Bruce Robison – FitzGerald’s (Berwyn, IL)
“I fucking love Tim McGraw,” Bruce Robison said from the stage.
Not McGraw’s music, necessarily, but certainly the royalties Robison receives for penning “Angry All The Time”, the duet that McGraw and Faith Hill flogged to the top of the country charts.
Lucky dog, huh? Well, not exactly. In early 2001, Robison requested and received his walking papers from Lucky Dog, a Sony affiliate in Nashville. (He’s got all the luck he needs, thank you: He’s married to Kelly Willis, after all.) After investing a little songwriting cash in his own label, Boars Nest, he released his fourth album, Country Sunshine, on the imprint in September.
Robison’s success is easy to envy, but the quality of his craft coupled with his affable charm make him impossible to dislike. Onstage with sidemen Kevin McKinney (lead guitar) and Chip Dolan (keyboards and accordion), Robison displayed both attributes in abundance. He cherry-picked liberally from his catalog of smart, smooth country songs, playing almost two dozen, and introduced most tunes with a homey anecdote.
That Robison is merely a competent crooner and no nimble picker plainly hampered his past solo tours in support of Kelly Willis, so here McKinney and Dolan were welcome additions. Content simply to set the mood of slow tunes such as “What Did You Think” and “Blame It On Me”, the guitarist rarely took solos, but Dolan’s electric piano led “Can’t Get There From Here” and his organ colored “The First Thing About Mary”. Dolan spiked songs with jukejoint blues (in “Rayne, Louisiana”) and barrelhouse stomp (“Red Letter Day”), wrapped them in the warm sighs of his squeezebox (“She Don’t Care About Me” and Robison’s autobiographical “My Brother And Me”), and, if that weren’t enough, sang harmonies throughout.
In addition to the McGraw/Hill hit, Robison’s songs have been covered by Lee Ann Womack (“Lonely Too”), the Dixie Chicks (the timely “Travelin’ Soldier”), and his wife. Sitting in the audience at this gig offered a chance to spot some of tomorrow’s (radio) sounds today: Willis has already claimed “What Did You Think” for her forthcoming disc, and some canny country star should snatch “Can’t Get There From Here”, a winning new tune Robison wrote with Allison Moorer.
Even still, the most satisfying songs in this set were “Just Married” and “Hazy Valentine”. Beautifully played and sung, they emerged in performance as on record — melancholy and occasionally comical, finely detailed but deliberately ambiguous. Ballads are rarely done better.