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Twentieth Century Drifter

The Life of Marty Robbins

Diane Diekman

Publication Year: 2012

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. _x000B__x000B_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 an abusive alcoholic father, he never fully escaped 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._x000B__x000B_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.

Published by: University of Illinois Press

Series: Music in American Life

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. ix-xi

The idea of Marty Robbins as my second biography subject came to me while doing research for Live Fast, Love Hard: The Faron Young Story. I was watching an episode of The Marty Robbins Spotlight, with Faron as Marty’s guest. Marty has always been one of my favorite singers, and I liked his connections...

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[1] In the Hall of Fame

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pp. 1-4

It was October 11, 1982, and Marty Robbins sat in the audience at the Grand Ole Opry House near Nashville, Tennessee, during the Country Music Association’s nationally televised awards show. He believed in dressing up for awards shows, and his pinstriped swallowtail coat with...

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[2] Child of the Arizona Desert

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pp. 5-13

Martin David Robinson was born at 9:55 pm on Saturday, September 26, 1925, five minutes before his twin sister, Mamie Ellen. They joined the family of Jack and Emma Robinson and five children. Lillie, seven at the time, remembers their Grandma Heckle had come...

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[3] A Drifter

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pp. 15-23

One summer Saturday afternoon in 1937, Martin walked into the Glendale movie theater and saw Gene Autry in the middle of the Yodelin’ Kid from Pine Ridge. The singing cowboy climbed into a wagon, a guitar mysteriously appeared, and Autry said, “Well, I’m...

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[4] Music and Marizona

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pp. 25-31

During the job-hopping months after his discharge, Martin told people he was looking for a better position in life. “What I was really looking for was a way to get out of work and still make a living,” he admitted later. “I knew I was lazy, but I didn’t want people to...

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[5] On Columbia Records

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pp. 33-39

Although Martin David Robinson became Marty Robbins, with his birth name used for legal matters, Marizona would forever remain Marizona Robinson. The young couple struggled with both their relationship and their finances as 1950 approached. Marty spent little...

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[6] Mr. Teardrop

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pp. 41-52

When Marty renewed his Columbia contract on December 12, 1952, he listed his address as 1887 Loney Drive in Nashville. He and Marizona purchased the house the following year. “You couldn’t see a mile down the road,” Marty said about his early impression of the...

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[7] Singing the Blues in a White Sport Coat

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pp. 53-62

“Marty Robbins did it this week—yes, he won the cherished Billboard Magazine Triple Crown with his fabulously successful ‘Singing the Blues’ record for Columbia,” said a Nashville Banner article of November 22, 1956. The Triple Crown consisted of three...

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[8] Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs

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pp. 63-77

In 1958 the center of Nashville’s music industry began migrating from downtown to Sixteenth Avenue South, now known as Music Row. Marty, always a forward-looking businessman, moved his office from its downtown 319 Seventh Avenue North location to 713 Eighteenth...

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[9] Early 1960s

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pp. 79-86

Micro-midget race cars evolved from three-quarter midgets, which evolved from pre-World War II midget race cars. An average micro-midget weighed 250 pounds and was 5 feet long and 34 inches high. “When you’re that close to the ground,” one driver remarked...

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[10] Cowboy in a Continental Suit

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pp. 87-93

In December 1961, when Marty had been at Columbia for ten years, Don Law negotiated a contract change from a two-year to a ten-year term. “I made so much money back in 1959, ’60, ’61, and ’62, and I didn’t even have a CPA,” Marty told an interviewer in 1981...

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[11] Still More Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs

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pp. 95-103

“I don’t go out and look for songs,” Marty told an interviewer. “It’s mostly just my own songs I write and record.” He added, “If I hear a song and like it, I’ll record it. I don’t care who writes or publishes it. If it’s good enough for me to sing, I don’t care.” One song he...

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[12] From Dirt Track to NASCAR

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pp. 105-112

Marty’s fascination with fast cars surfaced when he returned from the Navy in 1946 and spent spare time at Phoenix races. “I understood a little about working on cars and even put my own engine together,” a 1969 newspaper article quoted him. “I built a little street job...

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[13] A Hot Dog Ready to Pop

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pp. 113-122

Driven to compete with himself in his passions for singing and racing, Marty searched for hit songs and faster cars, combining an amazing number of activities in the 1960s. While continuing to keep his family life private, he built his publishing companies and recording...

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[14] “I Want To Race Again”

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pp. 123-129

On January 2, 1970, Marty went into the Columbia studio and recorded “My Woman, My Woman, My Wife” as the title track of his next album. Although he often said he wrote the song for Marizona while in the hospital, he probably fine-tuned it there. Ralph Emery asked...

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[15] Back in the Groove

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pp. 131-139

Marty worked mostly with Bobby Sykes and Don Winters for the next several years. He sold his bus, and Okie Jones found other employment. My Woman, My Woman, My Wife was Marty’s only album in 1970, with Columbia releasing two compilation albums. He...

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[16] NASCAR 42

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pp. 141-151

When Marty applied for his NASCAR license in 1970, he chose number forty-two from a list of available car numbers. Lee Petty had used that number from NASCAR’s beginning in 1946 until he retired from racing in 1962. Richard Petty writes in his autobiography...

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[17] Twentieth Century Drifter

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pp. 153-160

“Every time I go to a race,” Marty once said, “I feel I have as good a chance of winning as anybody, y’know, because so many things can happen. That’s like when I put out a song; I think I have as good a chance as anybody of having a hit...

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[18] Return to the Road

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pp. 161-168

The Ryman Auditorium had been home to the Grand Ole Opry since 1943, ten years before Marty arrived. Built in 1892 by Nashville riverboat Captain Thomas Ryman and called the Union Gospel Tabernacle, it contained enough wooden pews to seat 3,755 people. From...

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[19] Back on Columbia Records and in the Spotlight

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pp. 169-176

About the time Marty returned to Columbia, the company released another compilation album. No Signs of Loneliness Here, which came out in November 1975, contained a selection of singles from the 1960s. The title track belonged to Lee Emerson, Marty’s former road...

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[20] The Marty Robbins Band on Tour

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pp. 177-188

In late 1977, Marty took his band to Australia, playing Sydney’s Opera House and shows in Perth, Adelaide, Brisbane, Canberra, and Hobart, Tasmania. Del Delamont remembers “lots of famous venues. We played the Palladium in London, we played the famous old theater...

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[21] Into the ’80s

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pp. 189-198

“I’ve never had the feeling I had it made,” Marty said in 1981. “I never felt like I could get by on what I had. I’ve always had this fear it could all be taken away.” He added, “I’ve got a long way to go before I can even feel safe. Maybe that’s what keeps me going. Besides, I don’t...

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[22] NASCAR—Phase Two

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pp. 199-202

Following Marty’s wrecks at Charlotte in 1974 and Daytona and Talladega in 1975, articles carried headlines such as “Marty Robbins Gives Up Racing!” He told reporters he had retired permanently from NASCAR. “I’ve had the prayers of a lot of people going out on that...

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[23] Super Legend

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pp. 203-211

New Year’s Day, 1981, after returning home from a three-show New Year’s Eve performance in Evansville, Indiana, Marty experienced chest pains. “I thought it was just an extra bad case of indigestion,” he said later, “because I’ve had a heart attack, and it was nothing like the one...

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[24] No Plans of Quitting Any Time Soon

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pp. 213-224

“Women just drooled over him,” Wayne Jackson says about Marty. “Sometimes we’d have to sit on the bus for two or three hours while he would be sitting on the side of the stage after a show. He would shake every man’s hand and kiss every woman on the cheek. And they all...

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[25] “I’ll Be Drifting Home”

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pp. 225-230

Marty wrapped up his 1982 touring with a post-Thanksgiving weekend in Pennsylvania and a quick trip to Cincinnati, while holding a recording session between them. On the evening of November 30, he recorded five songs, telling producer Bob Montgomery he...

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[26] Some Memories Just Won’t Die

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pp. 231-234

A cold steady rain fell in Nashville on Saturday morning, December 11, 1982. Mourners began filling the Woodlawn Funeral Home two hours before the eleven o’clock funeral service. The Woodlawn Chapel of Roses held three hundred people, and more than a thousand...

Image Plates

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Appendix: Band Members

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pp. 235-237


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pp. 239-271


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pp. 273-280

Further Reading, About the Author, Publication Information

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E-ISBN-13: 9780252094200
Print-ISBN-13: 9780252036323

Page Count: 320
Publication Year: 2012

Series Title: Music in American Life

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Robbins, Marty.
  • Country musicians -- United States -- Biography.
  • Automobile racing drivers -- United States -- Biography.
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