Twentieth Century Drifter: The Life of Marty Robbins
(University of Illinois Press)
US: Mar 2012
Twentieth Century Drifter is the first biography of country music legend Marty Robbins, a man who, like many of his contemporaries, battled poverty, an abusive home life, an alcoholic father, served his country in the military, and found his big break almost by accident. The early story is interesting if it is all-too-familiar and elements of the Arizona-born singer’s latter years offer rich material for a biographer. Robbins was a shrewd businessman who bucked Nashville protocol and never felt more allegiance to the music industry machine than he did for himself as an artist. Painfully insecure and in need of constant attention, he nearly derailed his live performances with silliness; he was loyal to his fans, protective of his family, but unafraid to take artistic risks.
Diane Diekman, a retired U.S. Navy captain, and author of Live Fast, Love Hard: The Faron Young Story, writes that it was Robbins’ own service in the Navy and his deep love of NASCAR that drew her to him as a subject, to say nothing of her love of his music. What we get, then, is a fan biography with little critical evaluation of Robbins’ work––a portrait of Marty Robbins, generally nice guy, family man, racecar driver, and writer of classics such as “El Paso”, “A White Sport Coat”, “Big Iron” and “Twentieth Century Drifter”.
But being a nice guy and a family man is not what made Robbins great––the ear he lent to the drunk Mexicans who sang on the streets outside his boyhood home, the love that he had for western (yes, a distinctly different category than country) songs, and his uncanny knack for writing ballads (story songs, as he liked to call them) and delivering vocals with a wholly believable sense of drama, are.
We don’t get to understand how he stood in relief to Johnny Cash, Faron Young, George Jones, or even Roy Orbison––with whom he may have shared the most artist common ground––which is too bad as it might have helped better illuminate his true place in the Nashville firmament. The death of fellow country star Jim Reeves gets mention––Robbins was part of the team that searched for Reeves’ body after the single-engine plane he was flying crashed outside Nashville––but, curiously, the death of Elvis Presley and, more importantly, Robbins’ reaction to it, is absent. Given that they had a peer relationship, that comparisons between them and Robbins’ apparent admiration of The King, appear elsewhere in the text, and that they both recorded versions of “That’s All Right” (Robbins had a major country hit with it; Elvis made a splash regionally with his version but the record did not find national footing just then), to say nothing of the unavoidable reverberations of Presley’s death, it’s hard to imagine how this could have escaped without some greater mention.
Diekman lists chart positions for singles and album titles, but rarely describes the real majesty of these records or how the industry evolution away from singles toward albums impacted Robbins the artist. It’s clear that while time went on and he moved from Columbia to MCA, then back, his popularity went through the usual ebbs and flows. But there are wild card moments––an early foray into Hawian music, flirtations with calypso, a planned Southern rock album that didn’t materialize, even a novel that gets a strangely brief mention––that would have provided rich fodder for analysis. (Moreover, the lack of a discography, selected or otherwise, is a deep disappointment.)
Tour bus poker games are given more space than probably needed, but Diekman does manage to deal with the singer’s NASCAR career quite well and has some handle on how a tendency to yell at or punch people in extreme circumstances or to fire band members he felt had upstaged him revealed some of his deeper insecurities. Moreover, the heart attacks he suffered between the late ‘60s and his death in 1982 (after one final attack) provide us with a portrait of a man perhaps too afraid to deal with his frailties.
Diekman’s enthusiasm for her subject and talent for good pacing––there’s never a temptation to skip over a passage nor the sense that the narrative is dragging––should be commended. Whatever the shortcomings of the book, being poorly written is not one of them; in the end Twentieth Century Drifter is not a bad book, but instead one that frustrates with its omissions.