REVIEW: The Carolyn Sills Combo’s “Return to El Paso” Rides Low in the Saddle


Marty Robbins’ “El Paso” from Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs maintains its strength still 60 years on from its inception. A pinnacle of narrative song craft pinning the lonesome cowboy lament, “El Paso” is a touchstone on the historic trail of American music. To at once honor this legendary recording as well as expand upon its legacy and further explore its landscape, the Carolyn Sills Combo presents Return to El Paso. The EP was produced by Sylvia Massy and recorded in Joshua Tree, California. The Carolyn Sills Combo is Carolyn Sills (bass, vocals), Sunshine Jackson (vocals, percussion), Gerald Egan (guitar, vocals), Jimmy Norris (drums), and Charlie Joe Wallace (steel guitar). At just five songs this album is more novella than novel, but that does little to diminish its punch. Carolyn Sills and company unravel the story behind that fateful night at Rosa’s Cantina. All Robbins’ major players return from the heartsick, murderous narrator and the flirtatious Feleena to The Handsome Young Stranger and even the horse on which the narrator escapes. True to the original, the Carolyn Sills Combo’s arrangement rides low in the saddle across an unrelenting and desolate terrain all to the lope of a cowboy’s lonesome yodel.

“Feleena” is the focus of the records first track where the stage is set with a galloping acoustic guitar and Jackson’s warning vocal as the band builds behind her. “Oh Feleena, don’t go to Rosa’s tonight, I’ve got a feeling that cantina’s due for a fight, oh Feleena, those men don’t care that you’re mine, they only care that you’re dancing one dime at a time,” Feleena’s other half pleas. Feleena ignores this simple request only to later pull her lover with knife from the throat of the ill-fated Handsome Young Stranger. “The Handsome Young Stranger” introduces us to our hero over a vocal of slow entombment, full of regret, and a Roy Orbison meets Twin Peaks reverb guitar driven melody. Gerald Egan plays our Handsome Young Stranger; “I’ve gotten word there is someone else, now she won’t leave the town in spite of plans we had in place…and you my love are no longer mine,” he sings. A warbling whistle closes the track, only adding to the mysterious and ominous arrangement. “I’m not Crying I’ve Just Rubbed Jalapenos in my Eyes,” a sad traditional border town waltz complete with classical guitar infused solos and a reliably thumping bass, is song from Feleena’s vantage. “I’m found of El Paso and here’s where I’m going to stay,” she declares. “Hold Your Horses” follows as Jackson and Sills voices commune over an acapella intro that gives way to a western swing inspires ride across Texas. “He’s a good one and he could run, and to night I’ll see he finally gets a chance, I’ll untie him out to Rosa’s I’ll ride him where whiskey flows and wicked women dance,” she sings. Return to El Paso concludes with the tale of “The Ranger,” his race away from Rosa’s, the posse on hot on his trail, and the sudden and untimely end of Feleena.

On Return to El Paso, the Carolyn Sills Combo at once honors and builds upon their source material – at once balancing the traditional with the modern. Stories of lust, heartbreak, and death are common to human experience, yet twist a yarn that basks in reverence and not imitation is difficult. At this difficult feat the Carolyn Sills Combo has succeeded on their Return to El Paso.


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