REVIEW: ‘Twentieth Century Drifter’

Cover image of Twentieth Century DrifterIt’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.

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2 thoughts on “REVIEW: ‘Twentieth Century Drifter’

  1. hmmm…i guess if it were me, and i was looking to have music analyzed, i would not go looking for a BIOGRAPHY of someone’s life…a biography, by definition, is a usually written account of a life…by deciding that you want a biographer to analyze the music of this person, you must have either not thought out the comment, or you do not understand the meaning….in this case you should have waited until someone who would do that for you writes a book about music….anyway that is what would seem normal to this reader…i thought the book was complete, and well researched….the author did not include herself in this story, nor did she offer up her opinions…..both of which a good biographer would insist upon….just saying

    • Perry, thanks for your comment. I agree the book was well-researched and well-written, and I would recommend it to anyone who wanted to learn more about Marty Robbins. My comment about the lack of musical analysis shouldn’t detract from the quality of the work that is there, and I hope my review made that clear. I don’t think it’s at all out of line, though, to want some in-depth discussion of Robbins’ music in a book about his life, since the music is what made him a person worth writing about. I did appreciate that Diekman was very upfront about not feeling qualified to do that, but interviewing someone who could provide that sort of analysis would not have gone amiss.

      Overall, though, a very good and much appreciated biography of a neglected musician. I hope it’s very successful and inspires someone else to provide the missing musical analysis in another book.

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