Juanita Najera swears she is not fanatical about Marty Robbins. A fan, yes, but not fanatical.
Yet it is because of Marty Robbins that she moved from back East to Glendale to live in the town of Robbins' birth--to live, in fact, in the house formerly occupied by Robbins' twin sister.
From 1955 until Robbins died of a heart attack in 1982, Najera saw him perform many times all over the country. She's stood in lines after shows to snare autographs and a few precious seconds with her idol. She's collected roomfuls of Marty-related mementos. She has hours of Marty's performances recorded on videotape. She once paid $2,000 for one of his belts. After all, she's a fan. Najera first heard Marty Robbins' voice on the radio more than 40 years ago; the poor teenager from Roan Mountain, Tennessee (population 850), was instantly smitten.
There was something in that voice, something that grabbed Juanita and wouldn't let go, which was fine by her.
"Tomorrow You'll Be Gone," "I'll Go on Alone," "I Couldn't Keep From Crying"--those first three appealingly painful singles were chronological chapters of loneliness, fully emoted in less than three minutes each. She had to know more about this fellow with the smooth, teardrop tenor pouring his broken heart through the radio speaker.
Juanita, who didn't own a record player, bought a record she couldn't afford just to see the face attached to this voice. She was not disappointed.
Thus began a devotion that has lasted more than 40 years. Through the changes in Najera's life--raising a family, the death of one husband and the marriage to another, the cross-country moves--Robbins' music has been a constant. And now she wants to bring his memory back to Glendale.
This is the story of what Marty Robbins did for Juanita Buckley Najera, and what Juanita Buckley Najera wants to do for Marty Robbins. "My other husband and I were looking for a place to retire, and this is the only place in Arizona we could agree that we liked," says Najera. "The reason I liked it here [in Glendale] was because this is where Marty was born. That was the only reason. When I first came to Arizona in '69, I felt like I had come home. I felt like I belonged here."
When she made that first pilgrimage/vacation, Najera was shocked to discover that Glendale seemed to have all but forgotten its famous native son. Thus, she found her mission. "I wanted to see if they had anything of Marty here, and they did not. It disappointed me; I guess they were waiting for me to come and do it."
"It" is the Marty Robbins Glendale Exhibit (she can't call it a museum for legal reasons, because there's already the Marty Robbins Museum in Nashville), a grandiose monument to the C&W star that has become Najera's lifework. On display will be her collection of Robbins memorabilia. "I started collecting as a teenager," she states in a quiet voice. "As I got more money, I collected everything I could get my hands on." Najera is also president of The Friends of Marty Robbins, a nonprofit, 70-member organization sponsored by the city whose sole purpose is to move the exhibit from Najera's dreams into Glendale's reality. The Friends are holding their third annual Marty Robbins tribute concert this week to raise funds for the project. So far, the group has generated "about $3,000," she says. But it'll take considerably more than that to create the exhibit Najera is planning. This will be much more than a mere display of Robbinsania. "I'll need a large building," she explains. "I want to rent some of it out to various businesses. I have in my mind to ask El Paso Barbeque, since that would fit right in with Marty Robbins [one of his biggest hits was the Western anthem "El Paso"]. I want to have a chapel where you can go and worship or get married with Marty Robbins' music. And I want a theatre to play everything that's on videotape of Marty, and to hold concerts there."
Ambitious, yes, but Najera says--with a piercing righteouness that is impossible to fake--that it's all for the love of Marty. "I don't want to make anything from it. I just want to be able to enjoy it along with everybody else."
Look around inside the neat, suburban home Juanita shares with her second husband, Richard, and you won't see the abode of some Elvis-worshiping-type crazed disciple. There are no posters, no lamp icons, no cheesy wall clocks emblazoned with Robbins' image. Really, nothing that smacks of Marty meets the eye. There are a couple of nicely framed wedding shots of Najera and a beaming Richard, who walks into the room blowing into a cup of hot coffee. Glance at the man, take in his image in the wedding pictures; there's something about the smile, maybe the nose, something vague yet reminiscent in his looks of, well, Marty Robbins.
Point out the resemblance to the reserved Juanita and she is momentarily stunned, caught off-guard. Then a giggle comes out, one that belongs to a teenager back in Roan Mountain, Tennessee. "Well, you know, I never told him that!"
Richard sits back on the couch with a puzzled smile. "It's news to me!" he says.
"My husband says I put him [Robbins] on a pedestal, which I don't, but . . ."
"She does," he says casually and flatly, interrupting. You get the feeling that he's used to this, yet he's not resentful. But what's there to be jealous of? "He's dead," Richard says with a shrug. "There's nothing to be jealous of. He was a very good singer, though, if you ever heard him sing. . . . I got no qualms with it; it just does get tiring. I need a break from it sometimes; she doesn't."
Far from just practicing tolerance, Richard is a fan, as well, and vice president of The Friends of Marty. "I had a premonition many years ago that I was going to meet Marty Robbins or have something to do with him," he reveals. "Then he died, and I thought, 'Scratch that.' But now I'm painting his portrait, I've done logos, I'm emceeing the shows; sometimes it's Marty 24 hours a day." Though most of Juanita's memorabilia is safely locked away in a fireproof storage vault, Martyesque things begin to emerge from shelves and drawers. She offers a stack of sheet music of Robbins' tunes, thumbs through the pages. A copy of Thelonious Monk's "Round Midnight" emerges. "This is not his," Juanita says, sniffing. "I don't know what it's doing here."
A photo album is next. "See this?" she says, pointing to a color snapshot of nothing in particular. "See this empty lot?" says Juanita, stabbing at the photo. "He used to live in a house that was here, but I took a picture of an empty lot."
The scrapbook tour continues with shots of her standing in someone's living room swaddled in a racecar-driver's jumpsuit, a few sizes too large. "That's me in Marty's race suit [Robbins was an accomplished amateur NASCAR driver], and this is me in his outfit here," she says, turning the page. This photograph captures Juanita in jeans, the $2,000 belt and a denim shirt. The clothes seem unremarkable, but they did, of course, belong to Marty Robbins. The chance for Najera to don the duds of her hero came through her friendship with Robbins' sister, Mamie, who still lives in Arizona. "Oh, my God! I was so nervous, I just could not believe it," Juanita gushes, recalling her emotions when the pictures were taken. "She [Mamie] thought I was nuts. She said, 'I like Merle Haggard, but I wouldn't want to wear his clothes and buy his sister's house.'" It's doubtful that Marty Robbins will soon be forgotten. In a career that lasted more than 30 years, his songs--"Devil Woman," "A White Sport Coat (And a Pink Carnation)," "El Paso," "I Walk Alone," "Big Iron," to name a few--were rarely off the charts. He acted in 12 films and, in 1982, just months before his death, he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
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The niche that Juanita wants to carve out, her contribution to the memory of the man that gave her so many memories, is simply one of hometown recognition. It all began for Robbins right here in Glendale, an untapped market of homage space.
There are, of course, other country-music heroes from the Valley. Many people know of Waylon Jennings' early years on Phoenix radio and in local clubs, and ex-Chandler resident Buck Owens (he was even baptized there) is still a powerful name here as the owner of country station KNIX-FM. Or, as Richard puts it: "Buck Owens? He ain't even dead yet." Why not give Robbins and Glendale the recognition they deserve?
All well and good, but is this just the pipe dream of an overzealous Marty freak? It's a long way from $3,000 to a museum that includes restaurants, a chapel and a theatre, no matter how many fund raisers you throw. Juanita Najera doesn't bat an eye at the suggestion; somehow, that's not a surprise. "It's a longtime dream," she says softly. "I'm just a devoted fan, and I want to do something. I won't go to my grave until all this is done.