Behind the Song: Marty Robbins, “El Paso”

Videos by American Songwriter

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. Robbins nailed everything that a good western movie was about while that art form was still popular, which may explain why his audience was willing to listen for over four minutes.

Of course, the excellent background vocals and guitar work that supported one of country music’s great vocalists didn’t hurt anything when it came to captivating the audience. The song went to number one on both the country and pop charts, and won Robbins the first awarded Grammy for Best Country & Western Song. The song would later be recorded by acts as diverse as the Mills Brothers and Jason and the Scorchers, and continues to live on in movie and television usage.

Robbins followed the song up in 1966 with “Faleena (From El Paso),” an eight-minute piece that told the story of the girl who the original narrator was so hopelessly in love with, and how she commits suicide with his gun after the aforementioned dying kiss. And Robbins visited the city again in “El Paso City,” a sequel of sorts, in 1976. Robbins just must have been moved by inspiration to continue writing about El Paso, as it’s pretty doubtful that he was motivated by financial reasons, given his many years of phenomenal success as a singer and writer.

And although it probably wasn’t very significant to many people in 1959, it’s kind of cool today to note that “El Paso” was produced by Don Law, the man who produced the only known recordings of blues giant Robert Johnson in the 1930s.

Read the lyrics. 

Behind the Song: The Zombies, “This Will Be Our Year”