Roots Watch: Reading Marty Robbins, Dwight Yoakam–and James Brown

Barry Mazor | May 8th, 2012

Pulling off a musical biography well is not easy.  Trust me; I’m spending much of my own time these days working on one, (on roots music A&R and publishing pioneer Ralph Peer). From short profile articles to full-length books, there are questions for the writer—focus, depth, audience, and how to go about it. I have truckloads of regard and empathy for anybody who takes on all of that seriously—which brings us to three new musical biographies out just now, which show some unexpected parallels among their subjects.

Diane Diekman, who wrote about Faron Young previously, brings us Twentieth Century Drifter: The Life of Marty Robbins, a very worthy subject. The man was a talent, as Diekman reminds us, who would need to go on last at Opry performances because the audiences wanted and got much, much more of him than regular slot time allowed.  He was, as I see it, one of country’s most versatile and effective singers, as at home with crooner ballads and rockabilly as with the “El Paso” sort of gunfighter/Mexicana story songs he’s best remembered for now. But for a guy who put 94 songs on the charts over 30 years (some of them so successful as pop that many didn’t realize he was country) was a celebrated live draw, a movie producer, and an attention-grabbing NASCAR driver to boot, he didn’t like talking about what he did very much.

With that handicap, Diekman does a good job of showing the insecurities and poverty-ridden raising that lurked behind that reticence—and also his controlling heavy-handedness with those who worked for him.  It was clearly a challenge to get much of his voice or recollections into the story, and he was not, apparently, a guy with a lot of wild compelling episodes in his life to make up for that in color. The author candidly states her own sense of limitation as a critic or describer of music, and the book isn’t intended to be an appreciation of how and why we should care about Marty today—probably limiting its potency for those who are not already committed fans, though there are clearly many for whom Robbins is a fuzzy figure that by now could use a compelling introduction. What this book offers is a careful researched succession of events—this gig, that record, then that race. It will fill in a lot of gaps for Robbins fans, and that, it seems, is the audience this one’s for.

Dwight Yoakam, by contrast, is very much among us, and an energetic and colorful conversationalist, which gives Don McLeese, my fellow senior editor at the old print No Depression magazine, a  (tight-jeaned?) leg up on Dwight Yoakam: A Thousand Miles from Nowhere, though Dwight only made himself available for one apparently filibuster-like interview. McLeese started out to write an appreciation of Mr. Yoakam’s musical contributions, but discovered how surprisingly little bio reporting there’d ever been on him over the years, decided to fill that gap, and the book evolved into a “life and art” biography, not too epic in length, but shaped to make some points about the man and artist.

McLeese is particularly good at dealing with the self-awareness, calculation and image construction that lay behind Dwight’s talk, his stage presentation, his music, and even the public understanding of his background—which was never quite as simply downhome as it’s been useful to suggest. Rather than knee-jerk discussions of “authenticity” in Yoakam’s self-presentation, the author recognizes and accepts the show business in this actor’s act and judges the result capably, on its own terms.

McLeese also sheds light  on a major achievement for which Dwight doesn’t often get enough credit, as the performer who successfully did what Gram Parsons only hoped to—brought rock attitude and approach into an updated (if highly defined) sort of hardcore country music and got accepted by the country audience, not just rock followers, as a country performer. That strikes me as a very important and real contribution, but it also leaves a question hanging there, because McLeese rather consistently uses a broad brush in decrying assumed and unspecified horrors of the evil Nashville artifice machine, and privileges the tastes and choices of the indie rock/ punk rock audience over country’s.  Where then, you have to wonder, lies Dwight’s special accomplishment in winning over the mainstream country audience, an audience that would go for other flavors of loud, stagey rock in arenas just a few years after he came along, which, the same book suggests, marked them as uncool suckers for marketing?  Unanswered, In any case, this is a good, provocative read; it will get you thinking–and going back to Yoakam records.

And then there’s R.J. Smith’s The One: The Life and Music of James Brown, which, is the musical bio of 2012 and likely to remain so. Smith shapes his words, sentences, paragraphs and chapters like Mr. Brown did his shows, memorably and potently, with a punch. (Huh!) Artfully, he ties together the story of the man and the impulses behind his undeniably vital musical contributions—the urge to build personal power and identity behind Brown’s shifting that R&B beat to funk  “on the One,” that the title refers to. Smith gets inside this life, and this music. James Brown was at least as insecure (and therefore controlling) in his way as Marty Robbins, and, of course, at least as talkative and in charge of his on-stage image as Dwight.  There’s a continuing theme in the book which will surprise some—the streetwise Brown’s very Southern side, which leads Smith to refer to him at one point as “Soul Bubba Number One,” which goes hand in hand with his continuing relation to country music, from his very early roots not just in blues and gospel, as you’d expect, but playing washtub bass in a small Georgia town where African-American Appalachian string bands were still popular, working up a version of “Hey Good Lookin” with the earliest Flames, recording repeatedly in the studio of Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith, eventually appearing on the Opry. This is the sort of revelatory book that comes along only once in a long time, about one of the 20th century’s most influential music originators. Highly recommended.

By the way: Three new CDs I also recommend: If all you know of Cowboy Copas is that the died in the crash with Patsy Cline, check out the new Cowboy Copas: Complete Hit Singles A’S & B’s and hear the sound of a winning artist who combined traits of the county crooners,  Ernest Tubb honky tonk and folk balladry.  Mark Collie & His Reckless Companions’ Alive at Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary, ten years in the making, delivers quality edgy, rough, hard country—with on-disc assists from Kelly Willis, Gatemouth Brown, and Shawn Camp. And Sara Watkins’ Sun Midnight Sun marks her arrival as a distinctive, no-nonsense adult music maker, with indie rock and pop assimilated into a fresh set of melodic, pointed, surprising songs, well played and sung, quite different from Nickel Creek material, and one of the most impressive releases from anybody so far this year.

  1. timeo
    May 8, 2012 at 2:26 pm

    It’s a shame the Marty Robbins book isn’t better. I read it too and thought it seemed flat — fine in terms of reciting dates and documenting when band members came and went, yet not offering much insight into the man or his music.

    I’ve always had this sense Robbins was a fascinating guy, but this book doesn’t provide much insight. He could perform both hard-core hillbilly and cocktail lounge smooth jazz with equal comfort. He introduced Mexican influences into country music long before Johnny Cash had a vision of mariachi horns on “Ring of Fire.” Robbins (to use Bob Dylan’s song title) pitied the poor immigrant, having grown up with Mexican-Americans and professing a lifelong affection for their music, yet he was an arch-conservative whose own record label nixed some records for being too right wing.

    He wrote and sang a lot of first-person songs about the execution of killers (“They’re Hanging Me Tonight,” “Kate,” “The Chair” — even “El Paso”). Yet this theme is barely touched on: Why did he dwell on that topic? Did his sympathies lie more with the crime or the punishment?

    Robbins was an early patient of open-heart surgery, yet what must have been a grueling recovery is hardly discussed. He had a long marriage — a rarity in show business — but his wife and her impact on his music is barely discussed, though there are vague suggestions they may have had a unconventional marriage.

    It’s just very frustrating … you sense there’s an interesting story there, but for whatever reason the author chooses not to go there.

    Oddly enough, there’s lots of detail about his NASCAR career, which, though I remember he was passionate about it, really wasn’t much more than a hobby. Still, there are many anecdotes about how his character was reflected in the way he raced and his determination to keep doing it long after it ceased to be medically practical for him to do so. It’s a shame similar analysis couldn’t have made its way into the discussion of Robbins’ accomplished musical career.

  2. Barry Mazor
    May 8, 2012 at 2:39 pm

    There was, fyi, Timeo, an earlier Robbins bio, over 20 years back, by Barbara JPruett..

  3. Diane Diekman
    May 8, 2012 at 6:38 pm

    Barbara Pruett’s book was a bibliography–it was a list of sources and interviews. As I mentioned in “Twentieth Century Drifter,” she hoped someone would use her book some day to write Marty’s biography. And I did. I would have loved to provide more detail about Marty’s life, if I could have found it. He talked freely about NASCAR, and I got that information from his interviews. He also talked about the music business. He did not talk about Marizona or his personal life and feelings. Most of his band members never met Marizona, and interviewers were shut down for asking questions that he considered too personal. I felt fortunate to learn as much as I did in researching his youth as Martin David Robinson. If Marty had lived another 20-30 years, he might have become willing to discuss his Navy combat and his family life. But he was gone at the young age of 57.

  4. Barry Mazor
    May 8, 2012 at 8:47 pm

    Nice to hear from you, Diane. You’re right, of course; the earlier book was on the academic side, and I do empathize, as I trust I made clear, with both the importance of the topic and the challenges in tackling it.

  5. luckyoldsun
    May 8, 2012 at 11:43 pm

    “Robbins was an arch-conservative whose own record label nixed some records for being too right wing.”

    That’s the first I’ve heard that. I don’t recall any of Robbins records seeming political or topical. They lyrics were generally timeless or throwbacks to an earlier era.

  6. Diane Diekman
    May 9, 2012 at 8:35 am

    Yes, you made that clear, Barry, and I thank you for reviewing the book. LuckyOldSun, you never heard Marty’s most controversial record because it didn’t get released. The official recording log of Marty’s Columbia sessions has a line drawn through “Ain’t I Right” and a handwritten Do Not Use in parentheses next to it. Producer Don Law assigned a release number and sent the single to Columbia headquarters in New York City, where it was rejected. “The country’s full of two-faced politicians,” Marty sang. He called the act of burning draft cards “a get-acquainted communistic kiss.” The flipside was “My Own Native Land,” a complaint about foreign aid: “We give to those who quickly take it, posing as a friend, and just as quickly turn and bite that hand that’s feeding them.”

  7. Don Mcleese
    May 9, 2012 at 8:55 am

    Barry, I really appreciate the attention and the incisive reading. I admit that I come at this more from the rock side, though I’ve always enjoyed a lot of contemporary mainstream country. What strikes me as singular about Dwight’s achievement was not only his popularity among country fans, but the way he simultaneously retained credibility among rock fans who otherwise don’t follow much country music, listen to country radio, go to other country concerts, etc. I mean, there would subsequently be a whole lof of rock in, say, a Brooks and Dunn show, but their fans would primarily if not exclusively identify as country fans. And there might be a lot of country in the music of Lucinda Williams or Joe Ely, but they would receive no exposure through conventional country channels. Rock and commercial, contemporary country remain totally different worlds, and no one has come close to bridging them as successfully as Dwight has.

  8. Rick
    May 11, 2012 at 9:04 pm

    The only Cowboy Copas song I’m really familiar with is “Alabam”, and that seems adequate for me. Sara Watkin’s new album must be quite a step up from her lackluster previous effort which was completely unremarkable, so I’m glad to read Sara is heading in the right direction. I’ve never cared for Mark Collie and I’m not about to start now, although its nice to read about what you find worthy Barry.

    James Brown’s music never held much appeal for me. I’ve always found the music of contemporary artists like Chuck Berry and Sam Cooke to be far more interesting and enjoyable. The on stage James Brown persona seemed like an over the top shtick to me whether Pappa had a brand new bag or not…

  9. Jon
    May 11, 2012 at 9:53 pm

    “The only Cowboy Copas song I’m really familiar with is “Alabam”, and that seems adequate for me.”

    Your loss.

  10. Barry Mazor
    May 12, 2012 at 12:16 am

    Sorry to waste so much of your valuable time Rick.

  11. luckyoldsun
    May 12, 2012 at 1:56 am

    Mark Collie made some great albums on MCA in the early ’90s, including the original and best version of “Born and Raised In Black and White.” He didn’t quite make it. I think it was because radio at the time was heavily into Garth and all the Randy Travis/George Strait “New Traditonal” hat act clones–and in that environment, Collie sounded maybe a little too rough-edged. With a couple of breaks or if he had come along a little bit earlier, he might’ve been a star.

  12. Leeann Ward
    May 12, 2012 at 9:20 am

    I’ve always liked Collie’s “Even the Man on the Moon is Crying.” On the “Brushy Mountian” album, I especially like the contributions with Kelly Willis.

  13. Leeann Ward
    May 12, 2012 at 9:32 am

    I’ve warmed up to the new Sara Watkins album, but I still much prefer her debut, which is certainly different than Sun Midnight Sun.

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