A Nation’s Affair With Western Culture: The Story of Marty Robbins’ “El Paso”

Brody Vercher | April 11th, 2008

Marty Robbins

Born in Glendale, Arizona as Martin David Robison in 1925, Marty Robbins spent his childhood idolizing Gene Autry and the cowboy way. “I wanted to be Gene Autry,” he once said. “I wanted to ride off into the sunset.”

His penchant for the the Old West was further fed by romanticized stories told by his grandfather, who was rumored to be a former Texas Ranger. “My grandfather inspired me to be a cowboy, I guess. That’s what I wanted to be. Because I thought a lot of him, and he was a cowboy, you know.” He observed many times that he would have been a cowboy, too, if he had been born in an earlier time.

When he reached the age of 18, Robbins enlisted with the Navy and served in the Pacific in WWII. It was during this time that he learned to play guitar. After being discharged from the Navy he picked up work as a truck driver and ditch digger and spent some time in the oil fields. He started performing under the alias Jack Robison because he was afraid his family wouldn’t approve of his show business connection. After some minor success he was forced to take over his own TV show. It was on his show that he met Little Jimmy Dickens, who was so impressed with Marty that he went back to Columbia Records and suggested they sign Robbins, and in 1951 they did just that.

His first two singles failed to chart, but his third single, “I’ll Go On Alone,” soared to No. 1. It was on the strength of that single that he was invited to play the Opry and later join. In February of 1953 he became a regular and in 1958 he was fired after getting in an argument with WSM station manager Robert Cooper. That didn’t last long, though. He was rehired five days later after both parties apologized. He was the last person to play on the stage at the Ryman Auditorium when it closed down and the first to play the stage at the new Opryland location.

Marty went on to have a lasting impact on country music and a successful career, charting 94 records–16 of which went to No. 1–recording 71 albums, and appearing in 20 movies. Ralph Emery wrote in his book, “Marty was one of the reasons country withstood Rock Mania.”

Even with all of his accomplishments, Marty Robbins will always be best known for playing up the romanticism of the West in his cinematic tale of a cowboy’s love for a Mexican girl named Felina in “El Paso.” The story goes something like this…

Marty Robbins drove through El Paso every year on his way to Phoenix for Christmas vacation. One year while passing through he got the itch to write a song about the city. He started thinking about a song called “West Texas Waltz” since waltzes were big around that time, but he couldn’t come up with anything so he thought about “West Texas Moon.” Then the wind began to blow and gave him the idea for “West Texas Wind.” However he soon forgot about his song until his next trip through El Paso the following year.

He put the song off again, but on the third year, he wrote the song in his head all the way to Phoenix without putting a word down. Legend has it he spotted a sign for Rosa’s Cantina on his way through the West Texas town and decided to put it in his song. “The song took him several months to write,” recalled Jim Glaser, who provided harmonies with Bobby Sykes. “Each time we went out on tour, Marty would sing the latest verses.”

Despite his love for the cowboy way, it took Robbins six years to record his first western song, “The Hanging Tree,” which was released in 1959. Most of the singing cowboys were gone by this time, but shows like Bonanza, Gunsmoke, and Wyatt Earp dominated the TV and people’s lifestyles echoed their desire for western culture.

Marty was inspired by Johnny Horton’s “Battle of New Orleans” and the period’s craze for saga songs like “Don’t Takes Your Guns To Town.” He felt the public had a craving for finely crafted historical odes, and actually used Horton’s success as a springboard to get his own song recorded.

Columbia initially rejected his request to release the song as a single due to it’s unusual length. Unwritten law at that time said singles couldn’t be longer than three minutes. Labels were convinced the public wouldn’t sit and listen to anything longer. By their way of thinking, a song should be short and repetitious enough that it could be learned after a few plays.

Powerful jukebox operators also frowned on epic songs because it cost them money. The longer a song played, the less dimes people were putting in the slot.

The label later agreed to allow him to record the song for his western concept album, Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs. The studio musicians for the recording–Louis Dunn on drums, Bob Moore on bass, Jack H. Pruett on rhythm guitar, and Grady Martin on lead guitar–included several members of Nashville’s A-Team. Martin possessed an unparalleled ability to alter his sound to fit almost any song, and it’s his guitar that provides the Tex-Mex flavor on “El Paso,” conjuring up images of the Southwest. “By the time we accompanied Marty into the studio to record the song, we had it down so well that it only took four takes to get the final version,” said Glaser. “And two of those were false starts.”

Four weeks after Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs released, requests for “El Paso” as a single were so strong that Robbins’ record label relented and released a 45 to radio in November of 1959, just as “Battle of New Orleans” was losing it’s hold on the charts. “The main reason Don [Law] finally allowed it is that I dropped one verse that would have made it even longer,” said Robbins.

Robbins’ western answer for “Battle of New Orleans” shot up the charts and became the first No. 1 song of the 1960s. It spent six months on the country charts, seven weeks at No. 1, and even crossed over to the pop charts for a two week stint at No. 1. On April 12, 1961 “El Paso” became the first country song to win a Grammy, and in 1976 Robbins wrote a sequel, “El Paso City.” The point of view is from above the city and is a rehash of the events from the original, but that didn’t stop the song from scoring another No.1. It was Robbins’ first chart-topper in five years and he continued to have hits on the country charts until his death in 1982.

** Paraphrased from The Billboard Book of Number One Hits by Fred Bronson, The Rose & the Briar: Death, Love and Liberty in the American Ballad by Sean Wilentz and Greil Marcus, and 50 Years Down a Country Road by Ralph Emery and Patsi Bale Cox.

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  1. [...] month I called attention to the story behind Marty Robbins‘ epic western ballad “El Paso,” where the hero’s love for a [...]
  1. Rick
    April 11, 2008 at 7:45 pm

    Thanks for the nice article on Marty and his music. From what I’ve read about Marty his second love after music was racing cars and also that he wasn’t an easy person to get to know. “El Paso” stands as one of the greatest cowboy/western songs ever written and has a timeless quality to it. A DJ named Paul Freeman on KKGO FM here in Los Angeles likes to give it a spin now and then and he always gets calls from young listeners who are not familiar with the song who just love it and want to hear it played again at some point.

    In Buck Owens’ biography on his website he describes how me met Marty while working as a truck driver in Phoenix in the 1950′s. Both were truck drivers with dreams of becoming country music stars who were performing in the same Phoenix honky tonks. I guess Dierks Bentley comes from that same fertile musical soil down in Arizona…

  2. Lynne
    April 12, 2008 at 8:59 am

    “El Paso” was one of the first country songs I ever heard, and I learned it word for word and note for note. Marty’s voice was so clear and the guitar playing is just great. What a great story it tells, and I rank it right up there with “Seashores of Old Mexico” as one of the best story-telling songs ever!

  3. Baron Lane
    April 12, 2008 at 1:18 pm

    Nice post. I remember this album, Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison” and Homer & Jethro’s “The Weird World of Homer & Jethro” in my mom’s collection during my formative years. Scarred me for life….

  4. roger
    April 12, 2008 at 5:33 pm

    So does anyone know if there really was a girl named Felina? A lot of the song seems to be from Marty’s travels….but i guess there must not be because she probably would have wrote a book by now to capitalize on it!!

  5. Paul W Dennis
    April 13, 2008 at 11:21 am

    “El Paso” was consistantly ranked as the #1 country song of all time by both critics and listoner polls until the early 1990s when “He Stopped Loving Her Today” supplanted it at the top.

    More recent polls haven’t had this song in the top ten, which is hardly surprising since Marty has been dead for over 25 years and today’s so-called Country stations rarely play from before the digital age.

    Marty Robbins isn’t among my ten favorite artists but the earlier critics got it right – Marty Robbins’s recording of “El Paso” IS the greatest country record of all time and he was the greatest entertainer of all time

  6. Matt C.
    April 13, 2008 at 10:41 pm

    I’d call “El Paso” the best western song of all time, but I can’t call it the #1 country song of all time when it exists on the artistic periphery of the genre. I agree with the critics who call “He Stopped Loving Her Today” the best country song of all time, though “El Paso” would land in my top five.

  7. M.C.
    April 14, 2008 at 10:26 am

    Brody,

    I’m glad you mentioned Grady Martin’s guitar work on the song. His great acoustic part is one of the reasons it’s such a great recording.

  8. Juke Early
    May 14, 2008 at 6:56 am

    Bear with this: EL PASO was such a vivid song, the first time I heard it, and realized what happened, I never wanted to hear it again. I liked my cowboys to ride off into the sunset w/the girl. I still do. But Marty Robbins was etched upon my consciousness, forever. My favorite Marty song remains White Sport Coat & A Pink Carnation: I think that guy lived ;)

  9. Brady Vercher
    May 14, 2008 at 7:02 am

    I’m guessing you like Louis L’Amour, Juke? Nothing wrong with that, I like his books, too, but the cowboy always seems to win the fight and get the girl.

  10. MIKE SCOTT
    May 16, 2008 at 8:27 am

    Songs like “EL Paso” made you see everything that was being song about like it was a movie. They drew people to them like bees to honey. I still think the vision of the “Wild West” is as strong in many peoples mind today as it was in the time in which He wrote this song.

  11. joyceaiello
    June 15, 2008 at 7:18 am

    ilikecountrysongs

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