It’s hard to believe that Diane Diekman’s Twentieth Century Drifter: The Life of Marty Robbins is the first biography of country music legend Marty Robbins, who first hit the music charts in the 1950s and was still charting hit singles when he died far too young (49) in 1982. The scope of his career would seem to have lent itself to a life story before now, but regardless of timing he found an able biographer in Diekman.
Diekman used contemporary media accounts as well as personal interviews with Robbins’ children, friends, and former band members to piece together a tale that could have been its own country song. He was born in Arizona and grew up poor with a father unable to hold a job and a mother who had her hands full with five kids and an alcoholic husband. After a stint in the Navy during World War II, he was aimlessly drifting through life when he stumbled into a gig playing and singing on a local radio station. The gig morphed into a television slot, and eventually led to a Nashville recording contract.
Robbins’ soulful voice seemed tailor-made for country ballads, earning him the nickname “Mr. Teardrop.” But one of the truly remarkable aspects of his career was how easily he was able to bend his vocal talents to sing just about any genre of music. Besides the traditional country heartbreak songs like “I Couldn’t Keep From Crying” and “Singing the Blues”, he scored pop hits (“Don’t Worry”) and a series of teeny-bopper tunes like “A White Sport Coat and a Pink Carnation” and “She Was Only Seventeen”. He recorded entire albums of Hawaiian-influenced music, and what may be the seminal Western music album of all time, “Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs,” which included the country and pop smash, “El Paso.” It’s an astonishing feat, and even more so when you consider Robbins wrote nearly all of his hit songs, displaying a songwriting versatility that may have been matched only by his vocal stylings.
Ultimately, the music is where Diekman’s book falls short. She is upfront about the fact that she is not a musicologist, and she makes little attempt to try to analyze what made Robbins’ music so memorable and so seminal. While I greatly enjoyed learning more about his personal life, including the entire side career he had as a successful NASCAR driver (no, really!), I missed an astute analysis of the music. But Diekman has laid a solid groundwork with her personal biography of this Twentieth Century Drifter, and we can only hope that someone else will take up the challenge of providing the true musical biography that Marty Robbins deserves.