A Different Kind of Thing: Bruce Robison Forges the Future with The Next Waltz
Bruce Robison inside The Bunker, near Lockhart, Texas. (Photo by Fernando Garcia)
A few years back, after Bruce Robison had been able to put away some money from his songwriting, he built himself a studio. It had state-of-the-art equipment, everything it needed to make records in today’s world.
“I got to the end, and it sounded just like everything else,” Robison recalls. “And it was heartbreaking.”
So he sold off what he’d built and started over, this time creating The Bunker, a “big square building” off by itself on 5 acres of rural land south of Austin. There are no computers, no digital effects — everything is recorded to 2-inch tape. “It’s a different kind of thing,” he says, and it’s ground zero for another different kind of thing he’s started as an alternative to the modern-day music industry: The Next Waltz.
The Next Waltz has evolved, playing different roles as needed for different projects. It started out around 2013 as a way to “be creative with singles,” in a label sort of mindset that aimed to get those singles by various artists out into the world. “Then,” says Robison, “it morphed into almost like a platform, like The Next Waltz being a web place where people can see what we’re doing and interact.”
It’s still all of those things, and now, as the standard of an artist signing a long-term contract with a label fades away, “it is a company where we do everything,” Robison says.
“We do every aspect of music, from putting music out to selling stuff to making branded content to go along with the music to publishing. It’s really everything that the music industry used to do. There used to be like 15 industries that made up the music industry, different things, and now we have to do every bit of it, all in house.”
That’s a lot of work, of course, but it’s also freeing in a way, he says. Without exclusive deals locking people down, The Next Waltz can work with a wide range of artists without navigating legal obligations or timelines. Most of the artists they’ve recorded and released singles with come from in or near the fertile Austin music scene, including Jack Ingram, Carrie Rodriguez, Turnpike Troubadours, Hayes Carll, Shinyribs, Jerry Jeff Walker, and Shakey Graves.
The singles — usually covers or unreleased songs from other songwriters — are released on digital platforms one at a time, each accompanied by a video that showcases not only the song but the story and the people behind it. At the end of 2018, The Next Waltz released a vinyl LP collecting 10 of the singles. On Friday, The Next Waltz Volume 2, featuring 10 more songs, will hit independent record stores, with online orders also accepted.
One of the songs on Volume 2 is a version of the gorgeous “Don’t You Think I Feel It Too,” an Uncle Walt’s Band song performed by Carson McHone.
As he does with all The Next Waltz artists, Robison started his conversation with McHone by zeroing in on the song. As it turns out, in a bit of kismet, it had already been placed on her radar by someone else.
“About two months before I went in and met up with Bruce, my mom had given me one of [Uncle Walt’s Band’s] CDs,” McHone recalls. She’d been “going through some stuff, and this song just really resonated with me, and I got where I was just stuck on it, and I was playing it over and over again, and I was telling everybody I knew about it. And then I walk into Bruce’s office and he was like, ‘You know, I don’t know, maybe this song?’”
It was a magical moment, and the song was magical in its making too, with Uncle Walt’s Band member Champ Hood’s sons, Warren and Marshall, coming to The Bunker to record it with McHone. Robison himself most definitely felt it too.
“It’s such a brilliant song — some people just adore that song, and most of the world at large has never ever heard that song. That’s just really what I love doing,” he says.
“It’s the polar opposite of this moment 15 years ago when I was still having songwriting sessions in Nashville, just doing things that made me feel like a prostitute,” he adds. “So that moment when we did that song was really the polar opposite of the moments in Nashville that made me think ‘I’m gonna do something different or I’m gonna find another line of work.’”
The video that accompanies “Don’t You Think I Feel It Too” shows the intimacy of The Bunker, bringing viewers right inside the small room where musicians get close and play together — like, really together.
The Bunker — one big room with a control room off to the side — isn’t soundproofed, Robison says: “If you listen close you can hear the goats outside or rain on the tin roof.”
The marketing materials for Volume 2 boast that the songs were made “with no digital shenanigans,” and that comes through in the warmth of the songs and the closeness that comes through to the listener.
“It’s pretty simple,” Robison says in explaining his setup and the reasons behind it. “There’s no computers. It’s 2-inch tape, no digital effects or any of that stuff. You’re in a big room, everybody’s together, and they’re all listening to each other and they’re playing in a collaborative way — really the way that people used to make music, up until the wheels came off of everything in the ’80s. That’s the way we do it, and it really is a lot of fun.”
In both the recording process and in the larger mindset of The Next Waltz, the idea, Robison says, is “to really get creative and say there’s no rules here, we can do anything that we want to do to really embrace that.
“We kind of built up a lot of rules over time. If you look back to the ’60s and the ’70s, it was such a freewheeling time, and you look at what the people were doing and how they were making the music, they were a bunch of crazy ass hippies , so they were just doing stuff. … We just gotta get back to that mindset, I believe.”
The Next Waltz bucks the music industry’s focus on albums by allowing space for smaller projects that can be just as meaningful.
“I think that that is what Bruce and The Next Waltz crew is trying to focus on, is bringing attention to an artist and a production team and in the process turning people on to these songs that have gone unheard or been overlooked or haven’t had as broad an audience,” McHone observes. “But I think really the goal is to draw people to the folks that are making their own music and then the people that are behind the production team. It’s kind of like a sample, and so it makes sense that it’s short and concise and straight to the point.”
Coming up on the horizon for The Next Waltz are two full-length albums in 2020 and recording sessions at festivals, sort of a mobile Bunker. Support from and affiliation with brands, Robison says, are inevitable for the future, and, done right, have a lot of positive potential.
That future can be fueled by a largely bygone approach to making music, he believes, and The Next Waltz so far is bearing that out.
“The way that we’re putting out the music is just trying to be the futuristic of the futuristic and taking advantage of the crazy way that we can distribute things now,” he says. “But then the way that we make the music is really a throwback, both from the way that we do the artist development and focus on the songs to the way that we actually produce the music. That’s all kind of so old school.”