Can it be true that at age 40 Charlie Robison is no longer the life of the party? The Texan is sleeping off a two-week road trip promoting yet another fine album, "Good Times," after hitting radio stations and shows. In other words, the guy needs some rest after being up from early morning for radio station visits until two or three the next morning, a situation that "has taken its toll," says Robison in an interview from his ranch in Medina, Texas.
But Robison must make the push. It's been three long years since Robison released his last album, and a lot has changed for Robison in the interim, both personally and professionally.
When asked if the period between "Good Times" and 2001's "Step Right Up" seemed long to him," Robison says, "It really did. On stage, I was thinking if I don't get some new songs up there, I'm going to shoot myself. I'm playing these same songs every night. Especially for folks (who put) as much time on the road as I do, that's a big motivator to record new songs."
The time off did not seem to affect Robison's breakneck speed in the studio though. Going in with producer Lloyd Maines, Robison required all of a week to record 11 songs.
"We share the same brain in the studio," says Robison. "There's not much arguing. We expedited things pretty well."
Robison says he picked up on one of the key differences between the albums by reading reviews. "People give me a perspective with reviews that I haven't thought of," he says. "I feel I've written a whole lot more from the first person. (On) the other records, I kind of veiled the things I've written about myself and put it in the third person. It's more transparent of where I am in my life and who I am in my life."
"When your life changes so much - you get married, you settle down and have a kid, you change the way you think of things even though you don't realize it. That kind of creeps in there."
"I actually thought about it," says Robison of the changes. "I was just...wondering when it's written and when it's done, in hindsight when I look back, how much of those things am I going to see in the finished product?"
"I wasn't really consciously doing it at the time," he says. "I was curious in hindsight how I had changed musically because you never know until the record's done."
With a lot of good time songs on past albums, often about down and outers, Robison says they "didn't give much insight into the person - I liked to goof off...It kind of seemed like this was the record I was practicing to make with the other ones."
While "Good Times" focuses on the down and outers and also lives up to is title, Robison does get more personal.
The tender "Photograph" is a generational song about remembering his grandfather, divorced parents and now his own family with the tag line "though I don't remember it, it still makes me laugh/When I see us together in a photograph."
"It's meant to leave yourself with the thought that for your grandkids, you're going to be just a photograph some day. It's a tribute song, but it's also a song make you ponder mortality a little bit."
But don't think Robison went totally serious. The bluesy "Loves Means Never Having to Say You're Hungry" could be interpreted as about his wife's good cooking with lines like "Well you know I love her biscuits/you know I love her buns/You know I'll eat her brisket/I ain't ever had more fun" or as Robison says on the phone about the lyrics, "Read it again."
Dixie Chicks lead singer Natalie Maines, daughter of Lloyd, sang backing vocals on Keith Gattis' "El Cerrito Place." Robison wasn't necessarily looking for her contribution, though it wasn't the first time. She did an exquisite duet with Robison on "The Wedding Song" last time out.
Maines hung at the studio this time around.
"In looking at a very musical family and friends, my wife (Emily of the Chicks), Martie (his sister in law and fellow Chick), Kelly (Willis, wife of his musician brother Bruce) and Lloyd, if they have an idea about something, my ears are wide open. The song was finished, and she took it home with her. She knows she has my trust. She went in there and did the harmony part without asking me. I knew it was going to be fine. I trusted her."
"She was in and out while Lloyd and I were mixing. Her husband is one of my best friends. We were just kind of hanging out when we were mixing. She got (doing background vocals) in her head."
One thing very different for Robison was that he actually enjoyed the recording process, something he describes typically "as arduous for me. With this record, I didn't want it to end. I had a good time making it. It was really fun. Everything really felt in place."
"Everything went straight down to tape," he says of the actual recording. "Everything was first, second or third takes."
The new album is a bit less bright and more toned down from "Step Right Up." Robison says he thinks this album also is different because it is more groove oriented.
"I went in there with the thought of making a '70s record. Whether it's a Jackson Browne or Eagles or Bad Company, these records of the '70s had these laid back bounces all through them instead of ballads and 4/4. I didn't really want any (of this) to be your straight ahead stuff. I wanted it to be a very groove oriented thing."
A key ingredient to making "Good Times" was working with Lloyd Maines again. Maines produced "Bandera," Robison's indie album from 1995, and he also was at the helm for 1998's "Life of the Party." But last time out, Robison co-produced with Blake Chancey of Sony.
Robison's comfort level seemed higher in the studio this time.
"It went down really cool," he says. "It was working with Lloyd again, and I think it also had to do with that got out of my contract with Sony and didn't have suits looking over my shoulder all the time (saying) 'we need a hit, or you can't say this word in a song'. It was nice being in there and the expectations being mine and no one else's."
While Robison says he was pleased overall with his stint on Sony's Lucky Dog imprint, he was not happy about being part of the big label machine and its influence on him as an artist and the need for hits.
"You couldn't help (it). They tell you that every day - we need a single. Here's some outside songs from outside writers. It was a constant struggle. It wasn't an implied thing. It was an implicit thing. It's nice having a big machine behind you, but in the end, the scales don't balance. It wasn't worth having that huge Sony machine when I would just argue with people all the time."
When Lucky Dog started, the intent was for Sony to have a boutique, alternative sounding type of country where folks like Robison, his brother Bruce (who also left Lucky Dog to release his own songs) and others would fit. There did not seem to be the pressure of needing to rack up big sales or radio hits.
"It started out that way," says Robison.
But then came "Life of the Party," which sold far more than expected at more than 100,000 units and had a single, "Barlight," on the charts for about eight months despite never being a hit.
"With that came now Sony is always going to be (pushing) a story about something (regarding me)," he says. "It can't be just the music. 'Okay, from out of nowhere, this indie guy is the next big thing'. They moved me to Columbia and then (told me) we need hits. You can still be artistic, and we still need three or four songs off the record we can push to country radio. I had a couple of singles that did pretty well, and then I was on these package tours with Billy Ray Cyrus and people like that. That's not what I had in mind."
"People are always looking for the major label and wanting to be on big tours, and I was just on the opposite. I wanted to go back to playing theatres and big clubs and playing my own shows."
As for touring with Cyrus, "that didn't last very long. I did a long time with Travis Tritt. He's looked at one of the cooler (artists), and he's a great guy. Other than the audience knowing the two songs from radio, (with) my other songs, you could see their jaws dropping. It definitely wasn't the right crowd to be in front of. I'm not a singles driven artist."
A fortuitous mistake by Sony enabled him to leave the label. When a new label head came on, apparently the label neglected to exercise its option at retaining Robison.
And Robison was quite happy to be a free agent. "I was trying to find some way to get out of there," he says.
"I really had a really good time for the most part," Robison says of his stint with Sony. "It wasn't anything personal like that. Sometimes in your life, it's time to move on."
Next stop was Dualtone.
"I wanted to be able to pick (my next label). I financed my record myself. I kind of listened to different people - their sales pitch. A lot of people wanted the record. Dualtone had the experience of getting stuff on the country chart. They had experience with AAA. That's the best of both worlds. Most boutique labels they're either very good at AAA or country or Americana. They had a handle because of everybody who had worked there. I felt like it would be the best."
Robison didn't bother trying to go the self-released route. "That's too much work. I had a ranch to run."
Ranching has been part of the Robison family in Texas since the 1840's. Robison lives with wife Emily and son Gus outside of San Antonio right next to his father's ranch Between the two, they have a 2,000-acre ranch of cattle, quarter horses and round bales of hay.
For Robison, the ranch is a welcome diversion from music.
"I definitely couldn't do one without the other. They're very symbiotic for me. I really get a lot of inspiration to ranch from music and to do music from ranching. The two things are so far apart, there's really not a bleedover. When you're working the ranch, you're not really thinking about music."