Carnival Saloon/Nigel Smith: Marty Robbins’ El Paso Trilogy

Nigel Smith

Marty Robbins – El Paso

The El Paso Trilogy – Part 1

Marty 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 Dogs

Two 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 BonanzaGunsmokeRawhide 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 Edition

With 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.…

Marty Robbins – Feleena (From El Paso)

The El Paso Trilogy – Part 2

In 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 Robbins

Here’s a video of Marty performing the song. Unfortunately I have no idea where it’s from.

Rosa’s Cantina features in both songs. I actually discovered the photo at the top of this post on Jim Peipert’s cycling blog. It really is the same place that inspired the song. According to Jim, Marty Robbins stopped off at Rosa’s on his trips back home to Arizona after performing at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville.* 

As far as I know song sequels like Feleena are pretty unusual. The only other one I can think of is Chuck Berry’s Bye Bye Johnny, which tells the story of Johnny B Goode from his mother’s point of view. If you know of any others, please do leave a comment.

I’ll be concluding my posts on Marty Robbins’ El Paso trilogy later in the week. Stay tuned for a particularly odd song.

* In a comment below Marty Robbins’ biographer Diane Diekman says my trivia that Robbins was inspired by a real-life Rosa’s Cantina is nonsense. I’m always happy to be corrected!


Diane Diekman said…1

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.

Nigel Smith said…2

@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.

Curt Shannon said…3

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.

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