“Out in the West Texas town of El Paso, I fell in love with a Mexican girl…” It’s a simple introduction to a simple song. Traditional country music and Mexican narcocorridos share this in common: People like to be told stories, and these songs do just that. They trace back to the ballads of Medieval times, in fact.
El Paso was such a song, but it’s one of the best examples of it—and not just because it won a Grammy. The story is fairly simple: A guy sings over a Spanish guitar (played by Grady Martin) about a gal named Faleena, and how he fought for her heart and her honor, which put him on the wrong side of a bullet. But the song broke some new ground by cracking the three-minute mark (it was almost five minutes long, and singles were usually about 150 seconds back in the ‘50s) and by telling a whole story—not just an episode in a life.
The song was a massive hit—so big, it spawned two sequels (the only other song I can think of that did that was B.o.B.’s Airplanes): “Feleena” and “El Paso City.” It also generated a video nearly 20 years later by none other than Steve Martin! [FIND THIS: For his TV special Comedy is Not Pretty, Steve Martin created a music video for the song, in which he plays the cowboy. The rest of the cast are chimpanzees and an orangutan. Martin’s first “horse” is a miniature pony; he later rides an elephant to escape the posse.
Further listening: I confess, the sequels to El Paso just don’t move me like the original. But you could check out Marty’s other #1 hits, like I’ll Go On Alone, Singing the Blues, Devil Woman, and A White Sport Coat (which was later covered by the Meat Puppets). He kept charting, in fact, all the way into the early 1980s.
Covers: The Grateful Dead kept this song alive during the 1970s through the ‘90s, when it was a frequently played song for Bobby Weir’s lead. Check out that one, and a few other good ones…
Here’s an instrumental version by Grady Martin, who played guitar on the original single.