What Would Bruce Robison Do?
Back in the mid-‘90s, a friend of mine was a regular in Austin’s honky-tonks. This was when it was easy to catch Dale Watson at the Pit Stop (known for its car racing motif complete with pieces of wrecked cars on the walls) or The Derailers at the Broken Spoke and do some serious dancing. He remembers this of Bruce Robison: “I went to see Bruce many times at dance halls all over the city. Only trouble was, he’s so dreamy that my partners never paid any attention to me—I think they just used me to get closer to the stage. He was mostly good to dance close songs because most of his songs were slow, slow, sad, sad”.
Robison and his music haven’t changed much since then, though these days he’s got a new group of folks getting close to the stage and those “slow, sad songs”: some of the most well known performers in Nashville. For example, Lee Ann Womack put “Lonely Too” on her multi-platinum I Hope You Dance album and has recorded another Robison track; Gary Allan covered “What Would Willie Do”; and Garth Brooks recorded “She Don’t Care About Me” although it didn’t make Scarecrow‘s final cut.
That doesn’t include family members who’ve done Robison’s material: wife Kelly Willis has a smokin’ version of “Wrapped” (and routinely performs on his records), brother Charlie Robison has recorded “Poor Man’s Son”, sister-in-law Emily Robison and The Dixie Chicks have covered “Travelin’ Soldier” for their next album (whenever it gets released given their problems with Sony).
But the Bruce Robison song getting the most attention these days is the Tim McGraw-Faith Hill collaboration on “Angry All the Time”, which reached number one. Hill saw the video of the original Robison-Willis version and urged McGraw to put it on Set This Circus Down.
In a recent interview, Robison said of his newfound songwriter celebrity, “I’m still making sense of it; it was kind of a surreal experience”—and not something he’d planned on. “I’ve been wanting to focus in on my songwriting for awhile, but getting many smaller cuts was what my goal was and maybe lucking out and getting a song on a big record, like I did with Lee Ann Womack”, he explains.
Certainly, any songwriter would be pleased to have their material do so well, but this comes at an especially pivotal time in Robison’s career.
Going Home to Austin
Robison, a native of Bandera, Texas, has been part of the Austin music scene since he and Charlie arrived in the late ‘80s. It didn’t take long for them to become popular with the alt.country crowd, and while they occasionally preformed as a duo, the brothers mostly established separate careers. In 1995, Robison released his self-titled debut album on his own Boar’s Nest label, following that with Wrapped in 1997. Lucky Dog, a Sony-Nashville subsidiary, was impressed enough to sign Robison and re-release a slightly altered Wrapped in 1998. Following that were 1999’s Long Way Home From Anywhere as well as Unleashed Live with Charlie and Jack Ingram. But 2000 found Robison re-thinking his relationship with Lucky Dog and ultimately leaving, though the parting was amicable. His most recent album, Country Sunshine, is back on Boar’s Nest.
According to Robison, many factors led to his departure. “The main reason was that I really didn’t feel like I was moving forward”, he says. ” I had felt that way for awhile, and I had a round of meetings to talk about whether we were going to do another [record], and I couldn’t imagine it coming out in a way that I wouldn’t have been pretty frustrated about. So it really felt like it was time to try something new”.
Robison had reached a point where he had to make some career decisions. He didn’t seem cut out for the kind of “larger-than-life icon” Nashville currently adores, so that meant that if he wanted to make a living at music, he’d probably have more success with songwriting. Given labels’ control over the music recorded by their artists, Robison understood that retaining song ownership was essential, and the best way to do that was to work independently.
He wasn’t put off by the business side, however. “I’m kind of a control freak—I’m a little different than some folks in that way. I like being in control of everything. A lot of people don’t even want to hear about a lot of the stuff that goes on in the record label business”, he says. “But the other thing that’s really very important is the ownership of the music in the future. You’ve got to be getting something in return for that because, in my opinion, if you work really hard on something and if you’re going to give it up, you shouldn’t do so lightly”.
Hence the importance of “Angry All the Time”, which did more than generate revenue to support Robison’s return to independent status. “It was incredibly gratifying”, Robison explains. “You know how you make decisions about what you’re going to do, and you’re not sure they’re the right ones? It was a very affirming type of thing in that it made me feel like I was doing something right, that I knew that the music could succeed on a broad scale. And then I knew that the songs were good enough to be hits—if the right person did them, I suppose”.
Like any good country songwriter, Robison has a story to illustrate his point: “Yesterday, I showed my dad a copy of Billboard, and it had my name on it, and it was like, ‘Hey! Whoa, what was number two that day’? ’ Well, Alan Jackson’. ‘Well, what was number four’? ‘Brooks and Dunn’. Being up there and having something perform that way was phenomenal. I mean, you can’t do any better than that”.
Robison’s skill as a songwriter is unquestioned. As Willis told Billboard‘s Doborah Evans Price, “Bruce’s real gift is he has the way with melody that really hooks you, and the lyrics are so conversational. . . . I think that’s his gift”.
“I’m trying to convey a story where what is implied is what the listener provides rather than the subtext that I’m going to put into it”, Robison says of his songwriting. “I wanted to present [the lyrics] in a way where the music moved along and had something where you could imply hope and optimism through the feel of the song even though there might be things happening in the lyrics that were hard to take”.
Robison continues, “In its best sense, I always related to country music in the way that it felt like it was for real people. There were a lot of sad songs, and there was something about it—the blues influence—that was for people that didn’t have easy lives, and that’s what ‘Angry All the Time’ was about. Most of my songs are about the same thing: they’re about people who are trying to do the right thing, but they’re not making it. To me, that’s what happens in real life. You know, you try, you get close—hopefully”.
Much of Robison’s approach to Country Sunshine comes from two of his influences: Willie Nelson and Don Williams. Of Nelson, Robison says, “It’s great to have goals that you can never achieve, and the body of his work is just mind-boggling and how he, I think, created a niche for himself”. He continues, “Don Williams was a big influence more on the sound side of it . . . that’s what Don Williams’ songs did. They really moved. They had a really good feeling to them, and they could make you tap your foot no matter what you were talking about”.
“I wanted it to sound like a Don Williams record and read like Willie Nelson”, Robison concludes.
In addition to his country roots, Robison readily acknowledges myriad other influences—everything from rock to jazz to zydeco. “All of us live in the age of cable television and media that touches everyone, everywhere, you know? You’re not like maybe George Jones was maybe forty years ago or sixty years ago where he only heard a certain type of music. . . . It doesn’t matter where you are now: You know about everything. I mean, if you’re in the Outback of Australia, I’ll bet you know about ‘N Sync or whoever the hell is going on right now. So you can’t ignore your influences”.
In fact, Robison says, “I really try not to deny my influences . . . I find that really interesting about having all these influences. On one hand, you’re country, and there are many things about country music that, it’s always about simplifying. I think if you explore too much with sound and all kinds of stuff, then it’s more like rock and roll. I mean, that’s what rock and roll really is: it’s like busting all the doors down and reinventing everything”.
Robison continues, “With country music, to me, it’s more about the form. You fit the ideas in or the situation and reinvent something by using those same three or four chords that Hank Williams used because, you’ve gotta admit, if you change it too much, you’re making pop or rock and roll, which is a lot of the stuff that’s on the radio. It really has more in common with pop and rock and roll than with what’s traditionally been called ‘country’”.
Another primary concern for Robison was to show that he was could write more than “slow, sad songs”. “I really wanted to get a little more of my sense of humor in this record”, he says. “I am serious about my music, but my sense of humor is one of the main things about me . . . and a lot of my heroes, from John Prine to Randy Newman, really weren’t afraid to have their sense of humor in their songs”.
All of these elements are present in Country Sunshine.
Apparent early on is Country Sunshine‘s relaxed atmosphere, in part a product of recording at the legendary Cowboy Arms Hotel and Recording Spa. Cowboy Jack Clement recorded Jerry Lee Lewis at Sun Studios and made many of the great records of the ‘70s in Nashville.
It was an environment suited to Robison, who says, “I loved [recording at Cowboy Jack’s]. When we got in with those players at that place, I felt a lot more at ease. They’ve got a lot of recording studios now that are these state-of-the-art big, fancy places that feel—I don’t know what they feel like. They’re just huge and kind of like a doctor’s office or something. And this was just a real little funky, vibey place a bunch of fantastic music had been made at, so you knew it was a quality place, and it just put you at ease, like you were sitting around at somebody’s home . . . It was something that fit me”.
Robison adds, “And, heck, Cowboy Jack, he lives down there in the basement; he’s around, and he’s just a piece of Americana”.
Perhaps the thematic key to Country Sunshine is the album’s cover, a very ‘70s-influenced, indeed, dreamy, painting of a man and woman on an outing, maybe in the Texas Hill Country. With a guitar slung over his shoulder, he looks remarkably like Bruce Robison; his arm rests on the shoulders of a woman who carries a basket and very much resembles Kelly Willis. Together, the couple gazes into the sky, their love underscored by the picture’s warm colors.
“I didn’t want to be on the front of [Country Sunshine]”, Robison says. “The cover worked in with my concept and how I wanted it to feel—kind of an homage to this era of country music when I fell in love with country music. It was a little bit on the kitschy side, but at the same time, the songs were incredibly well crafted all through the ‘70s. And a lot of times, that’s what I feel like is missing today”.
Reinforcing this is the album’s title, “Country Sunshine”, written in a retro-font across the album’s top and echoing Dottie West’s 1973 hit; it also provides an ironic context for the record’s songs that are anything but sunny. These are accounts of people trying and not always succeeding, a contrast with the current dominant Nashville model that likes upbeat themes and songs. With Country Sunshine, Robison reminds us of what country “sunshine” really is: stories of real people that don’t always have happy endings.
But the record’s more complicated than that. The lyrics explore the themes of country, the songs are grounded in country, but the music reflects a more modern sensibility—a ‘70s experimentation and all those influences Robison acknowledges.
This is all apparent from the opening track, “Can’t Get There from Here”, which Robison co-wrote with Allison Moorer. The lyrics rest on clichés, the kind of puns country songs are known for, that often a serve as a means for softening harsher themes. While the fiddle reinforces the song’s country heritage, the rest of the production with its guitars and keyboard sound more like Linda Ronstadt’s or Bonnie Raitt’s work in the ‘70s. The song ends, wordless, with an extended jam, creating a contemplative atmosphere for the cast of characters Robison introduces in Country Sunshine.
Robison’s gift lies in using the first-person narrator, telling their stories through carefully chosen details. The characters who emerge are very real and sympathetic but never sentimental.
“Blame It on Me”, “Valentine”, and “Anyone But Me” (written with Dixie Chick Marty Siedel) tell the stories of people struggling to do the right thing. Consider the narrative complexity of “First Thing About Mary”. The singer keeps asserting that he’s the only one who understands Mary; however, the fact that’s she’s left him underscores how little he, too, really knows about her. His words are an attempt to persuade himself as much as the listener.
“Devil May Care” is a clever tune with a Tin Pan Alley tempo and perky clarinet; the result echoes an old swing tune with a cabaret twist (albeit a Texas cabaret) with a touch of Sgt. Pepper’s-era Beatles thrown in, all working nicely with the song’s lyrical theme of disregard.
Two album highlights are Robison-Willis duets on “Bed of Ashes” and “Friendless Marriage”, songs that come from the George Jones-Tammy Wynette sensibility but sound, vocally, like Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris. Both are heartbreaking accounts of failed relationships.
One of Country Sunshine‘s most clever moments is “What Would Willie Do”, a tune about the Red-headed Stranger—complete with Mickey Raphael, Nelson’s harmonica player, sitting in. Inspired by Willie, Robison takes to the pulpit, preaching, revival-like, to the congregation about Willie as role model. The song is smart and fun (and you’ve got to respect any songwriter who can come up with lines like “He’s loves all the people no matter their races / Hell, he even made a hit country song with Julio Iglesias”).
“Willie” is a smart pastiche: gospel music with an occasional Willie-esque riff from a nylon-string guitar, humor, a shot of country blues, and, indeed, echoes of both Hank Williams and Luke the Drifter. (When asked if Nelson had heard the song, Robison said, laughing, “Well, I know he has, but I was lucky enough that he didn’t hear it from me (laughs) . . . I know that he heard Gary Allan do it”.)
The only problem is the song’s placement: In the middle of a record of thoughtful, first-person narratives, this just doesn’t fit, instead interrupting the album’s thematic flow. “Willie” would have been better placed at the close or perhaps as a hidden track.
But in the end, Country Sunshine remains a very fine record.
That more folks are hearing Bruce Robison’s “slow, sad songs” is good news—think of it as a ray of “country sunshine”.