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50 Greatest City, State, And Town Songs – **#1**: “El Paso” by Marty Robbins

May 3, 2008

Gunfighter Ballads & Trail Songs50 Greatest City, State, And Town Songs: *#1*

“El Paso” by Marty Robbins

Album: “Gunfighter Ballads And Trail Songs”

Chart Peak: #1

City, State, or Town:El Paso, Texas

Now we come to the #1 City, State, And Town Song of all time in country music. What better way to conclude the countdown than with one of the most legendary and significant songs ever to hit the airwaves of both country music and pop, “El Paso” by the great Marty Robbins. This one song took Marty three years to write and perfect and by the time of its completion it had become something totally different from what he had meant it to be, a song about El Paso, Texas. Instead it had transformed into a smooth western tune that would tell one of the most memorable stories to ever grace the ears of Americans everywhere. For those of you who don’t know, this song begins what would become a great trilogy of songs about a cowboy in El Paso who falls in love with a Mexican beauty in a cantena only to be faced with the challenge of his life. One of the features that made this song so attractive and enjoyable to America was the fact that Marty had written a song that allowed a picture or a film of sorts to be constructed in the listeners head, using the story as the backdrop. One of Marty’s greatest inspirations when writing it was the idea that although the traditional cowboy stereotype and the western gunslinger tunes had faded away in the American culture at the time, American had fallen in love with western films and stories that preserved their interest and longing for those songs.

Marty would take a trip to El Paso every year. However, every year for three years he attempted to write a song about the town. Finally he began the song that would become “El Paso” on the third year and even then it took several months to perfect and polish it as he continuously added more and more detail to it, turning it into a very theatrical story of love and the conflict thereof. Having had experience in the film industry, it was natural for Marty to be able to conjure up a song in such a way that it could be translated into a visual scene. Although Marty had always been a fan of the cowboy songs, it took him until the late 50s to secure his own western style hit which would be followed up by his attempts to completely rekindle the American joy of such music through “El Paso” and its album of origin, a concept album by the name of “Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs”. Marty had become inspired by other musical works that sparked American interest in trilogy songs as well. Thus in the midst of writing a ballad based on his town of choice, he created a story, a trilogy, and a shout out to El Paso, Texas. So many different aspects of Marty Robbins’ personality and experience as an artist in many different fields went into the creation of this masterpiece that it has lived on to this day as an American anthem and one of the few remaining songs that continues to allow the American love for the old fashioned cowboy conflicts and stories to resurface.

The story contained within “El Paso” has become one of the most memorable and significant in American music. The story takes place in two parts, the past and the present, through the memory and eyes or a cowboy in El Paso who falls for a Mexican cantina dancer only to fall victim to his love for her and his cowboy life and end up on the short end of the stick. Marty appropriately takes the persona of this cowboy who sets the scene in the “West Texas town of El Paso” at a place called Rosa’s Cantina. Legend states that Marty got the idea of the cantina from a sign he saw driving into the small Texas town. The cowboy finds himself in love with a young Mexican dancer named Felina as she dances the night away. Marty then uses several impressive grammatical tactics to describe his love and the general image of Felina. He calls her eyes “blacker than night” and “wicked and evil” to describe the magnetic effect that she has on his cowboy character. She draws him in and seems to hold him against his will simply by looking into her eyes, thus making her irresistible to him and causing him to act the way he does in the next verse. The cowboy realizes that his love for Felina is in vein, under the impression he has no chance, and when another young cowboy walks in the trouble begins. This new male figure that walks in reveals he also has feelings for Felina as well, thus causing personal conflict within Marty’s character. Marty’s cowboy challenges the new face to a draw for the fate of Felina’s heart. As a result of the draw, and his undying love for Felina, Marty’s character wins the draw only to realize what he has done, committed a crime that is punishable by death.

After his deed is done the cowboy stands for an entire verse, described as a moment, to take in what just happened. He describes his actions as a “foul evil deed” and realizes he must run to save his own life and possibly have a chance someday of reuniting with the Mexican beauty. In his desperate attempt to escape, the cowboy runs out the back door of Rosa’s and grabs a horse he believes to be the fastest, a subtle shout out to the knowledge and skill of cowboy’s as horseman. The cowboy escapes El Paso, Texas into New Mexico leaving behind his demons and the love of his life. This concludes the first half of the song and thus returns to the present time. Marty reveals the entire story thus far was a recollection, a memory of what had occurred through the mind of his cowboy. In the present day we find him thinking about what his life would have been like in the Texas town due to his actions and regrets. He describes his prospective life as “worthless” and states how everything he loves is now gone and unattainable as a result of his poor decision and his undying love for Felina. This revelation draws him to a decision between life and love, and he chooses to see Felina one last time instead of living a life of torture and regret for his past. Thus he sets off back to El Paso and states “my love is stronger than my fear of death” to express his final decision.

As the cowboy rides back into the town he has longed to return to for so long, everything seems safe and quiet. He easily makes it to Rosa’s Cantina, overlooking it from the top of the hill he ran up to escape. The interesting symbol here it that running uphill was a challenge for him, representing his struggle to escape and leave behind what he loved so dear, and now he realizes there is no turning back and he has made his final choice so it’s literally all down hill from here. He completes this metaphor by running down the hill, described as being dragged by Felina’s love, towards his impending doom. Any feelings of safety are dispelled as the cowboy is surrounded by a posse with five cowboys from one side and even more from the other. Despite his welcoming of death, he plans to see Felina before being struck down to complete the purpose of his return and die happy. The events that are unfolding in this part of the lyric result in a very powerful reaction from the listeners. It more often than not provides the listener with a suspenseful feeling and a wonder of whether the cowboy will get his one last chance or not. It can be described as an “edge-of-your-seat performance” and possibly the most dramatic part of the entire song.

Finally we learn the fate of Marty’s character as he describes his feeling of getting shot, first on the side and then in the back. To start off, of course, he describes the first shot that hits his side. Instead of screaming or expressing great pain, he tries to stay on his horse and explains the feeling as knowing that “something is wrong”. He falls off his horse and once again lets his love for Felina get the best of him as he stands and continues to push towards the cantina. This results in a second shot, the fatal shot, through his chest. It is not revealed whether he was shot from the front or from the back, but it is revealed that the cowboy sees the shot from the rifle before it hits him. The significance of this is that Felina shows up at that exact moment. It is left open for interpretation by the listener who exactly shot Marty’s character last, the passe to finish the job or Felina out of sympathy, pity and possibly love for him. As he lays dying Felina cradles the cowboy in her arms and pulls him close. For the first time he feels a kiss from her, a kiss on the cheek which allows question as to the extremity of her feelings for him, and says good-bye, happy to have felt any type of love and affection from her at all. The cowboy dies in peace to conclude the song’s epic story.

The story of “El Paso” may be concluded at the song’s end, but there are two other songs that make up a trilogy that take into account the relevant characters. The first is “Felina (From El Paso)” which narrates the life story of the character from the song. The second is titled “El Paso City” which has a man flying over the once small town recalling the story told in the original song. These songs make up an trilogy that has stood the test of time to stand as one of the great stories of American music. The song itself almost didn’t happen as a radio hit, due to it’s abnormal length and style that didn’t conform to traditional methods at the time, but was made a #1 hit after Marty’s label was swamped with requests after the album’s release. This tale of love and regret pulled together every source of talent and inspiration that Marty could muster and through grammatical tricks, an epic storyline and exciting and relative characters that brought back the feeling of western films and cowboy days, Marty created one of the biggest pieces of songwriting greatness to ever hit the radio airwaves. El Paso, Texas should be proud to be the setting for this song that made Americans everywhere ask for more and gave them the chance to incorperate their own imagination and interpreatation as they listened to it. This same aspcet still survives today. There is no other song like it out there, and that’s why “El Paso” is the #1 City, State, And Town Song in country music.





* I want to thank you all for your input and support in this amazing list of 50 songs all written about or taking place in the towns, cities and states of America. Every one has its own significance to the world of country music and music as a whole. Thanks again for your support and I hope you enjoyed the list of the 50 Greatest City, State, And Town Songs in country music. Please feel free and don’t hesitate to give me your input and let me know what you think of the list and my commentaries that I added in. Thanks again guys!!*

7 Comments leave one →
  1. bobby permalink
    May 3, 2008 10:02 pm

    great choices! really good job on the whole list, it was really great to read!

  2. Leeann permalink
    May 4, 2008 2:51 am

    What a great series this has been!! I have thoroughly enjoyed it. You’ve obviously put a lot of time and research into this feature and it’s paid off.

    This is a great choice for #1. Now, I’m gonna have to pull it out of my CD collection to listen to it again.

  3. Sergeant permalink
    September 7, 2008 1:35 am

    I just came across the list. Sorry I’m late. It is a very well put together list, and I am sure a lot of hard work and thought went into creating it. I did miss a couple of my personal favorites on the list though, including “You’re the Reason God Made Oklahoma” (1981, #1, David Frizzell and Shelly West), “North to Alaska” (1960, #1, Johnny Horton), and my personal favorite “Texas in My Rearview Mirror” (1981, #9, Mac Davis). Just food for thought if you ever want to bump the list up to 100. 🙂

  4. February 21, 2009 10:23 pm

    It is really good to see an intellegent, sensitive, and realistic article about Robbins’ great classic “El Paso.” I can walk about ten paces from my computer, look across the Rio Grande Valley, and see the very “badlands of New Mexico” which Robbins sang about. By driving about ten miles up the valley, I can stop in at Rosa’s Cantina (which Robbins actually did visit) and have a cold beer. This is a rarity in modern country music, a song sbout a real place, with a plausible story line. Viva El Paso! Viva Marty Robbins! Viva Western music! (Yes, the song is on the juke box at Rosa’s.)

  5. brad permalink
    March 11, 2009 9:45 pm

    Eh. Great song, but maybe not a #1. Id put Telluride higher than u did.

  6. March 16, 2014 1:16 am

    I love to sing karaoke, I have a ton of fun doing it and want to be able to pick songs that are some what bareable for those in ear shot. What songs could I choose that would best compliment my bad singing ability? I am a female. Thanks for all your help..


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