A Song, a Movie, and a City

When Marty Robbins first made a West Texas town famous with his hit song “El Paso,” he did more than just earn a No. 1 country single for the original version, as heard on the 1959 album Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs. He changed the face of a city struggling to become consequential within the Lone Star State. 

It’s true that El Paso sits in isolation from the rest of the state of Texas—635 miles from Dallas, 600 miles from Austin, and 551 miles from San Antonio. El Paso, with its sprawl around the southern tip of the Franklin Mountain on the Mexico-United States border, seems more like a foreign country. The Mexican state capitol of Chihuahua is only 239 miles from El Paso. 

At the time of Robbins’s recording, Dallas, in northeast Texas, was already the site of gleaming high-rises, fine couture, and its famous Market, while oil derricks and dollar signs represented the south Texas city of Houston on whimsical maps. To many elsewhere in the state,  El Paso was just western spit in the sand, far from anything else of significance. But Robbins’s western ballad changed this notion dramatically, even as the song reinforced El Paso as a romantic—but wild—frontier city.

So popular were the song’s lyrics that many folks simply referred to the song “El Paso” as “Rosa’s Cantina.” In the fictional cantina, a cowboy falls in love with a “wicked” Mexican girl named Feleena (Felina or Falina). After a gunfight where the smitten, jealous cowboy kills another “wild, young cowboy,” he flees on a horse that “looked like it could run” into the badlands of New Mexico. Not a far stretch for folks to believe since some Texas residents thought El Paso should be part of New Mexico anyway. His “love stronger than death,” the cowboy returns to his Feleena, only to die in the arms of the Mexican maiden.

After Marty Robbins recorded the gripping hit song, El Paso became further engrained in Western lore as an enduring frontier haven for desperadoes roaming dusty streets. Aside from my dad’s fascination with Western literature and movies, it is likely that our family move to El Paso in 1961 was influenced by Robbins’s song, which was like musical cinema to listeners’ ears. Aside from Tucson, living in El Paso was about as close to the Wild West as we could get. My father had a fascination with the escapism that Western film and music delivered. And he was not alone.

The Prequel, Riding Success Western Style 

Like a hit movie’s prequel, Marty Robbins came out with a second ballad titled “Feleena” (of El Paso) in 1966, part of a collection of songs recorded for his album The Drifter. This ballad, too, ensnared the same audiences enamored with Old West allure within the Western musical genre. Robbins’s new single transformed forbidden love, heartbreak, and death into a universal narrative of love, tragedy, loss, and remorse. 

In the song, Robbins croons the back story of the same Mexican maiden, born to young Mexican parents in a New Mexican shack. After all, one can stand outside El Paso and throw stones across border lines into Mexico, Texas, and New Mexico almost simultaneously! An ominous stage is set for sequential lyrics when lightning streaks the sky and “loud desert thunder” shakes New Mexican sands at Feleena’s birth. Nine verses later, a teenaged Feleena takes her young cowboy’s gun and shoots herself, falling dramatically atop his murdered body. The final verse borrows a variation of what every full-blooded Texan recognizes, the La Llorona story. “Out in El Paso, whenever the wind blows,” you can hear a distressed woman crying in the breeze—Feleena calling for her lover. 

The spinoff made it to the top of the Billboard Hot Country Singles chart, though it would never be as endearing as the original “El Paso” tune. Briefly, El Paso thrived on this song’s celebrity too. 

Hollywood Invasion

A natural extension of these classic ballads triggered cross-over appeal to El Paso’s sister city—Juárez. The ballads’ Wild West storylines, in tying Mexican and American culture together in a shared frontier history, now captured the imagination of Western film fans. 

Ciudad Juárez, has always been the stuff of legends, whether about its famous college hangouts, visiting celebrities, or outlaws. Hollywood discovered the old city’s eccentricities decades earlier. Famous actors and actresses, addicted to romance, arrived for quickie marriages and divorces—and Kentucky Club margaritas, the famous cocktail allegedly invented there in 1932. 

Tens of dusty-framed black-and-white glossies decorate walls deep into Kentucky Club’s narrow recess, celebrating its most famous guests—many Hollywood performers, sports figures, and even outlaws. Al Capone and Bob Dylan, Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor, Tommy Lasorda and Oscar De La Hoya, John Wayne and Steve McQueen, and a Miss Universe, to name a few. 

As early as 1954, many American Western movies were filmed in Mexico, often in Durango. Famously, Sam Peckinpah had also directed films in Mexico, the most controversial one with actors William Holden and Ernest Borgnine. The Wild Bunch, a film about the 1913 Mexican Revolution involving the border of Mexico and Texas, was red meat for El Pasoans. But it was not filmed near or in El Paso, having been filmed in 1968 within the Mexican states of Coahuila and Durango. 

Though the song “El Paso” was recorded in 1959, no major Westerns had been made in or near El Paso since a 1953 Fort Bliss tale set during the Korean War, called Take the High Ground. In fact, the only other movie ever filmed in El Paso had been a 1922 Gloria Swanson film, The Husband’s Trademark

Changing the Face of El Paso

When Sam Peckinpah and actors Steve McQueen, Slim Pickens, Ali MacGraw, Ben Johnson, and Sally Struthers, et. al, landed at the El Paso International Airport to film The Getaway in 1972, the first music they heard was Marty Robbins’s “El Paso,” playing in a continuous loop. Utilizing Robbins’s famous ballad as a reminder of El Paso’s colorful history, the film location, now named as an “All-American City,” had recently adopted the mantra, “El Paso, You’re Looking Good!” What better place to film a movie about an ex-con-bank robber and his true love, a double-cross, and a flight toward Mexico with police in pursuit (including fantastic car chase scenes, one beginning at the Oasis Drive-in, my old high school haunt). After all, Robbins had already memorialized the city with a barroom gunfight, rapid escape into the hills, a posse in pursuit, and a death in the arms of a loving woman.

One hundred technicians, artists, and actors descended upon the city to make the first movie since 1953. Peckinpah and co-producer David Foster, after taking a Jim Thompson 25-cent Signet paperback and turning it into a Walter Hill screen play, soon began filming in 114 locations, with El Paso handling fifty percent of the action.

For months, El Paso’s newspapers shared everything that had to do with The Getaway production, especially the fresh national exposure El Paso was receiving as a movie production site. Dollars poured into the city to pay for carpenters, electricians, drivers, cleaners, car and truck rentals, food, extras, and filming major actors wearing Tony Lama boots. One El Paso newspaper reported that El Paso seemed to be “coming of age.”  An investor even offered to build a street near the city, along the same design as Old Tucson, to be used for future television series, Westerns, and other feature films. 

But the euphoria was short-lived. El Paso city officials surrendered to the notion that an updated image from its Marty Robbins recording was inevitable, if not essential. When professional golfer Lee Trevino appeared center stage within the city, its mantra “El Paso, You’re Looking Good” evolved into a more contemporary and popular theme of resilience and hope. Citizens donned black, red, and white colors, and wore golf caps or sombreros, to honor a living Mexican American sports legend. Fickle cities—El Paso and Juárez —both became infected with “Trevino fever.” An era was over.

An Introspective Lens

Marty Robbins wrote a final song, completing what would become known as the “El Paso” trilogy. “El Paso City” hit the charts in 1976. Its lyrics nostalgically return Robbins to his original “West Texas Town of El Paso” narrative while aboard an airplane soaring over the western city. The narrator contemplates the lyrics of the first ballad and wonders if he could have lived in another time— if he could have been the cowboy in “El Paso City, by the Rio Grande.” Could he have been the gunslinger in the city below? Could he have shared a dying kiss with his lover Feleena? One thing is certain. The narrator feels that in another time— in another world—he might have lived in El Paso. 


In 1998, Marty Robbins’s 1959 recording of “El Paso” on Columbia Records was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. The membership of the Western Writers of America chose “El Paso” as one of the Top 100 western songs of all time in 2010. And, in 2024, the Western Writers of America inducted Marty Robbins into its Hall of Fame where, along with other prestigious western writers, he is featured at the McCracken Research Library in the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, Wyoming.

And, if anyone is wondering, Rosa’s Cantina, opened in 1959, occupies a spot near the railroad tracks off Doniphan Drive, not far from Smelter Town and the Mexican border, in El Paso, Texas. Inside, Marty Robbins’s photo memorabilia and themed menus keep the famous ballad alive. Whether the tavern inspired Robbins is vague. But I prefer one writer’s notion that when Marty Robbins passed through town on tour, he came upon Rosa’s Cantina, and “it somehow stuck, lending him the perfect artistic license to incorporate the bar into his song.”  And with that, Marty Robbins made the West Texas town of El Paso memorable. 


Jane Little Botkin


  1. Rachael Horsley on April 24, 2024 at 8:56 pm

    What a great and interesting story.

    • pwsadmin on April 26, 2024 at 10:25 pm

      Thank you! I had fun with this.

  2. Jan on April 25, 2024 at 12:48 pm

    Great story and song. I get very nostalgic when I hear it, remembering hearing it in my Dad’s pickup truck as I accompanied him on the farm. . I’m sure the spelling “Faleena” by Robbins was purposeful, as most in the US would mispronounce (or mis-spell) Falina. It is an unusual name.

    • pwsadmin on April 26, 2024 at 10:30 pm

      You know, I naturally always thought the name was “Felina” until a historian pointed out that originally the name was written “Feleena” in Robbins’s lyrics. I have seen ‘Faleena’ at various times, but he assured me it was “Feleena” originally. I bet you are spot on about why the spelling was such. The song seems to bring up so many memories for us, that’s so true. I’m glad you like the article.