It remains unclear who suffered the most after Natalie Maines made those remarks about President George Bush during a show in London. Sure, Maines received death threats. Moreover, the Dixie Chicks’ country career bottomed out. Radio stations refused to play the band’s records and promoters cancelled concert dates. But what about Bruce Robison? The Dixie Chicks’ rendition of his song “Travelin’ Soldier” went from number one on the country charts to zilch after news of Maines’s comments became known. Robison went from a songwriter with a monster hit (imagine the royalties and fame) to relative obscurity in a flash.
However, one cannot feel too sorry for Robison. After all, he is happily married to the beautiful and talented singer/actress Kelly Willis. I’m sure she could console him. And “Travelin’ Soldier” was not the first or last successful record Robison wrote. He also penned “Angry All the Time”, which was a big hit for Faith Hill and Tim McGraw, as well as “Wrapped”, which George Strait recently took to number one.
Robison has rerecorded all three of these songs, plus seven more, on his latest self-released disc, His Greatest. He made this disc for commercial purposes in order to claim ownership of his renditions of the available versions. Robison has changed some of the songs a little bit, he says in the liner notes. Some songs are slower, some are faster, and some reflect the styles and arrangements of others who have covered them.
But he hasn’t really improved the songs or altered them in any significant way. No one who already owns Robison’s catalogue would need to purchase this disc. What Robison means by “Greatest” is also ambiguous. Many of the songs here would not be known by the general public, as recorded by Robison or anyone else, and some of his better-known songs, such as “What Would Willie Do”, are not included. The disc consists of a paltry ten tracks. Surely, there is room for more.
Nevertheless, what is here does reveal Robison’s talents as a top-notch songwriter. Lesser-known tunes, such as “Poor Man’s Son” and “Rayne, Louisiana”, hold up well against the more famous numbers. The disc also reveals that Robison is more than capable of putting a song across as a singer. His version of Joe Dickens’ “The Good Life” would fit in any honky tonk jukebox in America. Robison also does justice to his own material.
Take, for example, “Travelin’ Soldier”. Robison lacks Maines’s vocal range, and his arrangement of the track is sparse where the Dixie Chicks’ is lush and full. In fact, when Robison performs it, the song sounds more like an old folk song than a contemporary country tune. As a male vocalist, he comes across as the kind of guy who would strike up the conversation with the high school girl in the café while Maines takes on the persona of the waitress. These distinctions deepen what is going on in the song, as they accentuate the death of the soldier more than the grief of the young lady. That doesn’t make Robison’s version better, just different. The song is strong enough that both renditions are great in their own way. Robison may have lost plenty of income when Maines made her comments, but the listener loses nothing by hearing him perform the song. And if you have not heard him sing it before, this is worth the price of the record itself.
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