The Way Out West Series No 2
Loyal readers of The Jukebox will recall my previous post in the, ‘Way Out West’ series which was themed around an unlikely friendship formed through a mutual love of, ‘Ghost Riders In The Sky’ (go straight there as soon as you finish this if you haven’t read it already!).
Ghost Riders was voted No 1 Western Song of all time by the Western Writers of America.
My friend Carl and I didn’t know that as we sang it into the tequila fuelled small hours back in those dim and distant days.
We just knew it was a great song and that singing it never grew old.
Finishing Ghost Riders the next song that floated to the tip of our tongues was always Marty Robbins immortal classic, ‘El Paso’.
This one has everything you could ever ask for in a Western Ballad.
A West Texas location.
A Mexican maiden with flashing eyes whom a young cowboy can’t resist even at the cost of his life.
A gunfight over this fatal maiden leaving a handsome young stranger dead on the floor.
A hurried escape in the night on a fast stolen horse to the badlands of New Mexico.
The fateful return to Rosa’s Cantina even though a posse and deadly bullets surely lie in wait. For, in truth, the attraction of love really is stronger than the fear of Death.
A deathbed reconciliation sealed with a tender kiss.
What more do you want!
Well you might want this ballad to be sung with swooping authority by its author and have him backed by ringing Spanish guitar licks which echo through the song like chimes of destiny.
Take it away Marty Robbins and Grady Martin!
Now some sources will tell you that Marty wrote this song in less than 5 minutes and some say it was the work of several months. You choose.
What is sure is that it was recorded on 7 April 1959 as part of an epic session which produced what will always be greatest Western Ballad collection as long as the wild West Texas Winds blow over the plains, ‘Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs’.
There was some nervousness at Columbia Records that at four and a half minutes El Paso might be too long for audiences to take in an era when many hit songs barely made three minutes. This was to underestimate the power of story.
For, once you’ve heard the ringing guitar intro and the first line … ‘Out in the West Texas town of El Paso I fell in love with a Mexican girl’ you’re hooked and wild horses couldn’t stop you from wondering what happens next!
Released in late October, ‘El Paso’ soon became one of those rare songs that wins universal affection.
By the dawn of the new decade it was Number One on both the Country and Pop Charts and lodged deep in the consciousness of several generations.
The story of the nameless Cowboy and his love for Faleena indelibly sung by Marty with the invaluable assistance of Bobby Sykes and Jim Glaser echoes through popular culture to this day.
Now, The Grateful Dead might have been the emblematic group of the 1960s, ‘Counter Culture’ but they were also young men who had grown up watching John Wayne, James Stewart and Randolph Scott heroically ride through the Western landscape winning the love of Grace Kelly or Maureen O’Hara (even if Katy Jurado got caught in the cross fire) as they brought summary justice to those lawless frontier towns.
The 1950s were, of course, the glory days of TV Westerns.
I’ll wager that Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir spent many an hour watching, ‘Wagon Train’, ‘Gunsmoke’, ‘Rawhide’ and ‘Bonanza’ and that that out of sight of parents they considered themselves to be six shooting moody hombres not to be messed with.
Surely, this history and the lure of a long gripping ballad with room for plentiful six string stretch outs explains their devotion to, ‘El Paso’which they played many hundreds of themes over their fabled career.
Their version has a charm which never fails to engage me.
Western stories and Western lore do cast a spell like the eyes of Faleena.
There are few pleasures as reliable as settling down to watch a Western Movie or listen to a Western Ballad.
I caught the bug early.
When my Mum was out doing nursing night duty my Dad and I, entranced before the flickering 12 inch TV screen, would delight in the adventures of Rawhide’s Gil Favor and Rowdy Yates.
We agreed that Dad was perfect for the role of the mature Gil while I was a natural for the more youthful form of Rowdy.
Between us there were no situations we couldn’t handle.
I remember vividly that for my 6th Birthday my present was a wide brimmed Western hat with matching six guns, holster and spurs. Since those days I’ve been lucky enough to have been given some truly generous presents from those near and dear to me.
However, hand on heart, I have to say that no present has ever given me the sheer joy that receiving my six shooter set did!
Maybe it’s that memory that haloes the songs and the films as I watch and listen.
Maybe it’s the mythopoetic allure of The Western.
Maybe it’s because I’m one moody Hombre. One moody Hombre.
I feel inclined to emphasise the South of The Border aspect of the song now.
So, let’s swoon as the golden vocal tones of The Mavericks Raul Malo evoke those wild Texas days as the night falls all around Rosa’s Cantina.
Though we know the Cowboy’s love for Faleena is in vain, doomed, somehow as Raul glides through the verses we cling to the belief that maybe this time, this time, the two lovers will ride out into the sunset together.
And, in a Cantina, far away, Faleena’s eyes will flash as they whirl across the floor together.
And, as the music plays they will laugh as they remember those days in El Paso.
Marty Robbins was a considerable songwriter as, ‘Big Iron’ and ‘You Gave Me A Mountain’ (a live staple for Elvis) attest. He had 17 No 1 Country Chart Hits.
Grady Martin was a magnificent Guitarist whose splendid licks feature on Roy Orbison’s ‘Pretty Woman’ Brenda Lee’s ‘I’m Sorry’ and Ray Price’s ‘For The Good Times’ among scores of other Hits.
El Paso was produced by Don Law who also produced the epochal Robert Johnson Blues sessions in the 1930s as well as Bob Wills’ ‘San Antonio Rose’. That’s verstIlity!
PS Michael Gray, the premier authority on Bob Dylan, points out persuasively that El Paso might be considered the penultimate Western Ballad given that it leads to Dylan’s, ‘Romance In Durango’ – the ultimate!