Bruce Robison – Deep in the heart of outlaw country
In a just world, you’d never find the milk carton empty after you’ve filled a bowl with your breakfast cereal. Your hometown team would snatch the World Series from the Yankees in the bottom of the ninth in game seven — two years in a row. Your band would be offered a prime-time SXSW showcase, which you would turn down because you’re scheduled to play to a sold-out house at Texas Stadium that evening. Well, it’s far from a just world, but on that planet of parity, this article would not be necessary. Bruce Robison would have become a household word on the strength of his self-titled 1995 debut on Vireo Records.
Now comes a second chance. Last month, Robison released his second album, Wrapped, on his own label, Boar’s Nest Records. The recording includes 11 tracks, all written or co-written by Robison, with the exception of Charlie and Ira Louvin’s “When I Loved You”. The skilled hand of producer Lloyd Maines guides an all-star roster that includes Rich Brotherton (guitar), Martin Muse (steel), John Ludwick (bass), Mark Patterson (drums), Chris Searles (drums), Floyd Domino (piano) and Gene Elders (fiddle), to provide a sensitive and soulful backdrop to Robison’s voice. But it’s Robison’s songwriting and singing that set this recording apart.
Born and raised in Bandera, a Texas Hill Country town about an hour and a half outside Austin, Robison is physically the stereotypical Texan: BIG! Back when he was not so tall, he and his slightly older brother, Charlie (who also put out a record on Vireo two years ago), started a garage band. Playing mostly rodeos and dances, their repertoire consisted of classic country dance tunes interspersed with ZZ Top and Grand Funk. The catch was, they’d never heard any of the originals.
“We didn’t really know who did these tunes,” recalls Robison. “We were learning these songs from another garage band, from these older kids. You never thought about who wrote them or who did them; they were just out there living in the air like old folk tunes. The end result was eighth-grade boys playing songs they’d never heard before!”
Bandera radio was not progressive in those days, so it’s unlikely he would have been exposed to the likes of Gram Parsons via the airwaves. But the country classics were omnipresent, and Robison was exposed to a heavy dose of the Texas “outlaw country” of Waylon and Willie. “My mom listened to those 8-tracks — Willie’s Phases and Stages, Shotgun Willie, Red Headed Stranger — and Honky Tonk Heroes by Waylon Jennings, and a bunch of Emmylou Harris,” Robison muses. “I guess I’ve got a Gram Parsons’ influence through Emmylou.”
What most impressed Robison about outlaw country was the emotional involvement of the lyrics. “When I was a small child, country music dealt with intense the human issues that Willie and those guys were writing about in the 70’s,” he says.
Robison credits his early garage band experience and his exposure to outlaw country with priming his songwriting talent. If this is so, it was an effective hone for his creative blade. Although he has a knack for making a simple statement of reality sound like poetry, he’s careful to point out that he is not of the bard’s school of lyrics. “I think you can cleave writers into two areas: Writers that were heavily influenced by Bob Dylan, or else by Willie and Hank Williams,” Robison says. “My songs don’t have a lot of imagery or allusion. They’re very straightforward. There’s not a lot of hidden meaning and there’s not intended to be. They’re just about things that are real to me and hopefully will be real to other people.”
Having been exposed to the “Austin vibe” as a young person, Robison moved to Austin in the early ’90s to become a songwriter. Soon after he moved, he joined Chaparral, which, over the the course of several years, has included upwards of 60 musicians. A social club perhaps as much as a musical organization, Chaparral helped integrate Robison into Austin’s country music community and led to his acquaintance with future collaborators such as Monte Warden, Jim Lauderdale, and his spouse, Kelly Willis.
Collaboration, at its worst, can lead to “assembly-line” songwriting. However, Robison’s cooperative efforts, such as “End This Way”, written with Monte Warden, maintain a focused, personal perspective. “I started that song and I thought it was a good idea, but I didn’t feel like I was finishing it properly,” Robison explains. “I have friends that are really good songwriters. Whenever I get the feeling of a song, I also get the feeling of who would be really good to help it out. I really love finishing a song and seeing that there’s really big parts of somebody else in there.”
Robison’s strength is his songwriting, but his voice is powerful in its own right, conveying a sadness as if its owner had skipped ahead in Lonesome Dove and now is burdened with the foresight of Gus’ impending death. Solo, or in paired poignancy with Willis on the album’s Louvins cover, Robison’s voice is the perfect vehicle for his songs. “I wanted to put a duet on this record for a lot of shameless reasons, plus I love hearing her sing!” Robison admits of the duet with his wife. “But, I’m not looking for a bunch of duets, though I love singing with my brother and we will do a record together.”
Robison, who recently obtained a Nashville publishing deal, wants to develop his own recording facility. “One of the reasons that I want to record more is that, so far, after I get my best stuff down on tape, that was the only way I’d feel the impetus to write more,” Robison says. “It’s like, well, I don’t have any songs anymore because everyone’s heard them all, so I have write some more! I want to continue to make records in a way where I don’t have to wait two or three years between them.”
More frequent offerings from Robison would benefit us all. Though he’s remained yet another closely held Austin secret for the last few years, the power of Wrapped deserves to bring him much wider recognition.