The famed country singer Marty Robbins passed away in 1982. At the time of his death, an obituary in the New York Times noted his many achievements: “He recorded nearly 70 albums and had 18 No. 1 country hits, 12 of which he wrote himself.” His most famous song, “El Paso,” was one of the first Western songs to win a Grammy award and sold more than a million copies. Born in Glendale, Arizona, Robbins served in the Navy before becoming a professional musician. He was a member of the Grand Ole Opry, the Nashville Songwriters’ Hall of Fame, and the National Cowboy Hall of Fame. He was also a professional race car driver, and at one point survived a 150-mile-an-hour crash at the 1972 Daytona 500.
The obituary lists many famous songs of Robbins’s — “El Paso,” “My Woman, My Woman, My Wife” (which he won a Grammy for as well), “Tonight Carmen,” “Devil Woman,” “Teen-age Dream.”
Unmentioned, however, is “Big Iron,” a song which, more than three decades after Robbins’s death, has become a meme. “Big Iron” is a standard Western tale: An Arizona ranger comes to town hunting an outlaw named Texas Red, a vicious killer with 20 notches on his gun symbolizing the people he’s killed. In a duel, the ranger shoots and kills Texas Red with the “big iron on his hip.”
The proliferation of “Big Iron” memes online now can seem odd, given that the song is now 60 years old. It’s seen in image macros, and TikTok videos. On Spotify, “Big Iron” is Robbins’s most-played song at 23 million streams, 7 million more than “El Paso,” his biggest hit.
The “Big Iron” resurgence can be traced back to 2010, when it was included in the video game Fallout: New Vegas. Set in the aftermath of a nuclear apocalypse, Fallout leans heavily on tropes from early in the Cold War period. Key to evoking the era are in-game radio stations that players can tune into as they wander around the desert, not unlike the car radio in Grand Theft Auto. Because open-world games typically take dozens of hours to complete, and because music licensing is complicated and expensive, you often hear the same song many, many times. You can either travel in silence, or listen to the same small soundtrack until you get sick of it — or turn it into a meme.
In Fallout 3, the repetitive earworm was about a guy named “Butcher Pete.” In Fallout 76, it’s “Country Roads.” In Fallout: New Vegas, that song was “Big Iron.” Pull up any well-watched clip of “Big Iron” on YouTube and you’ll find a slew of comments referencing New Vegas.
“Big Iron” was included on Robbins’s 1959 album, Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs, the same album that includes “El Paso.”
“There were a bunch of songs off that record that could’ve potentially been used in New Vegas, but this one was definitely my favorite,” Chris Parker, the music supervisor on New Vegas, told me. He first discovered Robbins while doing research for a film project set in the early ’60s that never came to fruition. “It was a perfect fit for the character, the persona, and the setting of New Vegas. There was a little bit more of a Western vibe to that game.”
“I really like the backup singing in that song, and I think it’s a great hook,” Parker noted. He couldn’t have foreseen that his decision to include “Big Iron” on the soundtrack would lead to more than eight years of memes.
It’s also experienced a recent resurgence thanks to TikTok, the app that lets many different users create clips set to the same soundtrack. The song has featured in more than 5,000 different uploads.
“There’s something really resonant in his voice that people respond to,” Janet Robbins, Marty’s daughter, told me over the phone.
“My father had a deep love of the Southwest, and of the desert and of the natural world,” she said. “He was a master storyteller, so he really culled from his experience and memories of his grandfather, then gave them form in song.”
The unexpected trajectory of “Big Iron” helps demonstrate a few principles of the internet. It demonstrates the ability for video games to serve as potent wellsprings of meme production. It shows the internet’s unceasing interest in nostalgia. And it proves that some things are timeless, whether that thing is Robbins’s sultry vocals or the innate comedy of a beagle wearing a cowboy hat.