When it comes to classifying the style and historic importance of past country hits, Marty Robbins' "El Paso" belongs in multiple discussions. It's among the great songs about the Old West, a nod to Mexico's influence on English-speaking country stars and an earlier example of a country song with crossover pop appeal.
The War and Peace of Cowboy Songs
During a Marty Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives tour stop in Georgia in 2017, the band covered "El Paso." Beforehand, Stuart likened the lengthy story-song to War and Peace. This references more than both mediums being classics in their time. War and Peace is a whopping 587,287 words long. On average, most books contain less than 100,000 words. Likewise, "El Paso" packs a very detailed and wordy tale of lust and murder into a little over four and a half minutes. Considering pop and country hits tended to be less than three minutes long back then, it's no stretch to say that Robbins broke the same unwritten rules as Leo Tolstoy to craft his own timeless epic.
Robbins got more than a No. 1 country single from the original version of "El Paso," as heard on the 1959 album Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs. It crossed over to the top of Billboard's pop charts, making it an unlikely example of how pop-country existed long before it started making you mad 20 years ago.
A Tasteful Ode to Mexico
To chart such a lengthy song, Robbins had to construct a detailed Wild West storyline that captured the imagination of Western film fans without shunning Nashville's musical expectations. The tale of a man's love for Feleena, a Mexican maiden from Rosa's Cantina, finds him hiding in New Mexico after a crime of passion. When the young cowboy couldn't stand being away from that West Texas town anymore, he knew deep inside that he'd be dead on arrival.
It's an early example of American country music's lyrical obsession with Mexico. While more recent stars look South of the Border to tell stories about drunken hedonism and hiding from the law (see everyone from George Strait and Waylon Jennings to Tim McGraw and Toby Keith for examples), Robbins went a more classy and classic route.
Musically, it's yet another great-sounding song from Robbins' late '50s peak. Grady Martin and Jack Pruett handled lead guitar duties while Nashville session legend Bob Moore played bass and the Glaser Brothers sang backup vocals. Robbins was surrounded by contemporary masters of Western songs, ensuring that his ode to Spanish influences would gain traction on the country charts.
Part One of the "El Paso" Song Trilogy
The original "El Paso" song lacks character development for the cowboy's beloved Mexican girl. If anything, Feleena's a temptress whose last little kiss wasn't necessarily worth getting captured by a murderous posse. Fortunately, Robbins wrote an equally ambitious new song in 1966 titled "Feleena (From El Paso)." The eight-plus minute story-song tells the young maiden's full story, from her birth to her suicide, ensuring she'd represent more than a single "foul evil deed."
In 1976, Robbins finished the trilogy with "El Paso City." This late career hit tells of a modern-day musician riding in an airplane over the song's namesake. The narrator remembers the original song's lyrics while wondering if he might've been the unnamed cowboy in a past life. It captured the imagination of listeners who'd grown up picturing themselves as gunslingers in some of their favorite stories and songs--including the timeless works of Robbins.
This story was first published in 2018.
"El Paso" Lyrics
Out in the West Texas town of El Paso
I fell in love with a Mexican girl
Nighttime would find me in Rosa's cantina
Music would play and Felina would whirl
Blacker than night were the eyes of Felina
Wicked and evil while casting a spell
My love was deep for this Mexican maiden
I was in love but in vain, I could tell
One night a wild young cowboy came in
Wild as the West Texas wind
Dashing and daring, a drink he was sharing
With wicked Felina, the girl that I loved
So in anger I
Challenged his right for the love of this maiden
Down went his hand for the gun that he wore
My challenge was answered in less than a heartbeat
The handsome young stranger lay dead on the floor
Just for a moment I stood there in silence
Shocked by the foul evil deed I had done
Many thoughts raced through my mind as I stood there
I had but one chance and that was to run
Out through the back door of Rosa's I ran
Out where the horses were tied
I caught a good one, it looked like it could run
Up on its back and away I did ride
Just as fast as I
Could from the West Texas town of El Paso
Out to the badlands of New Mexico
Back in El Paso my life would be worthless
Everything's gone in life; nothing is left
It's been so long since I've seen the young maiden
My love is stronger than my fear of death
I saddled up and away I did go
Riding alone in the dark
Maybe tomorrow, a bullet may find me
Tonight nothing's worse than this pain in my heart
And at last here I
Am on the hill overlooking El Paso
I can see Rosa's cantina below
My love is strong and it pushes me onward
Down off the hill to Felina I go
Off to my right I see five mounted cowboys
Off to my left ride a dozen or more
Shouting and shooting, I can't let them catch me
I have to make it to Rosa's back door
Something is dreadfully wrong for I feel
A deep burning pain in my side
Though I am trying to stay in the saddle
I'm getting weary, unable to ride
But my love for
Felina is strong and I rise where I've fallen
Though I am weary I can't stop to rest
I see the white puff of smoke from the rifle
I feel the bullet go deep in my chest
From out of nowhere Felina has found me
Kissing my cheek as she kneels by my side
Cradled by two loving arms that I'll die for
One little kiss and Felina, goodbye