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 Spanish influence on English-speaking country stars and an earlier example of a country song with crossover pop appeal. All of this is true for a song that's lengthier and wordier than the average entry on those theoretical lists.
The War and Peace of Cowboy Songs
When I saw Marty Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives in 2017, they 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 country number one 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 early example of pop-country.
A Tasteful Ode to Mexico
To chart such a lengthy song, Robbins had to construct a detailed Wild West story line 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. He 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.