Marty Robbins, “El Paso”

Keep your song short and to the point is the usual writing advice. Tell a story using the perfect words with a great melody, and try to bring it in under three minutes, including the intro. Then maybe you’ll have a chance of getting some airplay.

That rule to improve one’s odds of success might not have been quite as strict in 1959 as it is today, but a song with nine verses and three bridges that ran well over four minutes wasn’t the norm either. So when Marty Robbins showed up with “El Paso,” which clocked in at 4:37, the powers that be at his label, Columbia, released an edited version that was more than a minute shorter, and put Robbins’ unedited version on the B side of the 45 rpm record. Disc jockeys started playing that long version instead of the side A edit, though, and it became a hit.

The story of a cowboy’s unrequited love for a Mexican temptress, and the price he pays for killing her barroom suitor, “El Paso” was immediately ear-catching because of guitarist Grady Martin’s legendary Spanish-flavored intro. Robbins then immediately grabbed the listener, getting right to the point with the lines Out in the west Texas town of El Paso/ I fell in love with a Mexican girl.

Robbins set up the song with that simple statement that stood on its own, following it up with a back story that explained who the girl was and how the narrator met her in a bar. What followed was several minutes of musical cinema featuring classic romantic and western movie drama, a story of love in vain with gunplay, a chase on horseback, and a dying kiss followed by the narrator’s death.... Sign In to Keep Reading

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