Recently, a much younger friend mentioned he was learning the lyrics to the old Marty Robbins classic, El Paso, because he was going to sing it at a local Karaoke bar.
I don’t know if he knows the original Marty Robbins version, or if he knows a more current cover of that song, but, wow, gang. For some reason, that really astounded me. That a guy so young would sing such an old song that was such a huge part of my childhood, and at a Karaoke bar, no less!
I mean, it’s a good thing. But the older you get, the harder it is to process certain things. Like: he’s so young, how can he possibly know that song? Or: I’m so old!! Jeepers, how did that happen?? Things like that…
When he said this, about trying to learn the lyrics to El Paso, I instantly flashed-back to being an 11-year-old girl, sitting at the record player in my bedroom, trying really hard to scribble down all the lyrics to El Paso as the record played. I would have to keep picking up the needle, catch up with the lyrics, then carefully try to drop the needle back down in the right place and then scribble some more, etc., etc. This went on until the entire (really wordy and long song) was fully captured by my scribbles.
I really, really, REALLY loved this song, gang, and I needed to be able to sing along with Marty. Even though I played guitar by the time I was 11 (and violin, and piano), my skills were nowhere near accomplished enough to tackle a song like El Paso. It was thrilling enough for me to simply sing the song . I eventually had the song completely memorized.
I loved many of Marty Robbins’ songs — he had such a beautiful voice — including Devil Woman, A White Sport Coat, Ribbon of Darkness, The Hanging Tree. Actually, the list goes on & on. But there was never a song that struck me quite like El Paso.
Then, of course, when I was older and finally got to meet Don, my birth father, Marty Robbins became part of my intense but brief relationship with Don. Marty Robbins was already dead by this time, but Don (my father) was a big fan of Marty Robbins, and had even known him because Don’s late wife had been lifelong friends with Marty, having grown up with him in Arizona . (Also, some Ohio musicians had played with Marty Robbins on his last record — I believe it was The Allen Brothers. And my Uncle Ralph, Don’s brother, was a professional Country singer down in Nashville and also knew and/or played with the Allen Brothers.)
Anyway, my first trip out to Nevada to meet Don, he played the Marty Robbins Greatest Hits album on his record player — the same album I had back at home and knew by heart. Me and my birth father (who played guitar and wrote songs, as I did) turned out to be extremely connected through music. He was only 15 years older than I was, so we had a lot of cultural things in common by then. (We met when I was 28 years old.)
My birth father died 10 years later, from a type of cancer that we believe was caused by his exposure to Agent Orange during his many years of active duty as a Navy SEAL in Vietnam. My brief relationship with my birth father was intense, amazing, staggering, heartbreaking, and, above all, memorable. And Marty Robbins provided much of the soundtrack for it.
I wrote a highly biographical, and controversial, novella about that first trip out to Nevada to meet Don, titled Ribbon of Darkness (after the above-mentioned Marty Robbins song), that my dear colleague Michael Hemmingson published in his anthology, Short and Sweet: Original Novellas by Erotica’s Hottest Writers. The book is now out of print; it was published 12 years ago. Even Michael Hemmingson is dead now and has been for 4 years. (These are some of the things I mean when I say it’s hard to process getting OLD, practically overnight!! Where does the time go??)
Even considering everything I’ve just written about above, the thing that strikes me most profoundly about the song El Paso, can be found within the lyrics of another great Marty Robbins song from the mid-1970s called, El Paso City.
If you’re not familiar with the song, El Paso City, give it a listen (linked above). In it, Marty gradually reveals that he believes the reason the lyrics to El Paso came to him so quickly, so vividly, and so completely –within the space of a few hours— back in 1959, is because he thinks that the whole story about Feleena and the murder in the cantina actually happened to him in a previous life. He believed he was the one who killed the cowboy and then was hunted down by a posse and killed, as well. How cool is that, gang? That song became his first #1 hit and affected a whole heck of a lot of people.
Now that I’m finally in my new house and all my music is unpacked and back in my life, I came across my Marty Robbins’ Greatest Hits CD the other day and took it along with me in my car. Wow. El Paso sure does hold up well, gang. It still gave me chills, and I still knew every word to the song. I was driving alone, on a pitch-dark highway in the middle of nowhere, listening to it, quietly singing along as I drove, and it suddenly struck me as really amusing that an 11-year-old girl, sitting alone in her room, was so desperate to know every word to such a gun-and-death-ridden song!
And it’s so cool that a guy whose parents might even be younger than me, is learning the lyrics to that song 50 years after it was a hit on the AM radio. Life does indeed go on (and maybe the same lives come back and go on…) We’ll find out.