The song opens with a languid intro on the fiddle, followed by a simple quadruple drum pattern. Then there’s a rise in dramatic tension. A few bars later the voice enters, with a tessitura so distinctive I’d never heard one like it before or since. It sounds halfway between a country vocalist and a pop balladeer. The singer sets the story by painting a scary picture of a villain who terrorizes both men and women with his “straight and fast” shootings. In the next stanza, the singer’s quavering voice softens the music to introduce an unobtrusive female chorus. In one line he describes the hero, a reasonable man who just wants to live in peace with his girl despite the gruesome gunslinger terrorizing them. Rising crescendos in the chorus inject more tension, tattoos on the snare drum imitate gunshots, and the song suddenly ends, ambiguously, cagily, without revealing the plot’s surprise climax.
It’s a perfect three-minute teaser for a legendary western by the same name, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence.