The Number Ones is a new column where I’ll review every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
At nearly five minutes, Marty Robbins’ “El Paso” is the Infinite Jest of early chart-toppers. “El Paso” isn’t a dynamic song, exactly; it doesn’t swell with instrumentation as it goes along or build to some towering musical crescendo. Robbins just needs that time to tell his story, about a gunfighter so jealously in love that he commits murder and so blindly needy that he rides to his own certain death to see his loved one last time. It’s a classic Western story, and Robbins tells it with the patience, the weight, and the eye for detail of a great filmmaker.
Robbins, a World War II veteran and canon-level country star who also became a NASCAR driver in the early days of the sport, wrote “El Paso” himself. So Robbins is to blame, then, for the way he draws Felina, the song’s “Mexican girl,” as some sort of scheming witch (“blacker than night were the eyes of Felina, wicked and evil while casting a spell”) when all she does wrong is have a drink with some guy. But Robbins isn’t singing as himself. His narrator is a guy who’s driven into a murderous rage by the mere sight of this girl with another guy. And Robbins gets credit for some great writing, like the head-spinning moment when his narrator turns into a murderer: “Just for a moment, I stood there in silence / Shocked by the foul, evil deed I had done / Many thoughts raced through my head as I stood there / I had but one chance, and that was to run.” And Robbins is also solely responsible for the moment when we realize we’re listening to the story of a dead man. It’s an iconic story, vivid and wide in scope, and it’s pretty amazing that he was able to squeeze it into less than five minutes.
The storytelling in “El Paso” is so powerful that it’s easy to overlook what a masterful piece of music it is. Robbins sings over a simple Western shuffle, but the Spanish guitars that wind through it give it all these tiny melodies, these little accents that set it even further apart. And the way Robbins sings it is quietly stunning, too. Robbins has a warm presence to his voice, and he keeps it calm and reserved throughout. Every once in a while, though, he lets passion and desperation creep in: “Wild as the West Texas wiiiiiiiind!” It’s just a hell of a performance, a straight-up country classic that continues to bewitch.
BONUS BEATS: The final episode of Breaking Bad is called “El Paso,” and series creator Vince Gilligan uses the song in one scene, where Walter White gets into a snow-covered car. Pretty quickly, fans noticed that the song’s story mirrored, in some ways, the story of the show, with Walter White’s blue meth standing in for Felina. You shouldn’t investigate further if you haven’t watched Breaking Bad yet (and, Jesus Christ, watch Breaking Bad already), but here’s the video that lays out the whole theory: