The El Paso Trilogy - Part 1Marty Robbins' El Paso was a number one hit in 1959 on both the country and pop charts. I'm sure I probably first heard it on one of the country compilations my dad used to play in the car when we were kids. I didn't reallyhear the song though until I bought Tom Russell's tremendous albumIndians Cowboys Horses Dogs after seeing him play for the first time at the Cambridge Folk Festival in 2006. The way Tom sings it, starting with his cowboy yelp against the accordion that plays throughout, it's like an old Western movie in miniature. It's certainly not hard to imagine Katy Juradoplaying Feleena and Randolph Scott as her ill-fated lover. MP3: Tom Russell - El Paso
Find it on Indians Cowboys Horses DogsTwo things have recently made me think about the original. First, I finally got a copy when I bought an Ace Records compilation of cross-over country hits from the 50s and 60s. Secondly, I'm currently reading Dana Jennings'fascinating book Sing Me Back Home. It mixes a thesis that country music from 1950 to 1970 represents a "secret history of rural, working class Americans in the 20th century" with memories of Jennings' own Faulknerian family of "adulterers, drunks, and glue sniffers; wife beaters, husband beaters, and child abusers; pyros, nymphos, and card cheats; smugglers and folks who were always sticking their cold, bony hands where they didn't belong."It's always worth thinking about the context in which music was created. As Jennings points out, country music really only became known as country and western music in an attempt to "shed its 'hillbilly' stigma" and "take advantage of the nation's love affair with Westerns, with singing cowboys and their faithful horses". In 1959 Westerns were ubiquitous, especially on TV with Bonanza, Gunsmoke, Rawhide and Maverick just the well-known small-screen cowboy adventures. In the same year cinema-goers flocked to see John Wayne in the Howard Hawks classic Rio Bravo. MP3: Marty Robbins - El Paso
Find it on The Golden Age Of American Rock'n'Roll - Country EditionWith six-shooters so prevalent in pop culture it's no wonder that El Paso was a hit. Yet Columbia'a A&R boss Mitch Miller wasn't so sure and nearly rejected it. He felt the song was too long (singles in the 50s seldom exceeded four minutes) and too wordy. In rebuttal Robbins cited Johnny Horton's hit The Battle of New Orleans from earlier in the year as proof that there was a market for narrative songs with a Western flavour. As a compromise Columbia released a radio edit. America's DJs vindicated Robbins by choosing to play the full-length version that was on the flip. El Paso became Marty Robbins' signature song. Although he was born in Arizona and is buried in Nashville, the Texas city he made famous even named a park in his honour. Robbins was also unable to leave the song alone. In 1966 he released its first sequel, Feleena, which he followed ten years later with El Paso City. More on both of those songs later in the week.
The El Paso Trilogy - Part 2In my previous post I wrote how Marty Robbins had to fight his record label bosses to release El Paso in 1959 because they felt it was too long and too wordy. Marty won and the song became a Grammy-winning hit and country music standard. Robbins revisited that West Texas town with a sequel on his 1966 album The Drifter. Feleena (From El Paso) tells the story from the girl's perspective and at over eight minutes is twice as long as the original.As well as a lengthy back-story before Feleena reaches El Paso the song also adds an extra layer of tragedy. The original El Paso ends with the narrator dying in Feleena's arms. In the sequel Feleena then takes her own life with her lover's pistol after hearing his parting words. There's then a marginally upbeat coda as we learn that the two lovers' voices can still be heard in the streets of El Paso.MP3: Marty Robbins - Feleena (From El Paso)
Find it on The Essential Marty RobbinsHere's a video of Marty performing the song. Unfortunately I have no idea where it's from.
Marty didn't stop in El Paso; he drove through it on his way home to Arizona for Christmas--three years in a row in the mid-fifties. He made up the name of "Rosa's Cantina" and didn't know such a place existed. My biography of him, "Twentieth Century Drifter: The Life of Marty Robbins" (to be published in 2012), quotes interviews where he told that story.
@Diane - thanks for clarifying the truth about Rosa's Cantina. I have amended the text above. You can't believe what your read on the internet! I look forward to reading your book.
Thanks for posting; I never knew about this song. The studio version is OK, but the video is even better - just Marty and his guitar. None of the lip-synching that makes watching TV performances of this era so cheesy.
The El Paso Trilogy Part 3The final part of Marty Robbins' El Paso trilogy, after the original massive hitand its eight-minute follow-up Feleena, must be one of the oddest songs in his catalogue. By the early 70s Robbins was as interested in Nascar racing as he was in music. He left Columbia Records in 1972 and in the next few years released a handful of decent albums for Decca but struggled to find hit singles.That all changed with his return to Columbia in 1976 and the album El Paso City. It became Marty's only number one album and its title single his first chart topper since 1970.So why do I think the song is so weird? Well, for a start it borders on the post-modern. As Marty flies over El Paso "from 30,000 feet above the desert floor" he looks down and ponders "I don't recall who sang the song but I recall a story that I heard/ And as I look down on this city I remember each and every word". Later, as he becomes fixated on the hero of El Paso, the hit he wrote nearly 20 years before, he sings, "There's such a mystery in the song that I don't understand". I find it fascinating that Marty Robbins visited the same subject matter three times in three decades. If El Paso City's lyrics are to be believed there's a metaphysical root to his obsession with that West Texas town:
My mind is down there somewhere as I fly above the badlands of New Mexico
I can't explain why I should know the very trail he rode back to El Paso
Can it be that man can disappear from life and live another time?
And does the mystery deepen 'cause you think that you yourself lived in that other time?
MP3: Marty Robbins - El Paso City
Find it on Marty Robbins - A Lifetime Of SongThe truth behind the song is more prosaic. After Marty Robbins' biographerDiane Diekman left a comment on my previous post I asked her if she had any information about El Paso City. Diane kindly sent me this titbit:Marty told Ralph Emery in 1977, "I was going to write a song about an airline pilot and a stewardess. They were married, see. He flew for one airline, she flew for another, and she went to El Paso. He flew over El Paso on his way to Los Angeles... He was trying to compare his love for this woman to the cowboy's love for Feleena in the song El Paso." One day Marty was flying over El Paso, and the reincarnation idea hit him. He had the song written by the time his plane landed in Los Angeles.Related Posts
Marty Robbins - El Paso - part one of the trilogy, plus a great version by Tom Russell
Marty Robbins - Feleena (From El Paso) - the follow-up tells the story from the female perspectiveRelated Links
Diane Diekman - author of forthcoming Marty Robbins biography
Ultimate Twang: El Paso City - overview of the 1976 album