Pop Goes The Country is an ongoing series where I explore country music’s biggest crossover hits.
When we last discussed Marty Robbins on ‘Pop Goes The Country,’ we looked at his foray into teenage love songs with “A White Sport Coat.” But as previously mentioned in that piece, Robbins was one of the most versatile artists the country music genre had to offer.
As such, it makes sense that Robbins would eventually return to cowboy music. After all, he was born in the desert just outside Glendale, Arizona in 1925 and had a childhood fondness for cowboy music. Still, Robbins never saw the value of country music in general until he heard it performed by fellow soldiers from the South while enlisted as a soldier in World War II.
Robbins’s early recordings show strong traces of Gene Autry, his singing cowboy hero, in terms of tone and phrasing. But as mentioned last time, that was just one style Robbins was comfortable performing on stage and in the studio. Country music was all over the map in the late 1950s trying to stave off rock ‘n’ roll, but Robbins’s diversity was much more controlled and natural.
But his return to cowboy music was an important point in country music, and one that would help serve its reinvigoration as a commercial genre of music.
During the 1920s, many of country music’s biggest recordings were known as event ballads – songs that quite literally told a story of a historical event. For example, “Wreck Of The Old 97,” thought to be the first million-selling country record and first recorded by Vernon Dalhart, was inspired by the American rail disaster on September 27, 1903.
These types of songs didn’t last much beyond the ’20s and ’30s, but a new form of them was about to born almost 20 years later – the saga song. Unlike event ballads, saga songs were made to depict fictional episodes or remote historical events. It was very rare for them to cover events of contemporary significance. So, for a nice change, country airwaves were filled with songs about mythical or real heroes who gained fame during America’s pioneer period.
To give some examples, Johnny Horton’s “When It’s Springtime In Alaska” told the story of a prospector killed in a tavern brawl, which initiated the series. Johnny Cash’s “Don’t Take Your Guns To Town” told of a young cowboy who ignored his mother’s advice and paid a heavy price.
In late 1959, the trend subsided somewhat, but it would find rejuvenation in the form of other songs and albums. This was important for country music, as the genre had never been known to put much effort behind the album concept. The typical album during those days usually consisted of the hit singles, covers of other well-known songs, and filler material. Robbins’s Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs, released in 1959, would come to thankfully buck that trend.
“El Paso” wasn’t just a huge song from that album, it was the song to cement Robbins’s legacy. Ironically, his signature song came about in the backseat of a car, and only after years of procrastination. In 1956, Robbins was driving home from Nashville to Phoenix just before Christmas when he was inspired to write a song about the town he was passing through. With his wife and son in the car, however, Robbins soon became distracted and forgot the inspiration. The next year, he made the same trip and had the same inspiration, but forgot it all once again. In 1958, Robbins finally composed the tune in his head as he drove through El Paso.
However, it was both procrastination and confidence that fueled the signature song. The aforementioned Horton enjoyed success with not one, but two saga songs. “The Battle Of New Orleans” is ultimately what inspired Robbins to craft something of that magnitude. However, instead of singing about a war, Robbins decided to sing a cowboy ballad.
His timing truly couldn’t have been better. Westerns were a huge part of network prime-time during this period. Gunsmoke was the nation’s favorite program, with similar shows not far behind. Even kids tuned into cowboy shows each day after school, as well as on Saturday morning. The children of the late ’50s were enamored by Annie Oakley, Roy Rogers, the Lone Ranger, Gene Autry, and many other cowboy and cowgirl stars. Robbins saw a demand for historical odes, so he thought everyone would love a ballad about the Old West.
The song itself consists of one repeated melody and a slightly altered bridge. Robbins laid out 14 verses to play out like a novel or film. In fact, he didn’t even know how the epic tale would end when he began. The final tale tells of a cowboy who kills a man over the love of a woman named “Felina,” then escapes justice, only to return to El Paso to die in his woman’s arms.
There was still one more hurdle to jump over, however. During this time, no record company would release a single any longer than three minutes. Record companies were convinced that the public wouldn’t sit and listen to anything that ran over the time limit, let alone a song that demanded a full attention span like “El Paso” to follow the story. Record companies needed hits, so the songs needed to be repetitious enough that the tune and words could be learned in a matter of a few quick plays.
“El Paso” thankfully broke every single conventional rule of the time.
As Robbins argued, Horton had done well with “The Battle Of New Orleans,” and that song had also broke conventional rules. Eventually, he convinced his record label to give “El Paso” a shot.
“El Paso” also sounded like nothing before. It was accompanied by very simple Spanish-flavored guitar instrumentation with Tompall and the Glaser Brothers providing harmonies. But even though the record label had finally allowed “El Paso” as a single release, convincing disc jockeys to play the song was another hurdle in the way. After all, at over four minutes in length, the song was simply too long to program. Furthermore, the song doesn’t exactly have a happy ending.
Robbins once again fought for his song, pointing to its strong reaction in his live shows and clarifying that the song was tragic, but not depressing. He believed audiences would strongly identify with the cowboy and his undying love for his sweetheart. All Robbins asked for was a chance, just as he did before with his label.
Columbia Records shipped “El Paso” in the fall of 1959. Ironically, it reached stations just as “The Battle of New Orleans” was ending its run on the Billboard country and pop charts. The single’s crowning peak position was replaced by “Waterloo” by Stonewall Jackson, another saga song. This, of course, only worked to Robbins’s advantage in his mind.
Just after Christmas, “El Paso,” the song which Robbins had been told would never succeed, reached the top of Billboard’s country singles chart. It would hold that peak for seven weeks, well into the first couple of months of 1960. Additionally, it was one of only four records to top both the Billboard country and pop charts during the 1960s.
In 1976, Robbins wrote a follow-up to his most famous hit. After viewing El Paso from the air, he scribbled the words to “El Paso City,” in which the twist was that the narrator of the new song could possibly be a reincarnated version of the cowboy who dies in the original song. Robbins recorded “El Paso City,” and on June 19, 1976, notched his first number one hit in six years.
As an extra bit of trivia, the song would also inspire the television series, Breaking Bad, particularly the final episode titled, “Felina.” Like our tragic cowboy only trying to do good and ending up in a bad situation, Walter White would end up paying for his deeds as well. Join me next time on ‘Pop Goes The Country,’ where we’ll continue our discussion on saga songs with Stonewall Jackson’s “Waterloo.”
This piece was written thanks to the following sources:
- Information about the formation and popularity of saga songs was taken from Bill C. Malone’s Country Music U.S.A., particularly the chapter, “The Reinvigoration of Modern Country Music.”
- Information about the formation and inspiration of “El Paso” came from here.
- The Breaking Bad trivia came from this article.