About Bruce Robison
From Willie Nelson to Guy Clark to Kris Kristofferson to Billy Joe Shaver, the Lone Star State has produced some of this generation’s most formidable songwriting talent and left today’s Texas tunesmiths with some mighty big boots to fill. Over the course of five critically acclaimed releases (and one very cool Christmas record) Austin’s Bruce Robison has grown into the natural successor to those songwriting giants, creating a body of work that speaks eloquently and soulfully of the not-so-simple joys and frustrations of modern life.
These days, even by the Lone Star State’s oversized standards, the 6′ 7″ singer/songwriter is living large. His songs have been regularly hitting the upper reaches of the country charts in the hands of artists like the Dixie Chicks (“Travelin’ Soldier”), Faith Hill & Tim McGraw (“Angry All the Time”) and George Strait (“Desperately” and his current hit single, “Wrapped”). But no one interprets a Bruce Robison song like the writer himself. With a voice as unadorned and unaffected as his home state’s wide-open spaces, Robison has a laid-back vocal knack for easing the listener into a song’s emotional core.
“I love calling myself a songwriter and getting in there and mixing it up,” Robison says. “It’s a great job.”
On the heels of his 2006 release, “Eleven Stories,” Robison comes busting out of the gate with It Came From San Antonio, a 7-song EP that showcases the artist’s playful side right along with the most distilled and from-the-heart songwriting of his hit-filled career.
The album’s title song and leadoff track, with its blissfully cheesy organ intro, finds Robison reveling in the Lone Star-meets-Liverpool sound of Doug Sahm’s Sir Douglas Quintet.
“Doug Sahm was a big influence on me,” Robison says. “He was somebody who busted out of Texas, and I knew his hits when I was growing up. I was lucky in that the kind of country I heard at first from Willie and Waylon and those guys, to Gram and Emmylou and over to Doug was changing what people thought about country music. Doug always represented that to me and was a classic example of someone who was unclassifiable.”
Like Sahm and those aforementioned Texas legends, Robison doesn’t squeeze easily into any of the narrow categories that have come to characterize the current state of radio and the music business in general. As a direct descendant of the Freethinkers, a group of ultra-liberal German pioneers who settled the Texas Hill Country in the early part of the 19th Century, Robison has instinctively followed his heart and his ears when it comes to creating the music he loves. In other words, categories don’t mean a lot to this particular singer/songwriter.
“The people I came from were so stoic and they were real simple folks,” he says. “The Freethinkers were old time Germans, radical liberals, and they came down here so they could do their own thing and they loved to drink beer and dance.”
Growing up in the small Hill Country town of Bandera, Robison and his brother Charlie (husband to Dixie Chick Emily Robison and a noted singer/songwriter in his own right) were drawn to sports by their basketball coach dad and to good books by their more erudite mom.
“I really didn’t have the temperament for playing basketball,” Robison says. “I was just good enough to keep limping along. You see other people who are living in the gym, and you’re leaving early to go play guitar.”
Before they were out of junior high school, the two brothers had graduated from the garage and were playing local dances and rodeos, regaling audiences with a freewheeling mix of country standards and ZZ Top.
In the early ’90s, Robison made the move to Austin and dove headlong into that city’s vibrant singer/songwriter scene, falling in with a creative crowd that included frequent co-writer Monte Warden and his future bride, country singer extraordinaire Kelly Willis. Robison fell hard for both the music and the accompanying lifestyle.
“I just really loved doing something I felt I was good at,” he says. “It took me 10 years before I had any kind of success, but I was really happy. I didn’t have any money, but it was fabulous.”
At his gigs, Robison was covering the songs of an up-and-coming artist by the name of Jim Lauderdale, whose ultimately unreleased Pete Anderson-produced debut album was being passed from hand to hand on cassettes around the Austin scene.
“There were some great songs on there, and I was singing a couple of those,” Robison says. “Then I put in a couple of my own, and ol’ Jim Lauderdale heard some of them and said, ‘Hey, those songs aren’t bad.’ It meant a lot to me. I wasn’t doing anything big, but there were people who were giving me encouragement. That had never happened to me before.”
Robison’s self-titled, indie-label debut was released on Vireo in 1996. Bolstered by Lauderdale’s encouragement, he sent some songs to Nashville publishers and the singer/songwriter was soon making regular trips to Music City. A publishing deal and a major label record contract, with Sony subsidiary Lucky Dog, quickly followed. After two critically acclaimed albums 1998’s “Wrapped” and 1999’s “Long Way From Anywhere ” failed to catch fire at radio, Robison, now collecting royalties from lucrative cuts with Strait and Lee Ann Womack, returned to Austin and indie life, releasing “Country Sunshine” in 2001. In the five years between that release and “Eleven Stories,” Robison and Willis got busy. Four bouncing babies later, a bleary eyed Robison is still perfecting the process of putting all of it, somehow, into a song.
“It’s a real struggle, and I’m still trying to adapt and come up with a work ethic that is very different from when I had hours and hours of free time,” he admits. “I’ve written two songs when I was mowing the yard and another song while I was driving. The lawn mower or the sound of the engine create some kind of silence that is more meditative than anything else.”
It Came From San Antonio is audible proof that Robison’s domestic duties have done nothing to dull the visceral power of his songwriting. If anything, they’ve broadened his stylistic pallet and sharpened his humor as well as his writer’s pen. These days, the self-proclaimed “luckiest guy in the world” is enjoying the best of both worlds. From the pristeen country/pop of “Lifeline,” lifted sky-high by Willis’ inspired harmony singing, to the indelible melody and timeless imagery of “When it Rains,” to the Harvest-flavored philosophy of “23A,” Robison’s music has never shined brighter. But, for all of the styles encompassed on this record, he still loves a traditional country song and his music remains firmly rooted in the honky tonks and dancehalls where he grew up.
“That world is big part of my culture,” Robison says. “I did it as a kid when I started playing music, and I still do it once a month at the Broken Spoke. It’s part of who I am. It’s a real talent to keep those folks out dancing. You have to mix it up the right way, and you gotta play 50 songs. You do a waltz and then a fast one and lots of shuffles. When I was younger, before things took country music into stadiums, George Jones or Johnny Paycheck would play a place in Bandera that you couldn’t put more than 400 people in. My grandfather and grandmother would take us to dancehalls and they would dance while people played Conway Twitty songs. Just a few years ago there were a lot of places like the Broken Spoke, and now they’re all gone.”
Also gone are the big label budgets that provided Robison’s predecessors with the means and the machinery to get their music recorded and distributed. True to form, Robison has taken things into his own hands, establishing Premium Recording Service, a state-of-the-art studio that allows him and others on the Austin scene to make great-sounding records.
“The music that comes out of Austin and out of Texas is really amazing, and we need to make better recordings, so that’s the origin of Premium,” he says. “In the mid ’70s I started Willie and Jerry Jeff and stuff like that, and those recordings really hold up. Recordings now aren’t as good as they should be. To me, the music is at the frontier now. It seems like the ’50s again, and nobody really knows how it’s going to sort out. I’m really excited to be a part of figuring out where it’s headed we’ll see how it shakes out.”
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