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Charlie Robison tries to be "life of the party"

By Brian Wahlert, September 1998

Charlie Robison's music isn't much different sonically from that of a typical New Country artist. His blend of country and rock would be right at home on most FM country stations.

Where Robison differentiates himself is in his tell-it-like-it-is style of songwriting. In sharp contrast to country radio, where heartwarming songs like "26 Cents," "Cover You in Kisses" and "I'll Go on Loving You" dominate the charts, Robison's major label album, ironically titled "Life of the Party," features songs about heartbreak, murder and life in the poorhouse.

In one of Robison's personal favorites, "Loving County," the singer's girlfriend "runs with an oil company bum 'cause a diamond was not on her hand."

The singer's solution? Kill the sheriff's wife and steal her ring. Robison compares it to a Shakespearean tragedy. "Every one of Shakespeare's plays were about completely depressing awful things, yet he's the greatest playwright ever," says the Texan.

Talking to Robison on the day of the album release, one gets a sense of a man with a unique viewpoint and sense of humor who's not going to let anyone dictate the music he plays.

That perspective comes largely from Robison's hometown, the tiny tourist town of Bandera, Texas.

"Especially in Bandera - Texas just in general - if you grew up in a small town, you get to know a lot of characters, and Texas is great about storytelling and passing things down. Your grandparents, your great-grandmother late at night would tell stories about whoever this crazy guy was or drunk guy or Indians, so storytelling was just such a big part of my growing up that it just seemed like a natural progression for your songs to be more story-oriented."

He's anything but apologetic about the variety of his sometimes dark subject matter.

"I have always liked writers who write about all different kinds of things because life is just full of all different kinds of things. And some of them might not be the most pleasant things in the world...I've always loved Salinger and Steinbeck and writers like that, and those writers have always gotten a certain amount of shit for writing - I won't say negatively, but I mean, I find that sometimes happiness comes out of depressing things. Tom Waits and Willie Nelson...these are the only two guys that even if you're very happy in your relationship, make having your heart broken sound like a really good thing. There's a romance about it, and there's a romance about everything."

Robison got into music at 15 when brother Bruce - also an artist on Sony's Lucky Dog imprint now - started playing bass in a local band. "All that was left was drums," Robison says, "So I got my grandmother to buy me a set of drums...Bandera was so small that you just had to play what was needed."

Next he went to college at Southwest Texas, and his experience there provided food for a verse of "My Hometown": "Well, I played ball every single fall; I could run just like the wind/I went to college like they asked me to, but they didn't ask my friends/I don't think I seen a single classroom, but I drank a lot of beer/My buddies still love to listen to me when I talk about that year."

He eventually made it to Austin, where he played in Two Hoots and a Holler and Chapparal before starting his own band, the Millionaire Playboys. Through much of this time, Bruce was with him.

"We played in a lot of these bands together. We both kind of pushed each other....If one of us was taking time off... and if the other one started playing again, started getting something going, it lit a fire in the other guy's ass....So one guy was always trying to catch up with the other one."

Robison then went solo and released his first album, "Bandera," in 1995. After that, he went to Nashville and signed with Warner Brothers.

"They were trying to push me to go in a real commercial direction. So we did a whole record for them, and then they wanted me to change styles, and I said that I wasn't going to, so that made it kind of ugly. I really had no desire to work in Nashville anymore after that. But then Sony - this guy Blake Chancey who's head of A & R at Sony - because the alternative country thing is taking off, he just started this label (Lucky Dog) with my brother and I and a couple of bands in mind."

Robison is overjoyed about his current label.

"It's gonna be more of a vanity kind of label, and we're going to be able to do whatever kind of songs we want to in exactly the style we want to, and we creatively market it...I'm going to be marketed out of Nashville with a couple of songs off the record that can be construed as more in the commercial vein, and the rest of it will be marketed alternatively like a Son Volt or anybody else in the alternative market."

The subject of Robison's engagement to Dixie Chicks banjo player Emily Erwin doesn't come up until more than halfway through the conversation when Robison laughs and says he thought this just might be the first interview when he didn't get asked about her. They met at Gruene Hall and "just hit it off." They plan to get married in the spring.

With a famous fiancÚ and brother, who, incidentally, happens to be married to Kelly Willis, does Robison ever feel overshadowed?

"Not at all. I mean, Bruce and I have always put up with that. You look at it this way: I could (otherwise) not be engaged to a beautiful, successful girl. I like my situation just fine. I've got a wonderfully talented, successful brother. It couldn't be better."

Robison admits that not everyone is going to appreciate his brand of storytelling. "I'm not looking for a million or platinum record or anything like that, but you just want to be able to get it to the people who want it. You just don't want to waste a bunch of money trying to cram it down people's throats who are never going to get this kind of music. We're just going to try to do the best we can and see what happens. Things have been going great so far."