Sing it, Marty:
Out in the West Texas town of El Paso
I fell in love with a Mexican girl.
Night-time would find me in Rosa’s cantina;
Music would play and Felina would whirl.
This song dates from 1959, when they were still saying “country and western,” and while Marty Robbins never mentioned a timeframe in “El Paso,” the very sound of it, Spanish guitar and all, recalls the Wild West of legend, where five mounted cowboys might indeed be standing guard. This has been one of my favorite songs since ever, and I have to admit that not once in the intervening years has it ever occurred to me that Rosa’s cantina might actually have existed.
In 1959, it had existed for two whole years, a few steps north of the Rio Grande: cross the railroad tracks and the river, and you’ll find yourself in — well, New Mexico, actually, since this is west of Juárez, where the Mexican border straightens up and turns into a line across the land. That much, at least, I comprehended:
South El Paso touches the Mexican state of Chihuahua, and west El Paso adjoins the American state of New Mexico. El Paso also borders a bygone time. There is no edge of El Paso that doesn’t touch something very different from El Paso, a diagnosis that might account for either maddening schizophrenia or a certain charm. Whatever El Paso is, in its heart, it is also Mexico, New Mexico, and Texas, with a dose of old western thrown in.
So at least Marty Robbins knew what he was doing when he set his song in El Paso and not in any of the other fabled cities of the old West; you can’t imagine Felina whirling in Dodge City. Whether he ever went to Rosa’s himself, or just saw the sign and liked the name, we’ll never know for sure, since Robbins died in 1982. Son Robby, though, says that the family often stopped in at Mexican restaurants on the road: “We didn’t have anything like that in Nashville.”
I’ve never been to the West Texas town of El Paso; it was the last place my sister Brenda had lived, but it never occurred to any of us that it would be the last place. Perhaps it’s time I dropped by. I haven’t sketched out World Tour ’08 yet, though an all-Texas version has been kicking around in the back of my mind, and this would fit in nicely. The Mexican girls, of course, will pay me no heed.