Jun 5, 201211:30 AMThe Telegraph
The Premier Blog of the West
Marty Robbins: Biography Of A Balladeer
“Out in the West Texas town of El Paso / I fell in love with a Mexican girl.” So begins one of the greatest gunslinging tales of the West. Marty Robbins’ “El Paso” has ranked at the top of many music lists since it was released in 1959 (including No. 5 on our list of the 100 greatest country songs) and transformed the dreamboat pop star into a country Western icon.
But “El Paso” is just one of 94 songs Robbins landed on Billboard ’s country music charts in a Hall of Fame career that spanned three decades. In Twentieth Century Drifter: The Life of Marty Robbins, Diane Diekman offers a welcome and long-overdue biography of the famed singer-songwriter and NASCAR driver.
Cowboys & Indians: How much did you know about Marty Robbins before you started researching the book? Were you already a fan?
Diane Diekman: Yes, I’d been listening to his music all my life. The first two songs I remember hearing on the radio were Marty’s “A White Sport Coat (and a Pink Carnation)” and Johnny Cash’s “I Walk the Line.” I saw Marty in concert several times in the 1970s. Having heard news reports over the years about his NASCAR crashes and heart attacks, I thought he was too tough to die. His death from that 1982 heart attack came as such a shock.
C&I: Did you have any preconceived ideas about him, and did any of them change as you started the research process?
Diekman: I already knew he was a great singer and songwriter. I didn’t know much about his personality or his life, other than his stage persona and that he ran NASCAR races and was a U.S. Navy veteran. While doing research for Faron Young’s biography in August 2005, I was watching a tape of Faron on the Marty Robbins Spotlight television show when the magnitude of Marty’s talent hit me. That’s when I decided I had to write his biography.
C&I: What was the biggest surprise?
Diekman: I was surprised to learn he never overcame his insecurities. Actually, I was surprised he had any insecurity at all, considering his fame and his outlandish stage behavior. But he never outgrew being that impoverished little boy who wore donated clothing to school and who couldn’t earn his father’s approval.
C&I: How do you think longtime fans will react to the portrait you have created?
Diekman: They will be surprised by the depth of emotion Marty kept to himself and will appreciate being better able to understand him. I wanted to show him as a multidimensional character who faced and coped with challenges. He gave acquaintances the impression of “knowing” him, when they didn’t know him at all. I think few people realize the range of his abilities.
C&I: If you had had the chance to interview Marty Robbins, what would your first question have been?
Diekman: Knowing as much about him as I do now, I would ask how he balanced those two opposite aspects — insecurity and showmanship — from the time he was 6 years old. If I’d been able to interview him at the beginning of my research, I would have wanted to learn about his combat experiences in the South Pacific during World War II.
C&I: What is your favorite song of his?
Diekman: “Tonight Carmen” has been my favorite Marty Robbins song since it came out. As a 17-year-old farm girl, I wondered how it would feel to be as loved as the singer loved his wife. I was amazed that any man would change sheets on a bed. It was the emotion plus the overall sound — peppy tune and smooth lyrics — that made it a song I still love hearing.
C&I: Does anyone in country music now remind you of him?
Diekman: No. Perhaps closest would be Brad Paisley for his sense of humor and clever songwriting. He could match the lyrics Marty wrote in “Jumper Cable Man”: “I’ve got a reputation / I believe is hard to beat. / I know what wires to work with / When your battery needs some heat.”
For more information, visit www.press.uillinois.edu.