It is now more than 60 years since “El Paso” – one of the greatest ballads ever recorded – was first released. And to mark the 60th anniversary, a wonderful new E.P. Return to El Paso by the Santa Cruz Western Swing band The Carolyn Sills Combo has been released.
Sills and her band deliver five tracks which not only provide a delightful back-story to the Marty Robbins’ classic but also offer fascinating portraits of all the characters - from the wicked “Feleena” and her “Handsome Young Stranger” to “The Ranger” who put a bullet deep in the chest of the poor young cowboy.
Of course, this is not the first sequel to the Grammy-decorated song which topped both the country and pop charts back in early 1960.
Robbins himself provided two explicit sequels to his original ballad, told by a Texan cowboy in first-person narrative.
The first – “Feleena (From El Paso)” – was released in 1966 and is a third-person narration of the life of the two-timing Feleena from her birth to her ultimate demise. It is as fascinating as the original, with Robbins - a true master of emphatic rhyming - penning a string of clever lyrics, the best left to the final two verses:
Out in El Paso, whenever the wind blows
If you listen closely at night, you'll hear in the wind
A woman is cryin', it's not the wind sighin'
Old timer's tell you, Feleena is callin' for him
You'll hear them talkin' and you'll hear them walkin'
You'll hear them laugh and you'll look but there's no one around
Don't be alarmed, there is really no harm
That it's only the young cowboy, showin' Feleena the town
Ten years later, he released “El Paso City” which became a number one country hit. In it, the singer assumes the role of a present-day passenger in a plane flying over El Paso and the journey reminds him of a song he heard “long ago” about a Texas cowboy and a girl. He feels a supernatural connection to the ballad, and, with tongue-in-cheek, he sings:
I don't recall who sang the song
But I recall the story that I heard
And as I look down on the city
I remember each and every word
Robbins wanted to complete a trilogy of sequels and in 1982 was working on a third song – reportedly titled “The Mystery of Old El Paso” – when, in December, he died too young at 57.
Carolyn Sills and her outfit remain loyal to the various scenarios painted by Robbins in his sequels over the years which is one of the reasons why Return to El Paso is neither corny or contrived, as often appears with concept, or theme, albums.
But the principal reason as to why this E.P. works lies in the simplicity of the music, the smooth harmonies and the perfectly-crafted arrangement - master-mined by acclaimed producer Sylvia Massey, best known for engineering and mixing several projects for producer Rick Rubin and his American Recordings label.
Sills told American Songwriter: “We were introduced to Sylvia through a mutual contact, when I had referenced Rick Rubin’s recording of Johnny Cash’s “When the Man Comes Around,” and how we had hoped to capture some of that feeling. Sylvia had worked on that album and we were thrilled to be introduced. She liked our previous work and the concept of this record and was excited to record it with us. We got it done in two days and loved every minute spent with her.”
The stark simplicity of Return to El Paso is best illustrated on the third track, “I’m Not Crying (I Just Rubbed Jalapenos in My Eyes)” This is a sad lament in which Feleena tries to appear somewhat defiant in reflecting on the temptations of Rosa’s Cantina.
Sills: “I believed that Feleena, with her wicked ways, orchestrated the entire drama, manipulating the men involved and sealing their fates. The Ranger who shoots the narrator at the end of “El Paso” has his own unique perspective, and I wanted to tell his version of what happened right before and after ‘one final kiss and Feleena, goodbye.’ And, of course, we can’t forget the horse that is stolen out the back of Rosa’s Cantina.”
Yes even the horse gets a song! What horse? It’s the one on which the poor cowboy fled, leaving The Handsome Young Stranger dead on the floor. We know it was a fast one because Robbins told us in one of the most memorable stanza’s ever composed in country music:
Out through the back door of Rosa's I ran Out where the horses were tied I caught a good one, it looked like it could run Up on its back and away I did ride
In “Hold Your Horses,” the Combo build on Marty’s clever rhyming with good one and could one nicely weaved into the animal’s tale from the perspective of the fleeing young-cowboy-turned-outlaw.
Finality is delivered with “The Ranger” - a first-person account by the man who ended it all. And just how did the tragic events in that mystical cantina finally play out? Well, “Spoiler Alert” comes into play here. Suffice to say, Return to El Paso remains true to Marty’s ultimate vision.
In recording the project, Sills (bass, vocals) and her band - husband Gerard Egan (guitar, vocals), Charlie Joe Wallace (steel guitar), Jimmy Norris (drums), Sunshine Jackson (vocals, percussion) – wanted to immerse themselves in desolate surroundings. So they drove to the high desert landscape of Joshua Tree, Southern California, and recorded Return to El Paso over two days at the Pink Satellite Studio.
And the big question: What would the man himself think of the 20-minute album? Well if there is a Big Studio in the Sky, Marty Robbins is probably sitting up there over the mixing desk tapping his feet – with a smile on his handsome face!
Editor Crossroads – Americana Music Appreciation