Country History X Episode #10 is a story of courage and character, and how a split second decision by country legend Marty Robbins on the racetrack forever changed the destiny of numerous people who would go on to help shape American culture.
• The Country History X Podcast looks to tell the history of country music, one story at a time. It primarily lives here on Saving Country Music, on YouTube (see below and subscribe), and is also available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Pocket Casts, and Anchor.
• Of all the stories in country music, this might be one of the most inspiring, and one that speaks to the true character of a country music legend. It’s also one that not many know.
• A full transcript and sources for the story can be found below.
Episode #9: Country Music’s Most Important Artifact
Episode #8: Randy Travis Versus Lib Hatcher
Episode #7: Johnny Cash, Joseph Stalin, & the Morse Code Crack
Episode #6: Waylon Jennings and the Cocaine Bear
Episode #5: The Tragic Life and Death of Keith Whitley
Marty Robbins. A Country Music Hall of Famer, and to many, the very symbol of indomitable class. Even to people who have little to no interest in country music, they still probably know Marty Robbins from his legendary song “El Paso.” Those who do have interest in country music know Marty Robbins as an absolute legend with a popular career spanning some 40 years, including being named the Academy of Country Music’s Artist of the Decade for the 1960’s, as well as being a Grand Ole Opry member. Along with helping to revive Western themes and subject matters in country music, Marty Robbins also contributed greatly to classic pop early in his career, and became one of country music’s early crossover stars.
But of all the accomplishments in the life of Marty Robbins—and there were many—or even many of the accomplishments of other country music greats throughout history, few can boast ownership in a moment where making one split decision very well could have altered the entire landscape of not just their own life and universe, but arguably altered life as we know it in popular American culture, at least when it comes to picking tunes and racing cars.
This is the story of how Marty Robbins saved the life of NASCAR titan Richard Childress.
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The career of Marty Robbins really was quite remarkable. He recorded some 500 songs, released over 50 albums and numerous other compilations, had over 100 singles, including 82 that charted in the Top 40, and 17 that reached the coveted #1 spot, including most that were written by Marty himself. That’s right, along with being a paramount performer, Marty Robbins was a highly-regarded songwriter as well, and is an inductee of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. Marty Robbins is also one of a few small handful of performers that had at least two Top 10 hits in four separate decades. And he did all of this while dying fairly young at the age of 57. Robbins was both prolific, and accomplished.
So just appreciate that at the same time Marty Robbins is forging this Hall of Fame career in country music, he was also elbow deep in a side hustle of racing stock cars, and not just on local tracks around Nashville or something, but at the highest level of the sport, the Grand National racing of NASCAR. And this wasn’t just some publicity stunt for Robbins. Marty competed in a total of 35 races throughout his NASCAR career, often running in the two biggest races of the year in Daytona and Talladega along with numerous other races when he could. And despite it being only a part-time hustle, he wasn’t half bad. Marty Robbins recorded six Top 10 finishes in his career, including a Top 5 at the Motor State 360 in Michigan in 1974.
The raising and young adult life of Marty Robbins directly influenced the direction his career would take. Born in the Phoenix, Arizona suburb of Glendale, his mother was mostly of Paiute Indian heritage. When his dad’s heavy drinking resulted in a divorce of his parents in 1937, Marty’s maternal grandfather who was also a local Medicine Man known as Texas Bob Heckle became a big influence on him. Texas Bob would tell young Marty many stories from the American West, which would later go on to inspire many of Marty’s Western ballads and story songs.
With nine other siblings and a somewhat broken home, Marty Robbins decided to enlist in the Navy at the age of 17. This was during World War II, and Marty worked as a coxswain, or the driver of one of the amphibious landing crafts that would deliver tanks onto the beach during battles in the Pacific Theater. It was during this time while stationed in the Solomon Islands that he learned the guitar and started writing songs to pass the time when he wasn’t engaged in combat.
Like many G.I.’s at the time, Marty Robbins fell in love with Hawaiian music while in the south Pacific. Though the steel guitar had already been introduced to the United States and in country music specifically, the appeal for that sound brought home by service members returning from the Pacific like Marty helped secure the instrument’s future in country music.
After Marty’s discharge in 1947, he moved back home to Phoenix, where he began performing in local clubs. And just like many of the performers of his time, Marty landed regular gigs playing live on both the radio and on television locally, which helped put him on the map. Hosting “Little” Jimmy Dickens on his local television show on Phoenix’s KPHO-TV is what eventually led to word being spread around Nashville about this Marty Robbins guy out in Phoenix, and eventually Robbins was signed to Columbia Records. Marty’s origin story in many ways parallels the one of Waylon Jennings, who also got his start as a solo artist in the Phoenix area, and was discovered when Bobby Bare heard him play, and brought word back to Nashville.
Marty’s very first song released by Columbia in 1952 called “I’ll Go On Alone” written by Marty himself shot straight to #1. His caramel voice chased by a little warble at the end of phrases melted listeners like warm butter, and Marty became an instant star. Just like his 2nd #1 in 1956—the now American standard “Singing The Blues” originally written by Melvin Endsley—Marty’s early style was very indicative of Hank Williams and the blues approach to country.
But after pop singer Guy Mitchell’s cover version of “Singing The Blues” quickly eclipsed Marty’s, Robbins decided to change directions in his style. Marty recruited the arranger of Guy Mitchell’s “Singing the Blues” song—the famous bandleader Ray Conniff—to arrange the music behind a song called “A White Sport Coat” that Marty wrote after driving past a high school prom. This opened up the Countrypolitan and pop phase of Marty’s career, with billowy choruses and lush arrangements brought to his songs as opposed to blues progressions and steel guitars. “A White Sport Coat” went #1, and crossed over to pop as well, ending up at #2. Now everyone knew who Marty Robbins was.
This all set up Marty Robbins to make his most lasting contribution to both country, and popular American music. Now established in his career and with an attentive audience, Marty Robbins set to writing and recording what would become his magnum opus, and it wasn’t emulating Hank Williams, or chasing fame in pop, but taking the inspirations from the stories his grandfather Texas Bob Heckle had told him, and his knowledge of Western songs accrued over the years, and recording the landmark album Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs.
Now you have to appreciate, this was all completely out of left field for both Marty Robbins and country music at the time. A couple of years before, he was singing about pink carnations on pop radio, and in 1959, country music had mostly moved on from the Gene Autry, Roy Rogers era of cowboy and Western songs. And here was Marty Robbins trying to revive old songs like “Billy The Kid” and “A Hundred and Sixty Acres,” and trying to contribute his own original works to the Western music songbook. The result was the most successful era of Marty’s career.
“El Paso” became a super hit and an American standard. The song “Big Iron” was a hit too, and went on to be covered by the likes of The Grateful Dead, to Social Distortion’s Mike Ness, to Johnny Cash during his American Recordings era, and even newer Western artists decades later such as Colter Wall. Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs wasn’t just a revitalization of Western music in country, it included some of Western music’s most lasting contributions.
Robbin’s continued to have more genteel hits in his career as well, like the melodramatic “My Woman, My Woman, My Wife.” Marty married Marizona Baldwin in 1948, and stayed married to her for 38 years all the way until his death. But songs like 1962’s “Devil Woman,” and 1976’s “El Paso City” which both went #1 called back to this Western flavor that became Marty’s signature. This also allowed Marty Robbins to keep a cool factor with listeners into the 70’s as the Outlaw movement took hold in country. Short haired and fresh faced early in his career, Marty Robbins adopted a denim look and bushy mustache later on, and survived the transition away from some of the Countrypolitan stars of the time.
All of this musical success made Marty Robbins a rich man, and gave him the opportunity between writing and recording songs and performing them live to pursue other passions. For Marty, this turned out satisfying his need for speed. Who knew auto racing would be Marty’s 2nd passion, but it grew into much much more than a hobby.
The first NASCAR race for Marty Robbins in the Grand National Series was in 1966 at the Nashville 500. Perhaps just as much of a promotional appearance as anything, he finished 25th. Marty Robbins also drove in some races in 1968 and 1970, then in 1971, Marty came in a respectable 15th at the World 600 race in Charlotte, North Carolina, and then 13th at a race at the Atlanta Motor Speedway. This gave Marty the confidence to form his own racing organization called Robbins Racing in 1972.
Marty claimed the number #42, and painted it on the side of a two tone magenta and chartreuse Dodge Charger that was built and maintained by fellow NASCAR driver Cotton Owens. In Marty’s official rookie year of 1972, he surprised everyone at the Winston 500 when he turned in qualifying laps 15 mph faster than everyone else. NASCAR was initially going to bestow Marty with the Rookie of the Race award, but before they did, he fessed up to removing the NASCAR-mandated restrictors out of the carburetor, later saying he quote, “just wanted to see what it was like to run up front for once.”
But Marty turned in two legitimate Top 10 finishes in 1972, and started to gain the respect of some of the NASCAR full-timers and oldtimers, but not all of them. Though a lot of the drivers admired Marty for his music, in the 70’s, one of the ways you gained respect among your fellow drivers was to roll up your sleeves and work on your own car. As a full-time musician, Marty Robbins had neither the time, nor the know-how for that, resulting in some razzing from his fellow drivers, including driver Richard Childress, who had started his own racing team in 1972 as well.
“Sure, Marty works on his car,” Richard Childress once told reporters. “Just the other day I saw him walking around with a can of wax getting ready to shine her up.”
Though Childress fielded a respectable driving career, competing in some 285 races and turning in almost 80 Top 10 finishes, his biggest contribution to the sport is when he retired in 1981, and put none other than Dale Earnhardt behind the wheel of his car. Unless you’ve been living on Mars with toilet plungers over your ears, you’re likely aware that Dale Earnhardt is arguably considered the greatest NASCAR driver of all time. It was the combination of Dale’s intimidating driving style, and the passion and commitment of Richard Childress as the owner that resulted in NASCAR championships in 1986, 1987, 1990, 1991, 1993, and 1994 for the pair. With the backing of Richard Childress, Dale Earnhardt helped put NASCAR on the national and international map.
But it all may have never happened. On October 6, 1974, the green flag was dropped on the Charlotte 500 at the Charlotte Motor Speedway, and after just the second lap of the race, Richard Childress and three other drivers wrecked along the front straightaway, strewing their cars across the track in a way that made them unavoidable to oncoming traffic, with the #96 of Richard Childress stranded right in the center of the speedway.
Directly proceeding the crash was none other than Marty Robbins, rounding the corner and doing some 160 mph, shocked to find four cars completely blocking the race track with nowhere to go, and his #42 Dodge bearing down on the driver’s side door of the Richard Childress car. Robbins recalls quote, “The only thing I knew was that there were people in those wrecked cars in front of me and I couldn’t hit one of them because they’d probably not walk away from it.” Unquote.
Richard Childress recalls of the moment quote, “I looked down the track and saw Marty coming right at me. I knew if he hit me in the driver’s side I’d either be mangled badly or killed. There was no way of me escaping injury and no way out of his path. Then I saw something I am still not sure I can believe.” Unquote.
With a split second to make a decision, and the possibility of killing Richard Childress or someone else if he didn’t make some sort of miraculous maneuver, Marty Robbins decided to risk his own life by cutting his steering wheel abruptly and plowing head on at 160 mph into the concrete side wall instead of T-boning into the pile of cars in front of him. Richard Childress remembers quote, “Marty turned the wheel of the car right and it veered into the concrete wall.”
Now remember, this was in 1974 before there were safer barriers, or neck harnesses, or concussion studies, or all the other safety procedures involved in auto racing today. This was a true stock car careening straight into a concrete wall with an incredible force of impact. A hush fell over the crowd as everyone came to their feet to see if Marty Robbins was okay. Then luckily, after about a minute, people could see movement inside the car, and Marty was slowly extricated out of the mangled wreckage.
The crowd let out a roar as Marty boarded a stretcher from an ambulance and was taken to the infield care center. Marty Robbins was later transferred to the Charlotte Memorial Hospital where he was treated for two broken ribs and a broken tailbone, and Marty received 32 stitches to close a gash between his eyes.
After the race, a NASCAR official was quoted saying, “What (Marty) did out there today saved at least one life and probably kept some other drivers from being maimed. He could have killed himself moving into that wall that way. But in the split second that counted he chose to possibly give his life over hurting somebody else. I don’t think you can be much more of a man than that.” Unquote.
After that, Marty Robbins was never razzed again for not working on his own car, by Richard Childress or anyone else. He was one of them. He was just as much a NASCAR driver as he was a country music superstar. On the racetrack, he’d proven his worth, his valor, and his character. For the rest of his life Marty Robbins walked around with a scar running between his eyes down to the bridge of his nose as a badge of courage. And not rattled by the incident, he returned to the track and continued to compete, trading in his Dodge Charger in 1978 for Dodge Magnum, which he raced in until 1980 when he made the move to a Buick Regal with his signature magenta and chartreuse paint scheme, which he raced in 1981 and 1982.
On December 2nd of 1982, Marty Robbins suffered what was his third heart attack after developing cardiovascular disease earlier in life, and underwent quadruple bypass surgery that he would never recover from. He died days later on December 8th, 1982 at the St. Thomas Hospital in Nashville. He was only 57 years old. The next year, NASCAR honored Marty by naming their annual race at the Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville the Marty Robbins 420. He was also honored in 2016 when driver Kyle Larson drove a throwback Marty Robbins car for the NASCAR Xfinity Series.
Meanwhile Richard Childress went on to become one of the most important NASCAR owners in history even beyond the Dale Earnhardt legacy, and is now one of the richest men in North Carolina, with grandsons Austin Dillon and Ty Dillon both becoming professional racecar drivers as well.
There are a lot of accolades that Marty Robbins is remembered for. Obviously in music, it’s songs like “White Sport Coat” and “El Paso,” and albums like Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs. In 1982 before he died, Marty Robbins appeared in the excellent country music movie Honkytonk Man directed and starring Clint Eastwood about an ailing country songwriter who gets his big break right before he dies. The song “Honkytonk Man” became Marty’s final Top 10 hit that year.
Marty Robbins also has the honor of being the inspiration for the name of fellow country artist Marty Stuart, who was named Marty by his mother who was a big Marty Robbins fan. Some also attribute a Marty Robbins recording session in 1961 when session guitarist Grady Martin plugged a six-string bass guitar into a faulty channel in the mixing console to inventing the “fuzz guitar” effect via Marty’s song “Don’t Worry,” though some other guitar aficionados dispute this claim.
But the story of the valor that Marty Robbins displayed on the NASCAR track in 1974 is one that often goes untold and overlooked. It had been virtually lost to the internet age until yours truly stumbled upon it in an old copy of Country Song Roundup Magazine from March 1975 where the story had been reported in depth. Hearing what he did with a split second to act makes you look at Marty Robbins the man in an entirely different light. Marty Robbins didn’t just sing about the old cowboy heroes in his songs of the West, Marty was a hero in real life.
Country Song Roundup Magazine – March 1975
Twentieth Century Drifter: The Life of Marty Robbins – Diane Diekman – July 17, 2015