Ennio Morricone: The Influence of the Country Concept Album

Italian film composer Ennio Morricone passed away on Monday (7-6) at the age of 91. And though he will will always be remembered as the definitive mastermind behind the sounds and sonic imagination of the Spaghetti Western—from classics like 1964’s A Fistful of Dollars, all the way up to Quentein Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight in 2015—it would be criminal to overlook the influence Morricone had on American country music, and specifically the concept records that often rise from the crowd of releases to distinguish themselves as some of the most moving and immersive works of the genre.

It may seem strange to credit an Italian for directly influencing country music, but it’s no more strange than shooting Westerns in Italy. If you wanted, you could draw parallel lines between Ennio Morricone soundtracks, and the universally-recognized greatest country record of all time—Willie Nelson’s thematic and cinematic concept record Red Headed Stranger. Though it didn’t have the type of percussive underbelly or prevalent use of echo and reverb at the heart of the Morricone sound, Red Headed Stranger definitely has that Spaghetti Western feel with all the murder, and intrigue to the story.

But if you’re looking for more definitive Morricone-inspired concept records, you must start with the very obscure, but incredibly well-written and produced masterwork from Montana’s Slackeye Slim called El Santo Grial: La Pistola Piadosa. It won Saving Country Music’s 2011 Album of the Year, and arguably encapsulates the Ennio Morricone influence in country and Western music more than anything else.

Some country artist have cited Morricone directly as an influence to their conceptualized works, including Lindi Ortega, and her thematic record from 2018 called Liberty. A common occurrence in these albums is instrumental interludes, a storyline that intertwines with each track in some capacity, and sounds that immediately inspire visions and landscapes found in Morricone-scored films. The same goes for the recent record from Turnpike Troubadours fiddle player Kyle Nix. He directly cited Morricone as an influence for 2020’s Lightning on the Mountain and Other Short Stories.

Another country music masterwork influenced by Ennio Morricone by an artist that directly named him as an influence is Marty Stuart’s 2017 concept Way Out West. The Western themes, the desert scapes, the instrumental interludes are all there. And while we’re on the subject of Marty’s, Stuart was named after country legend and Western singer Marty Robbins. You can’t talk about Ennio Morricone and country music without citing Marty’s 1959 magnum opus Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs. Songs like “El Paso” and “Big Iron” have now become standards, though syncing up time periods, Marty Robbins may have been just as much an influence on Morricone as vice versa.

Four of the most defining elements to the Morricone influence are the faraway tones, the space evoked in the music, the percussive grit, and Western themes. Though Canadian Colter Wall has moved more towards a more conventional Cowboy & Western sound recently, his 2015 debut EP Imaginary Appalachia, and his 2017 self-titled record most certainly include Ennio Morricone influences.

But even beyond where the Ennio Morricone touch is direct and obvious, virtually any concept record in country music can probably claim some influence with the Italian film composer’s work, while many regular albums also incorporated the sounds he made famous. But it’s not just the sounds. It’s about stimulating the imagination through music.

From Marty Stuart’s The Pilgrim, to Sturgill Simpson’s Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, to Emmylou Harris’s The Ballad of Sally Rose and Wrecking Ball, (and some more obvious one’s probably being overlooked here) making albums more than just collections of songs—just like Ennio Morricone made films more than just movies—is the important contribution the composer left behind to country, and Western music.

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