Charlie Robison’s Good Times does not fit in well with the kind of slickly produced records one is likely to hear on country radio these days.
Unlike current radio favorites Joe Nichols or Keith Urban (who marry country’s twang to what essentially are pop songs) or Kenney Chesney and Montgomery Gentry (who push a formulaic fusion of rock and country), Robison’s rough edges have not been scraped off and polished away.
Robison burrows into a darker, grittier milieu, connecting with a different kind of tradition, one of smoky clubs that stink of stale beer. You can feel the honky tonks of Texas in the tight swing laid down by his band, in the wicked fiddle playing of Eamon McLoughlin, in the pedal steel and dobro of the legendary Lloyd Maines. Everything on this disc is real — starting with the gravel edge (or is it corn-mash bourbon?) in Robison’s voice and highlighted by Robison and Maines’ production.
Merle Haggard, George Jones, and Texas outlaws like Townes Van Zandt, Waylon Jennings, and Willie Nelson are shadows on this record, as is Delbert McClinton’s roadhouse blues. And there is an unmistakable echo of rockers like John Mellencamp and folkies like John Prine ringing in the background, too. The songs have a sense of place, a point of reference; they are not generic, radio-driven creations, but music born of the Texas plains and the South, songs that burn with the loneliness and desperation of wide open spaces.
The disc opens with the title song, a paean to good times on the road that rides atop an old-fashioned honky-tonk piano. The song rollicks along with an odd sense of urgency, that these good times are ephemeral, transient; Robison’s baritone pushes forward atop a band that barks and roars out its own version of Texas blues. “We’re gonna be like an ice cream cone / Better eat it quick or it’ll be long gone,” Robison sings with an easy flare, the piano pushing the song. “Buy me a whiskey get yourself stoned / And we gonna have a good time.”
The song sets the tone for the disc, its rowdy blues growing from a need to let loose, to “burn ’em all down”. If there is an overriding theme to Good Times, it is a feeling of loss set against the sense that — as the title song makes clear — there is nothing left to lose. Heartbreaking ballads like “El Cerrito Place” (featuring Maines’ famous daughter, Natalie, of the Dixie Chicks, on harmony vocals) and “The Bottom” alternate with high-octane party songs like “Flatland Boogie”, each contribution adding brick and mortar to Robison’s country blues. Even the apparent toss-off, the raunchy, funny “Love Never Means Having to Say You’re Sorry” (a throwback to a day when country and blues singers knew the value of the double entendre), adds to the structural integrity.
On the ballads, Robison channels George Jones, his tender baritone lingering on lines like, “No need to worry about tomorrow / Cause you’re not here / I’m goin’ all the way down / To the bottom.” It is a voice as flawlessly imperfect as you’ll hear, and one wholly suited to its material.
Loss — in this case, the loss caused by the movement of time — is at the center of the beautiful “Photograph”, which features Maines’ winding steel guitar. It is a hymn to family and connections that eschews the melodramatic trappings that too often mar similar songs.
“Momma and daddy burned hot like a flame / But it all turned to ashes with no one to blame,” he sings, the lyrics almost too simple, too straightforward. “I can still see them but not in my mind / It’s been so long that my memory’s blind / Though I don’t remember it still makes me laugh / When I see us together in a photograph.”
On more upbeat songs like the “New Year’s Day” or “Big City Blues”, the darkness hovers nearby. “New Year’s Day”, a border-town blues, is uptempo, a bouncing shuffle that plays like something out of Cormac McCarthy. The singer has crossed the border to get a divorce and let loose, the past chasing him like a ghost. “Big City Blues” has the singer, a small-town country boy, lost amid the concrete. “Someone done went and stole my favorite pair of boots / Goddamn these big city blues.”
Throughout, there is an ominous shadow cast that makes the good times seem a desperate attempt to keep away the blues. There is sadness and there are good times and they mingle, inform each other, change each other. There is relief, but it is temporary; there is never catharthis, never a complete release from the dread that builds over time.