Embracing love, murder, and chimpanzees named Feleena in “El Paso”

Embracing love, murder, and chimpanzees named Feleena in “El Paso”

In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well—some inspired by a weekly theme and some not, but always songs worth hearing. 

I was in Houston visiting my husband’s family recently; while there, I discovered my new favorite terrestrial radio station, KTHT, better known as Country Legends 97.1. With its constant rotation of songs by Crystal Gayle, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, and Hank Williams, Country Legends is perfect for driving around and hearing songs you only sort of know. It’s a vehicle for time travel and discovery, and other than in a few commercials, it never even mentions the existence of new country acts like the Eli Young Band and Charlie Worsham. 

The station and I became new best friends right when I started flipping through the dial in our rental car and landed on Marty Robbins’ “El Paso.” I hadn’t heard the song in years, but it felt like a miracle that the gunslinger ballad was coming out of the speakers. The 1959 recording certainly sounds a little dated, but the tale of a cowboy who falls in love with a Mexican girl—the awkwardly named Feleena, who dances at Rosa’s Cantina—then cruelly meets his fate at the hands of a riled-up posse seems as fresh and/or perfectly stale as ever. It’s a classic Tex-Mex treat, with lyrics and a melody so easy to remember that they’re almost comical. Maybe that’s why Steve Martin embraced the song—complete with chimpanzee Feleena—for his 1980 TV special Comedy Is Not Pretty