Marty Robbins’ 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 really hear the song though until I bought Tom Russell’s tremendous album Indians 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 Jurado playing Feleena and Randolph Scott as her ill-fated lover.
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 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.
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 in upcoming posts.
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