Out in the West

(Possible spoilers if you haven’t watched the Breaking Bad finale yet.)

When I learned the title of the final Breaking Bad episode, I knew exactly what it had to mean. Never mind that “Felina” is an anagram for “finale,” or it incorporates the chemical names for iron, lithium, and sodium, which is supposed to be a meth reference: it could only refer to the Marty Robbins song “El Paso,” in which an outlaw protagonist dies for a forbidden love, a girl whose name is Felina. And it didn’t take series auteur Vince Gilligan very long to get to it: a Marty Robbins cassette turns up in the very first scene.

Around here, we dig Marty Robbins, who scored country hits from the early 50s until his premature death in 1982 at the age of 57. He frequently crossed over to pop as well, charting 24 times, all but two between 1956 and 1963. Just as important as his music was the image projected by his songs and his album covers: the lean, mustachioed, guitar-toting, tough-but-tender man in a cowboy hat became a country music archetype. Late in his life, Robbins drove in stock-car races and appeared in movies. Your average country star today would kill to be as cool as Marty Robbins.

“El Paso,” which puts the “western” in “country and western,” is the record for which Marty Robbins is best known, and it was his biggest pop hit, doing two weeks at #1 in January 1960. Despite doing seven weeks atop the Billboard country chart, it wasn’t his biggest country hit. His version of “Singing the Blues” spent 13 weeks in late 1956 and early ’57; “Don’t Worry” ran 10 weeks at the top in 1961, and accidentally birthed the fuzztone guitar, after a bad channel in the mixing board distorted the bass guitar and they decided to leave it in; and in 1962, the almost-as-great-as-“El Paso” “Devil Woman” lasted eight weeks at #1. In all, Robbins scored 15 #1 hits on the country chart between 1956 and 1976. In addition to “El Paso,” “Don’t Worry” was an enormous pop hit, going to #3; Robbins’ 1957 hit “A White Sport Coat” reached #2 pop.

“El Paso” has resonated through pop history in a number of ways. The album on which it appeared, Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs, was a major inspiration for Bernie Taupin, Elton John’s longtime lyricist, and it explains Taupin’s recurring interest in western imagery. And Robbins himself returned to the story of “El Paso” on two different occasions. In 1966, he told Felina’s side of the story in “Feleena (From El Paso),” an eight-minute prequel. In the summer of 1976, “El Paso City” went to #1 on the country charts—and it’s as close to perfection as any record you’re ever going to hear. It’s set in an airplane flying over El Paso. The protagonist remembers a song (“I don’t recall who sang the song but I recall the story that I heard”) and gets a most peculiar feeling of déja vu: “Can it be that man can disappear from life and live another time?” Just as the arrangement and performance of “El Paso” is the concentrated essence of how country and western sounded there at the end of the 50s, “El Paso City” distills country’s mid-70s essence.

I suppose that when it comes to Robbins, your mileage may vary. His songs occasionally have an emotional quality that veers dangerously close to what we’d now consider parody. (Even “El Paso,” to some.) Take “My Woman My Woman My Wife,” which went #1 country and #42 pop in 1970. Again and again, this love song to a saintly spouse who has endured the worst beatings life can administer—hard work, poverty, dead babies, you name it—obliterates the line between sentimentality and bathos. But it’s the damnedest thing: Robbins sings like an angel, and in the last verse, when he asks God to “give her my share of heaven / If I’ve earned any here in this life,” and then, in a soaring tone of absolute conviction, “‘Cause God, I believe she deserves it,” you end up with tears in your eyes.

And by you, I mean me.

3 thoughts on “Out in the West

  1. I sometimes have to remind myself that “El Paso” is not a Bob Weir-John Barlow composition, which goes to prove that the Grateful Dead will eat your brain even if you don’t smoke pot.

    (Not only did Weir perform “El Paso” many times with the Dead, but the Weir-Barlow tune “Mexicali Blues” shares a fair number of plot elements with “El Paso.”)

  2. porky

    Marty was that perfect example of the C&W singer of yesteryear, a sort of extension of Red Foley; adept at pop standards, folk, and even up-tempo rock and roll (of course it wasn’t called that in Red’s day). Marty’s version of “Long Tall Sally” really rips.

    And guitarists (or anyone), listen to Grady Martin’s six-string lay down the glue that holds “El Paso” together. It’s a master class in how to compliment a song without overtaking it.

  3. Johnny_99

    Thanks for the link to “El Paso City”…I can’t recall ever hearing it before.

    I was a lonely teenage broncin’ buck, with a pink carnation and a pick up truck…

    I’m usually just a “lurker” but want to let you know I’m a regular reader and really enjoy your site.

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