July 29, 2008
Written by Marty Robbins
There are few artists in country music history who were adept in as many diverse styles as Marty Robbins. He could nail a traditional honky-tonk number, then deliver as pure a pop melody as anyone on the hit parade. He was also a tremendously accomplished songwriter, and the song that he was most identified with came from his own pen: the epic Western tale “El Paso.”
In an era when most songs were under three minutes long, “El Paso” ran nearly five. It told the tale of a gunslinging cowboy who falls for a Mexican cantina dancer Feleena, who is working in the Texas city of El Paso. One night, he guns down a rival for her affections, and flees the scene on a stolen horse. He races through the badlands of New Mexico, fleeing the authorities. But rather than stay on the run, he returns to El Paso, singing that “my love is stronger than my fear of death.”
As he approaches Rosa's Cantina, he is surrounded by a swarm of mounted cowboys. He sees the smoke from the rifle, and feels the bullet goes deep in his chest. Then, as he is dying on the ground, Feleena appears by his side, giving him one final kiss as he dies in her arms.
“El Paso” was a high-water mark for Country & Western music, a moniker the genre would shed by the end of the sixties, as songs befitting the latter half became increasingly scarce. Robbins never limited himself to Western theme
s, but “El Paso” forever associated him with that style. In addition to being one of his longest-running No. 1 country singles, it topped the Hot 100 pop chart as well. Robbins won a Grammy for Best Country & Western Performance for the hit in 1960.
Over the course of his career, Robbins would revisit the storyline and themes of “El Paso” repeatedly, beginning with the concept album that accompanied “El Paso,” Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs. He told Feleena's backstory in 1966, with the eight-minute “Feleena (From El Paso).” In the mid-seventies, he was inspired to write “El Paso City” as he flew over the town on an airplane. It recounted the story in third-person, from the perspective of a man who believes he is the reincarnate of the gunslinger in the original song. It was released in 1976, seventeen years after the original hit, and was a #1 country hit.
Meanwhile, “El Paso” built a legacy of its own. The Grateful Dead began performing it in 1969, and would do so hundreds of times over the next three decades, as it was their most requested song of all time. The city of El Paso also embraced the song, as it became the Fight song for The University of Texas at El Paso Miners. In 1998, the single was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, and it remains the signature song of Robbins, a revered musical legend in his own right.
Listen: El Paso
Buy: El Paso