In the fall of 1959, singer Marty Robbins eclipsed his previous teen-idol pop radio hits, including “Singing the Blues” and “A White Sport Coat and a Pink Carnation,” with the Western ballad “El Paso.” Epic for its time, the single clocked in at four-and-a-half minutes. A slightly shorter version appeared on the Robbins album Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs. (By comparison, Fairport Convention took more than eight minutes to recount the fate of “Matty Groves” on Liege & Lief in 1969, and Bob Dylan nearly nine to tell the story of “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” on 1975’s Blood on the Tracks.)
Audiences found the song riveting—it topped both the country and pop music charts in early 1960 and won the Grammy Award for Best Country & Western Recording in 1961—not for its exceptional length but rather for the taut drama of its story. The first-person Wild West narrative relates the experience of a Texas cowboy who falls for Felina (or Feleena), a Mexican dancer at Rosa’s Cantina, kills a rival suitor in a gunfight, runs for his life on a stolen horse, hides out for a while in New Mexico, and then returns to El Paso only to be shot by a posse and die in Felina’s arms.
“El Paso” has been widely covered over the past 60 years—by the Old 97’s, Michael Martin Murphey, Tom Russell, Jason and the Scorchers, Grady Martin, who played the lead guitar parts on the original, and, 389 times in concert, the Grateful Dead.
Return to El Paso,the new five-song EP by the Santa Cruz, California–based Carolyn Sills Combo, takes a new and novel approach to the Robbins classic. Tapping its own deep resources of the southwestern musical vernacular, including honky tonk twang, Western Swing, and Norteno, the Combo deconstructs the original story and retells its elements from the perspective of its characters: the jealous cowboy, the Handsome Young Stranger, Feleena, and the Texas Ranger who brings the saga to its tragic end. Along the way, we even catch an extended glimpse of the horse that plays a critical role.
On “El Paso,” lead vocalist and acoustic rhythm guitarist Robbins fronted a band with Martin on lead guitar, Jack Pruett on acoustic rhythm guitar, Bob Moore on standup acoustic bass, and harmony vocalists Jim Glaser and Bobby Sykes.
On Return to El Paso, beautifully produced by Sylvia Massy, lead vocalist and bassist Carolyn Sills is joined by her “Spaghetti Western Swing” Combo members Gerard Egan (guitar, vocals), Jimmy Norris (drums), Charlie Joe Wallace (steel guitar), and Sunshine Jackson (vocals, percussion). Exploring more complicated emotional underpinnings than the original song’s pathos and pleading, which is well represented on the opener “Feleena,” songwriters Sills and Egan craft a sense of foreboding (“The Handsome Young Stranger”), put a light, waltzing spin on Feleena’s conflicted romantic feelings (“I’m Not Crying, I’ve Just Rubbed Jalapenos in My Eyes”), generate a galloping momentum worthy of Bob Wills (“Hold Your Horses”), and wind down the narrative with a musical evocation of “Ghost Riders in the Sky” (“The Ranger”).
The clarity and sincerity of the singing, the confident individual mastery of the instrumentalists, and the tight, nuanced swing of the Combo are true to the original spirit and sound of “El Paso” while reinventing genre clichés to bring to light glittering refractions of a well-worn tale on its 60th anniversary.
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