El Paso,” blending them
into an intriguing novel packed with action and romance that spans
He’s remained true to the lyrics in the ballads and expanded the
story of the young cowboy who dies in the arms of the beautiful
cantina girl, Feleena. We learn how the notorious “Texas Red”
evolved from an eastern college boy into a ruthless killer. One of
these two gunmen who meet on the street in the town of Agua Fria
at twenty past eleven is the son of the young cowboy and Feleena,
the young senorita who dances at Rosa’s Cantina in El Paso. I’m
not going to give anything away so you’re going to have to find out
I’m reminded of Bobbie Gentry’s haunting and mysterious
ballad “Ode to Billie Joe” that went to the top of the charts in 1967
and around the country the hot topic of conversation was what
did Billie Joe and his girlfriend toss off the Tallahatchie Bridge.
Everybody had a different guess and we still can only speculate on
what happened up there on Choctaw Ridge.
Like Ode to Billie Joe, Big Iron is chock-full of wherefores and
whys. Some questions are answered and some left for the reader to
decide. I think they will enjoy the creative way Varnado has taken
Marty Robbins’ ballads and turned them into a gripping narrative.
Stay tuned ‘cause Jim is already working on a sequel.
Official Arizona State Historian