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Robison's style? "Just country music"

By Joel Bernstein, July 1999

Nobody wants to be called "alternative country" anymore. Bruce Robison is no exception. The Austin-based artist has just released his third album (second on Lucky Dog) "Long Way Home From Anywhere." He considers himself a mainstream country artist whose style of country isn't in fashion these days.

His brother Charlie, also on Lucky Dog (and not too dissimilar musically), recently spent the maximum 20 weeks on Billboard's country singles chart with "Barlight." The highest it reached was 60, but the longevity proves that where it was played, it was popular.

"That was really encouraging," says Bruce. "You think that if you keep going out there, you can carve out a little career. There's no reason Charlie's single couldn't have happened on (other) stations. The more I get out there, the more encouraged I am."

Robison, 33, is on a small label geared to edgier country artists, but it's also a label that is part of Sony with plenty of marketplace clout.

"It's the best of both worlds. We try and make good music but also keep my debt down so I can continue to make my fan base bigger (by touring). We're both kind of feeling our way with this grassroots approach. It's like an independent label project, but with more money and resources behind it."

Despite the much lower budget than major label albums, Robison says, "I don't want people to think it's some kind of demo. The production values will stand up to anything. It's a real good record that has a little care put to the lyrics." Earlier this year, Robison was touring as a solo acoustic artist, opening for his wife Kelly Willis. Now, Robison expects to do his touring with a band and on his own (or as part of a Lucky Dog package).

"We didn't want to run it into the ground," he says of touring with Willis. "She's been playing a lot of the clubs I've been trying to get into. I got to show these people what I can do."

Robison doesn't consider most of his songs really suited for a solo acoustic act. "They're not folk songs. They're country songs. You take out the steel guitar break or the fiddle, and they're a minute and a half long. It's the classic country form. It's not just about lyric like folk music."

The solo tours "really excludes a lot of my best stuff. And if the club is right, you really need a couple of musicians to be heard above the din. I've been looking forward to going out with a band."

Robison also makes another distinction between country and folk. "A lot of Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings songs were really involved lyrically. But they're not folk. There's two kinds of songwriters - people who are influenced by Bob Dylan and people who are influenced by someone else. With Willie or Haggard or Hank, there's not a whole lot between the lines. With Dylan, everything's between the lines.

"If I feel sad, I don't say 'The sky is gray' or 'The fog is misting,' I just look for something that rhymes with sad."

"I believe the coolest part of country music is common experience. When you listen to a sad song, it doesn't make you feel sad. It makes you feel better. Country music is about people trying to do right and not quite making it. People can relate to that. That's what first appealed to me about Willie."

Robison's independent first album was only four years ago, but he says, "I really have come a long way with my singing since then. There's still good players and good songs on (the first record), but my singing is tough for me to listen to."

Two songs from his debut were redone for the new album. Of one, "Travelin' Soldier," Robison says. "I wanted to do some strings for this record. I thought it would be nice with strings. And I thought it deserved an audience."

Robison has an interesting philosophy in choosing songs.

"It's a collection of songs. There are a lot of different kind of songs. There are slots on the record, and I try to fill them with the songs that fit. It doesn't matter whether they're old songs or new songs."

Three of the songs on his new album are ones Robison had no hand in writing. "The Good Life," written by Austin pal Joe Dickens, will be the first single for country radio. "It's a straight-ahead shuffle. We thought it would be the best for country stations. Americana will choose its own single."

"Emotionally Gone" is by another Austin songwriter Damon Bramblett, who also cowrote "Just Married" with Robison and had a cut on Willis' latest album.

The most surprising selection is "Trouble," written many years ago by the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens. Of Stevens' more recent activities, Robison says, "I don't agree with him politically, but I try to look beyond those things."

If Robison ever goes out as part of a family tour, it will be a doozy. Not only is Bruce married to Willis, but Charlie recently wed Emily Erwin of The Dixie Chicks.

"It boggles my mind all the talent that I'm around," says Bruce. "I'm really looking forward to doing more touring with Charlie and hopefully get the girls to sing on a record. I wrote a song with Martie (Seidel) that I think is really cool. It's still floating around out there. It won't be on their new album. I'd love to get a cut on one of their albums, but everybody is really above board about it."

Robison admires The Dixie Chicks resolve as well as their talent. "You really have to have a laser vision and go after the career you want. They did it on their own terms."

But that doesn't mean he's going after the same career.

"My goal is not to play in arenas. I want to get my songs cut and play small clubs. You get the career you go after. There are very few people who had huge success foisted upon them out of nowhere. I can sell records if I keep at it. Jerry Jeff Walker and Robert Earl Keen have built lucrative careers by knowing who their crowd was."

Robison believes that if he can get exposed to the country audience, "they'll see I'm not weird. My music is just country music. If they listen, it won't be strange. It won't be scary. My ideal is a lot of the late '70's people like Willie and Emmylou Harris Their songs were accessible enough for everybody to dig. That's what I've always attempted to do. My (style of) music has just moved out of the mainstream, but it could come back."