Bruce Robison is one of the best songwriters in country music, which means that he’s one of the best songwriters in the world. He’s written hits for tons of people, including the Dixie Chicks (“Travelin’ Soldier”) and Tim McGraw (“Angry All the Time”), but he’s never really broken through with any of his own solo records.
After listening to the first few songs on Eleven Stories, I thought I knew why. Unlike his brother Charlie—one of country music’s true hell raisers and a pretty damned good songwriter himself—Bruce doesn’t step up and demand the spotlight as a singer. “Every Once in a While” and “Virginia” are lovely songs, especially the latter with its Dylan-ish spillover lines, and it’s pretty funny to hear him cover the Grateful Dead’s “Tennessee Jed”, but his voice under whelmed me somewhat. And after hearing his wife Kelly Willis do her thing during their duet on the old Webb Pierce song “More and More”, I was sure I had it all figured out: the man can sing, but he ain’t no singer.
But my opinion changed when I got flat-out broadsided by “Days Go By”, a country-prog song about a homeless guy that is one of the most emotionally wrenching and stunningly conceived songs I have heard in my life. I know it’s manipulative to sing about homeless people, but that’s only when the songs do not take their protagonists seriously, which is about all the time. But here Robison gets so far deep inside his protagonist’s mind and life experiences that you wonder if he’ll be able to make it out. We get a quick tour of the guy’s history, tragedy, and mental illness, and it’s all done with such matter-of-fact subtlety that we learn things just by how Robison phrases this quick history: “Took a wife back in 1974 / Ooh, I never felt so sure / On that day for her love I would die / Ooh, but the days go by.”
And that’s when I realized that he really is a singer; he can croon just as well as a bunch of people who are stars already, and his voice very much fits his songs. Not to say that McGraw couldn’t rip up “Don’t Call It Love” in some kind of huge major-label monolithic style, or that “All Over But the Cryin’” wouldn’t be a kick-ass Lee Ann Womack single, but Robison should be able to hit the radio with his intelligent and heartfelt music. “I Never Fly” is a surrealistic pillow of a folk tune, “Kitchen Blues” manages to bring hints of the Beatles and Robert Johnson and Richard Thompson and Hank Williams into the discussion, but it’s still just about a guy listening to the rain, wondering what his old running buddies are up to, and then taking another sip of coffee. Very clean, very Zen, very perfect.
These eleven stories are damned good ones—even the ones he didn’t write, they are done really well, and they sound fresh and fun. It’s a shame Robison’s voice isn’t some kind of huge instrument, but with songwriting talent this huge it really doesn’t matter. Anyone who can listen to “Days Go By” without getting choked up is lying; everyone who gives the rest of Eleven Stories a serious listen will fall just a little bit in love with it.