El_Paso_singleSept. 26: Marty Robbins — one of country music’s finest and most versatile singers and adored by his fans — would have been 84 years old today. That calls for a triple gift from him to us: his classic cowboy ballad “El Paso” and its two sequels.

Music would play and Feleena would whirl …

The root of the trilogy, “El Paso” (1959), is Robbins’ best-known song. It’s the gripping, nearly 5-minute story of a cowboy who falls in love with a cantina dancing girl and kills a man in a jealous rage. He flees the town but his love for Feleena pulls him back, to meet an end that isn’t pretty for either of them. The song, Robbins once said, practically wrote itself as he drove toward Phoenix: “The words and the melody just started rolling out of my head… I didn’t stop to write it down; I wrote it in my mind. In fact it was like watching a movie.”

After topping Billboard‘s country and pop charts, it won a Grammy in 1961. The recording is as classic as the song, with striking harmonies by Jim Glaser and Bobby Sykes, and Grady Martin providing some of Nashville’s finest guitar work ever. As you listen, imagine playing that intricately for 5 minutes with no mistakes. That was the genius of Grady Martin.

Ev’ry man stopped to stare, at this form fine and rare …

TheDrifterSeven years later, Robbins recorded “Feleena (From El Paso),” which goes back in time a bit more to tell the life story of the “Mexican girl.” Clocking in at more than 8 minutes, “Feleena” was never a single, appearing only on the album The Drifter. Grady Martin returns to the studio to provide the atmosphere. The song introduces a supernatural element, with the ghosts of the star-crossed lovers said to manifest today in the West Texas winds: “It’s only the young cowboy showing Feleena the town.”

In another world I lived in El Paso …

El_Paso_CityIn 1976, Robbins again revisited the West Texas town, moving from the ghostly ending of “Feleena” to outright mysticism in “El Paso City.” As the narrator views the city from a jetliner, he recalls a song he once heard “about a jealous cowboy and a girl” and wonders if he could be “the cowboy in this mystery.” “El Paso City” brings the saga full circle. Again, Grady Martin coaxed nimble Spanish sounds out of his acoustic archtop guitar. Again, the “El Paso” story line topped the country charts. And again, Marty Robbins once said, he produced a song that he didn’t as much compose as transcribe.

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