Charlie Robison steps right up

Jeffrey B. Remz, March 2001

Last time out, Charlie Robison's major label debut was entitled "Life of the Party."

Only there was no song by that name among the 12.

Fast forward a few years to "Step Right Up," the Texan's follow-up album. Closing track - you got it - "Life of the Party," about a husband and wife who seem to know their way around the good times quite well.

And showing that he isn't afraid to push the envelope, Robison manages lyrical twists and turns. Just when the listener thinks a scatological reference will rhyme with words like "Duck" as in drinking Cold Duck, Robison keeps it clean and humorous ("she took me round back and we sucked the rest of that bottle").

Don't ex-pect this song to be riding the top of the charts even if the label is making a push behind the album.

"It was one of those things where people al-ways called me that," says Robison in a telephone interview from his ranch in Comfort, Texas about "life of the party."

"I called (the album) that after the nicknames I had. It's on all the t-shirts, records. It's everywhere. It's seems kind of ridiculous that there's not a song called that. I'll start a tradition. Maybe for the next album, I'll have a song called 'Step Right Up.' So, retroactively, I'll write a title song for the last album."

Robison says his label did not have much of an issue with the song's lyrics.

"They pretty much know me by now. They know it's better just not to argue," Robison says. "I've pretty much said, 'this is who you signed.' I'm not going to media school. I'm not going to talk about the Opry or anything like that. I'm going to talk about stuff that matters to me."

"That's why everything has gone so well," he says. "People feel left out by the country (today). People are censoring what they are say. Talk like people talk. You tell a dirty joke or talk about stupid stuff or what you heard on then news today. Everything people talk about is not heartache. It's about different stuff."

The stakes may be high for Robison, one of two brothers (Bruce) on the Sony/Lucky Dog label. That's because Charlie Robison's debut managed to hang around long enough to accumulate sales of more than 100,000.

In this day and age of megasellers, that may not sound like a whole lot. But consider that Robison had nothing even approaching a hit single.

"Life of the Party" proved to be an ultraslow burner. The disc received positive reviews, but aside from Ameri-cana radio, received little airplay.

Except 18 months after its fall 1998 release, Robison managed to stick around the lower depths of the singles charts with"Barlight," a catchy drinking song.

"I was feeling great. I thought success for that record would be about 40,000 units. It would get me on the road. When I go on the road, it would be in stores."

"It feels very good because it wasn't a publicity driven machine as much as it was a lot of word of mouth. A lot of people playing it for people. That's the only way it can be explained."

"When you don't have the tour support, sometimes it's hard to build in certain markets. I was happy the whole time. Every week, the Sound-scan would come back with like a 10-percent gain. I felt like I was doing something right."

"When you get to a position of strength, it doesn't last that long. But right now things are going very well. I feel like I'm in a good place. It was a long time coming. I had to go through a lot of crap, but it was worth it to get here."

Some in the industry have wondered whether Robison may be the singer who puts Americana music - that neither here nor there blend of country, folk, bluegrass, blues and other genres that doesn't have a ready-made home on radio - on the map big time.

"I don't really take much stock in that. Any time you're a poster boy for anything, that definitely has a shelf life. I've never liked to be alt.-country or no depression or anything like that because the minute that movement dies, and they always do, you go down with it. There's good music and there's bad music. and hopefully people will consider my ' music good. Some of it's country. Some of it's not country. It is what it is."

"I'm certainly going to let anything make me dress different or act different," he says.

Robison, 36, grew up in the small town of Bandera, Texas, population about 790, just a bit northwest of San Antonio. His family - Robison is a sixth generation Texan - owned a ranch there, eking out a living.

"It was cool. You kind of got the best of both worlds. It was an unbelievable ranching community. I grew up on all the working on all the ranches. Cowboying and hauling hay and then working on the pipeline. Then at night, we'd put on our Okies and play gigs at 14 or 15 years old. Bandera, unlike most places, was a very big entertainment center. People would come from all over Europe to these dude ranches. You weren't just around from a small town. From the time I was eight years old, I was around a lot of Europeans, a lot of people from New York. You got a different feel from most people in Texas."

The Robison family now has two cattle ranches. There's one family ranch. Robison and wife Emily, one of the Dixie Chicks, own the other. There are about 100 head of cattle between the two, lots of horses and Spanish goats.

"I've been up feeding cattle and building fences all morning," says Robison

Robison's ancestors settled in the Bandera area in the 1840's. "I've got a heritage that I'm tied to that I can't leave. That's the reason I'm not in Nashville. I've got a lot of great friends in Nashville. There are a lot of great people there, but I'm not so much like them. I fit in here a whole lot better. They've got a thing called planes now."

Robison says his future is "just in Texas. It's the only place we'll ever live."

The love of the music came from family and Dean Martin.

"My parents and grandparents were big fans. My great great uncles played the fiddle and stuff. My family worked real hard on the ranch, and they didn't make much money. It was hard way to go."

"I remember being four or five, and the Dean Martin Hour came on TV. I remember him walking down the stairs with a cig and martini and all these beautiful women. It was like three sheets to the wind. He didn't know his lines. I knew he was millionaire. I'd rather make money like that than digging (post) holes."

Robison got the musical bug for real at 15 when he played the drums thanks to a purchase by his grandmother. He did not have much choice in picking the instrument for the band he joined. Brother Bruce already locked up the bass part, and the other instruments were taken.

"We'd play a Johnny Bush song. We'd play a Grand Funk song. We knew we had to play country songs, but then we'd start playing these other things. We were just finding what we liked at that point. There were not any boundaries as far as what we were doing. We played Black Sabbath songs."

Robison put in a stint at Southwest Texas State, the university that produced President Lyndon B. Johnson, but like he said in his song "My Hometown," spent most of his time in the local beer halls rather than the study halls and classrooms.

He went there on a football and baseball scholarship. "I really wanted to play music, but I figured that it would be great to have the college experience. I always wanted to get out of Bandera. I thought college would be this great place with liberal minds like you'd see on 'The Paper Chase.' It was kind of like high school with a lot more beer. I was a little disillusioned."

He continued playing music in college.

After three years there, Robison was off to Austin to try his musical luck. "That was all I wanted to do. I went in Antone's (club) and said I wasn't going to leave until I made it."

He joined such bands as Two Hoots and a Holler, Chaparral and Charlie Robison and Millionaire Playboys with whom he recorded a six-song cassette.

Of his experience with the bands, Robison says, "It was kind of retro. It was wider Foster & Lloyd, Steve Earle-y kind of stuff. It was the late '80's when the new breed of country was starting to happen. I was just starting to find myself a songwriter."

He struck out on his own as a solo artist in 1995 , releasing "Bandera" that year.

"Bandera" featured such songs as "Barlight," which reappeared on "Life of the Party" and "Desperate Times," making a redux on "Step Right Up," plus brother Bruce's "Red Letter Day."

"I was getting into the real coffeehouse singer songwriter kind of thing two or three years before recording that record."

"In those days, I got one (a day job) every now and then. Yeah, we were making a living," Robison says.

"My goal was to be Guy Clark. That was who I wanted to be or Townes or John Prine. I never wanted to be a megastar. I wanted to be one of those people who supported themselves well, but were well respected as well."

Next stop was Nashville for a few minutes with Warner Brothers. Robison recorded an entire album for the label, but the suits wanted Robison to include a few more radio friendly songs.

"They felt they had almost a whole record cut. They gave it to promotions, and they said didn't feel had enough commercial stuff. I wanted to go in a completely opposite way. I think there's enough commercial stuff."

Warner also wanted him to move to Nashville. "I wouldn't do that," he says. "I've always wanted to do it on my own."

Robison bagged Warner.

"I was real pissed off," he says. "I had pretty much moved up there, did all this major label stuff. I completely let this career that I had started with Bandera lapse. I was mad not so much because I lost the deal with Warner, but I let this other part slide. I had to start all over again."

Robison hooked up with record company exec Blake Chancey in 1996. "I was very shell shocked. I was not going to record with a major label. If that's how it works, I didn't even want to deal with it. I was going to record for Sugar Hill or Rounder. Blake came around and said they were going to start Lucky Dog."

The label was intended more of an alternative to the mainstream music released in Nashville. The acts were not expected to have tremendous commercial potential, but would be big on the cred factor.

"He kept on talking about how cool it was going to be. I could do whatever kind of music I wanted, but they'd have all this major label stuff. It was a good decision."

"Step Right Up" continues to find Robison mixing it up musically with country, hard honky tonk, roots, Irish, Tex-Mex, even a tinge of bluegrass. The gritty vocals still are there with a harder edge musically than previous recordings. As usual there are songs about disreputable folks and humorous looks at the underclass as well.

The first single is "I Want You Bad," done by NRBQ a few decades back. "I'm just an NRBQ fan from way back," says Robison. "I probably discovered them when I was 19 or 20. I was just a complete NRBQ freak. Last year, we were on the Lucky Dog tour - me and my brother and Jack (Ingram) - we'd drink a few beers. It was ritual. We'd put on NRBQ. It was such a great song. I thought if I could tweak it a little bit...I love a cover song, but I won't do a cover song written by two Nashville writers who just met at nine in the morning and drank coffee."

Robison describes his effort as "more of a tribute than just a way to make a buck."

While married to one Chick (Emily played banjo on "John O'Reilly," about a guy who runs off with illegal money to California), he sang with another. Natalie Maines duets with Robison on "The Wedding Song."

"It's about everything wonderful in being married to your sweetheart. It's about being terrible getting married to your high school sweetheart. When two people have kind of ambitions that are less than lofty, sometimes it's good to be with someone similar to that. In that way, it's a good thing. In another way, sometimes you need someone to push you a little bit to reach your potential. It's tough. It's one of those social issues that to me are so fascinating."

Robison says it wasn't difficult at all singing the song with a woman who wasn't his wife.

"Nat and I are like family," he says. "It was so fun going into the studio. We knew those people growing up. Going in was very easy was signing those parts as if we were those people."

Natalie's father, Lloyd, produced Robison's first two albums.

Chancey "co-produced" the new disc with Robison, although Robison says "he was there about 1/10 of the time to make sure I wasn't making a Marilyn Manson record."

As for being in a two-musician marriage, Robison says, "We heard horror stories from people when first got married. It worked out unbelievably well. We understood what the other had to do and planned ahead of time so our paths crossed as much as possible. There get to be a point where you miss the other person real bad, but we didn't go that long without seeing each other."

Marrying the musician kind seems to run in the family. Bruce is married to singer Kelly Willis.

And the music in the family may all be made public one day, kind of a country Family Values tour, featuring the Dixie Chicks, the Robison boys and Kelly Willis.

"I guarantee you it will happen in the next two or three years to put it together. It will be a blast. We talk about it all the time. It will be really cool when it happens."

© Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher •