If the definition of a great story is one that stands up to repeated retellings, over and over again to the widest possible audience for decades, then the greatest American love story might not be a book, a movie, a TV show, a play, or an epic poem.
It might be a song.
The sprightly country waltz that famously begins “Out in the West Texas town of El Paso …” was written and recorded by Arizona-born Marty Robbins. In the first weeks of 1960, “El Paso”—a narrative song about a tragic encounter between a nameless cowboy and a dancing girl with eyes “blacker than night”—hit number one on both the country charts and the mainstream pop charts and quickly established itself as a country music classic.
The original recording of the song clocked in at 4:38, an absurdly long duration by radio standards of the time, which demanded songs no longer than a lean three minutes. Columbia Records released an abbreviated cut of the song, but audiences wanted more, not less, of “El Paso,” and disc jockeys opted for the longer take.
Considering the millions of trips around the turntable—on radio stations, jukeboxes, and home stereo sets—mixing in the soundtrack appearances and countless bar-band cover versions over the course of 60 years, if “El Paso” isn’t the greatest love story in American history, it certainly ranks as one of the most retold.
Santa Cruz songwriters Carolyn Sills and Gerard Egan have for years been as entranced with “El Paso” as anyone. In fact, the band they share, The Carolyn Sills Combo, has released a new album titled Return to El Paso, devoted to the Marty Robbins classic. But instead of doing their own cover version—which they generally avoid out of respect for the song—Return is something even more beguiling. It’s an expansion of the story, with five new original compositions by Sills and Egan that flesh out the epic love story at the center of the song.
“It’s one of those stories that has absolutely everything packed into four minutes and 38 seconds,” says Sills, the band’s lead singer and bassist. “For the amount of action that goes down, that’s a pretty short period of time.”
The Carolyn Sills Combo will perform the songs of Return to El Paso on Feb. 11 at the Kuumbwa Jazz Center, opening for the popular singing-cowboy band Riders in the Sky.
Sills has been living with “El Paso” since she was a child, exposed to it by a dad with a weakness for such songs. “My dad was a big fan of story songs,” she says, “especially those on the darker side of things: ‘Dead Man’s Curve,’ ‘Tell Laura I Love Her.’ They’re great songs that you can listen to and paint a picture in your head and think about afterwards.”
As a literary artifact, “El Paso” mixes the Wild West imagery and romanticism that Americans have loved like catnip for more than a century, with a melodramatic love story that ends badly for all involved. The narrator opens the tale lamenting his troubled love for Feleena, the beautiful Mexican maiden who dances for tips at Rosa’s Cantina in El Paso back in the days of the mythic Wild West.
The action begins when another cowboy, “wild as the West Texas wind,” comes in and begins to woo Feleena. In a rage, the narrator challenges the “handsome young stranger” and, without meaning to, shoots him dead. He then escapes out the back door of Rosa’s, steals a magnificent young horse and disappears toward “the badlands of New Mexico.”
End of song? Not by a long shot. Tormented by guilt and lovesick for Feleena, the narrator, now a fugitive murderer and horse thief, decides to return to Rosa’s even though he knows it would mean his certain death. Turns out, he’s right. He is felled by a shot from a posse raised by the local lawman. But he does get to expire in Feleena’s arms.
It’s that grand romantic gesture—his willingness to pay with his life for one more chance to see his beloved—that gives the song its tragic soul. For contemporary listeners who never have to face such a circumstance or make such a choice, the fantasy that they (or the person they love) would act in the same heroic manner lends the song its power.
In fact, Robbins himself revisited the tale of “El Paso” twice after the original became a hit single. In “Feleena (From El Paso)” and “El Paso City,” written and recorded on subsequent albums 10 years apart, Robbins fills in many of the colors of the characters he first introduced in the original. In the former, he reveals (spoiler alert) that beautiful Feleena, moments after the hero dies in her arms, takes his gun and shoots herself.
It was from this rich material that Sills and Egan—bandmates on stage and spouses off stage—began to piece together five more songs to give backstory to the martyred narrator, the handsome young stranger, Feleena, the stolen horse, and the ranger assigned the duty of tracking down the fugitive.
“The idea was to get a little bit more background and flush out some of the motivations of the characters, all without changing Marty’s original intention,” says Egan, the band’s guitarist.
Return to El Paso did not, however, begin with Marty Robbins in mind. It began with a food-preparation accident in the kitchen of the home Egan and Sills share.
“Carolyn has literally rubbed jalapeños in her eyes dozens of times in our kitchen in the last 10 years,” laughed Egan. “We’ve joked about it a bunch of times. At some point, she figured that was a great song lyric.”
Thus was born a nascent song title: “I’m Not Crying; I’ve Just Rubbed Jalapeños in My Eyes.”
“So, I thought, who would say that line?” says Sills. “Who would be so strong that they would never admit that they were that upset? My first thought was maybe Superman breaking up with Lois Lane at a Mexican restaurant. But no, that’s stupid. Then, my next thought was Feleena, because she’s always been one of the strongest female characters in these Western story songs.
“She’s obviously wicked, and Marty paints this beautiful picture of her as a femme fatale. So I started thinking about her saying this phrase to someone in the bar. Should she be crying over the handsome young stranger? And, as I started to unravel this whole context, I thought it would be pretty fun to write songs based on those characters.”
The result of that brainstorm is the five-song suite on Return to El Paso. The songs are presented in chronological order beginning with “Feleena,” in which the lovesick narrator begs Feleena not to dance at Rosa’s that night. That’s followed by “The Handsome Young Stranger,” following the doomed cowboy in his trip across the desert to his rendezvous with Feleena. “I’m Not Crying; I’ve Just Rubbed Jalapeños in My Eyes” is Feleena’s chance to express her anguish at being jilted by the handsome young stranger. “Hold Your Horses” focuses on the narrator’s stolen steed and, the album’s final song, “The Ranger,” tells the story from the point of view of the lawman who ultimately killed the narrator. It’s this song that reveals the Romeo and Juliet twist on the “El Paso” saga with Feleena’s own death.
“It shows a bit of her human element,” says Sills. “She knew she did something wrong and caused the death of these young men.”
The Carolyn Sills Combo—which also features steel guitarist Charlie Joe Wallace, vocalist Sunshine Jackson, and drummer Jimmy Norris—has released two full-length albums before Return to El Paso. The band describes its own sound as “spaghetti Western swing,” mixing three-part vocal harmonies with spirited, Western-flavored swing and atmospheric, reverb-laden guitar.
The album does not sound anything like Marty Robbins, nor is it meant to. The five songs deftly dance among styles from Tex-Mex flavored waltz rhythms to blues balladry to moody, reverb-laden atmospherics.
“We wanted to be true to ourselves,” says Egan. “For instance, we have Charlie Wallace on steel guitar. There was no steel guitar on the Marty Robbins stuff. We try to do our own thing in terms of the actual music and in creating the sonic backdrop, to make it sound like a Carolyn Sills album with a Marty Robbins influence.”
To enhance the spell the album is designed to create, the band got out of Santa Cruz and relocated to the high-desert community of Joshua Tree to record the songs. It was important, says Sills, to be in an environment where the aesthetics of “El Paso” made sense.
“Before we walked into the studio every day, when we would come out and take breaks, we were just surrounded by vastness,” she says, “which felt like nothing and everything at the same time. I lived in Arizona for a brief time and we’ve taken a lot of road trips through the Southwest. It’s glorious and inspiring. I don’t know if we could have written and recorded this record just sitting in some urban environment somewhere.”
Sills and Egan moved to Santa Cruz in 2010 from Brooklyn, where they had played together in various bands. Egan signed on as a guitar maker at Santa Cruz Guitar Company and his wife, by happenstance, began working there as well. Today, she’s the head of operations at the celebrated guitar company, often splitting her time between managing the company and touring across the country with her band.
Once arriving in Santa Cruz, the spouses decided to reboot their musical projects, creating a new band and a new sound with a distinctive take on Western swing.
“One of the reasons we refer to our music as ‘spaghetti Western swing’ is—yes, we’re influenced a lot by all that spaghetti Western soundtrack stuff—but there’s something about that expression,” Egan says. “There are all these weird influences from old country, blues, Western swing, jazz, even some surf stuff. And in a sense, that’s what the original Western swing groups were all about back in the ’40s and ’50s. They were listening to everything that was popular on the radio: Hawaiian steel-guitar stuff, polka, old cowboy songs, big-city jazz bands. And it all became Western swing, because they just threw all these influences in the same big American melting pot of music.”
Sills often comes at her music from the literary side, drawing from well-known sources in her songs. Her husband points to a song from an older album called “Tinkers to Evers to Chance,” a tribute to a famous turn-of-the-century double-play combo for the Chicago Cubs. Sills herself mentioned a new song based on the Robert Service poem “The Cremation of Sam McGee.”
Among the many shared musical touchstones between the two was the Marty Robbins album Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs, which includes “El Paso.”
“We’ve always been really into that album,” Egan says. “It’s something that Carolyn and I have shared for the 20 years or so that we’ve known each other.”
As for Return to El Paso, the album has already gotten lots of attention in Western swing circles. The Carolyn Sills Combo received two nominations in the 24th annual Academy of Western Artists Awards (to be announced April 9) for Best Western Swing Duo/Group and for Western Swing Album.
Sills says that, despite the album’s embrace, she probably will not hunt out other famous country songs for new material. “I don’t want to become known as that girl who writes those songs from different people’s perspective about things that have already happened. But it’s a fun way to look at things.”
Both Egan and Sills referenced “El Paso” as country music’s “Stairway to Heaven,” that one famous recording that defies anyone’s efforts to improve on it. But, Egan says, the approach on Return to El Paso is something that fits nicely in today’s musical environment.
“I see it much like other things going on in pop culture these days,” he says. “There’s a lot of movies out there, for instance, that are origin story films of superheroes. I don’t know if we have our finger on the pulse for this kind of thing, but once they find something they love, people seem to be kind of curious about what happened before the original. They always want a little bit more information.”
The Carolyn Sills Combo, opening for Riders in the Sky. Tuesday, Feb. 11, 7:30pm. General, $30; Gold Circle, $40. Kuumbwa Jazz Center, 320-2 Cedar St., Santa Cruz. snazzyproductions.com