Book Review: “Twentieth Century Drifter: The Life of Marty Robbins” by Diane Diekman

Cover Blurb:

Twentieth Century Drifter: The Life of Marty Robbins is the first biography of this legendary country music artist and NASCAR driver who scored sixteen number-one hits and two Grammy awards. Yet even with fame and fortune, Marty Robbins always yearned for more.

Drawing from personal interviews and in-depth research, biographer Diane Diekman explains how Robbins saw himself as a drifter, a man always searching for self-fulfillment and inner peace. Born Martin David Robinson to a hardworking mother and abusive alcoholic father, he never fully escaped from the insecurities burned into him by a poverty-stricken nomadic childhood in the Arizona desert. In 1947 he got his first gig as a singer and guitar player. Too nervous to talk, the shy young man walked onstage singing. Soon he changed his name to Marty Robbins, cultivated his magnetic stage presence, and established himself as an entertainer, songwriter, and successful NASCAR driver.

For fans of Robbins, NASCAR, and classic country music, Twentieth Century Drifter: The Life of Marty Robbins is a revealing portrait of this well-loved, restless entertainer, a private man who kept those who loved him at a distance.

Marty Robbins’ career and personal life seem rather tame, compared to peers like Johnny Cash or Waylon Jennings. No drug or alcohol addiction continually threaten to ruin Robbins’ career or end his life.  No love-life pathos — Robbins remained married to his wife, Marizona, until his untimely death in 1982. Robbins never fell from grace with music fans, so a triumphant rediscovery is not part of his legend.

But don’t make the mistake of letting a lack of high drama turn you off from Twentieth Century Drifter: The Life of Marty Robbins. Robbins was a fascinating artist in his own right, and Diane Diekman’s book does him justice.

Many music biographies fall into two categories: those that read more like recording session notes, focusing almost entirely on the artist’s recorded output, and those that instead focus too tightly on the artist’s personal life. Twentieth Century Drifter strikes the perfect balance. While Diekman includes many details about the intensely private Robbins’ personal life, she also spends a lot of time on Robbins’ songwriting routines, stories behind some of his most beloved songs and his recording habits. Diekman’s attention to these details is valuable; despite being one of the most popular artists of his day, Marty Robbins is remembered today mostly for one song, his iconic “El Paso.” It’s a disservice that Diekman’s book does much to rectify, revealing Robbins as the bridge over the gap between country music’s first iconic singer-songwriter, Hank Williams, and those who came after Robbins in the late 1960s-early 1970s.

The scope of Robbins’ career more than makes up for the lack of tabloid-worthy drama. In between writing and recording hundreds of songs in several genres over four decades, Robbins acted in several movies, starred in two television shows, was a regular performer on The Grand Ole Opry, and operated his own publishing companies and record label.

His most famous second career, however, was that of a NASCAR racing driver. Although Robbins was never a champion driver, he logged respectable finishes on several of the circuit’s biggest tracks. Not surprisingly, the 1970s section of Diekman’s book is dominated by Robbins’ NASCAR career, something Robbins would have appreciated.

Hopefully, Twentieth Century Drifter will introduce Marty Robbins to a new generation of fans while satisfying existing fans’ need to explore Robbins’ life and career.

And here’s a bit of useless trivia — Marty Robbins’ most famous song, “El Paso” was frequently covered by the Grateful Dead in their live shows. In total, the band performed the song almost 400 times, which probably rivals the number of times Robbins himself played the song.

And here’s a bit of useful media:

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One Response to “Book Review: “Twentieth Century Drifter: The Life of Marty Robbins” by Diane Diekman”

  1. missrubyjones Says:

    Reblogged this on Rag Mama Rag and commented:
    Cross Post!

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