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Bruce Robison tells stories

By Dan MacIntosh, June 2006

"Eleven Stories," the title of Bruce Robison's latest release, seemingly states the obvious: He's a country songwriter, so aren't all his albums filled with stories? "I guess it was an odd choice," Robison agrees. "It's kinda saying that's what I'm tryin' to do. I suppose you're right; I guess that's what all of my records are like."

Robison penned The Dixie Chick's tear-jerking "Travelin' Soldier," which details a moving wartime romance. He also has a lighter side that comes through on "What Would Willie Do" from his previous "Country Sunshine" CD. That song's all about Willie Nelson's "medicinal" use of pot. It's one of his best "stories" and perhaps his funniest. "My records had been a little bit serious to that point, I was afraid, so it was good for me," Robison says of the song. "My sense of humor is a big part of who I am."

One has to wonder what Willie did and thought when he first heard it. "He seems to like it," Robison reports. "I got to talk to him about it a couple of times. He seemed to take it in the spirit with which it was offered. It's tough to be around him in that sense; I don't know if you know it, but there's been a ton of songs written about him. So in a way, you're just another bootlicker whenever you pay a tribute like that. But I meant it, and I think he's a really a great guy and a talented guy and a hero. But I'm not the first person that ever wrote a song about Willie Nelson. In my perfect world, he'd think of me as somebody that aspired to be a peer, rather than just someone who was just paying a tribute. But I'm a little bit of both."

On the new CD, Robison covers "Tennessee Jed," a Grateful Dead song written by Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter. Robison takes great joy in choosing the songs he covers and sees Nelson as an example of one who chooses cover songs well.

"I always thought that Willie Nelson chose really interesting things, and I try to find things that are outside of my own genre," he explains. "It really wouldn't be a stretch for me to do a Guy Clark song; I've been listening to him for a million years. That song, 'Tennessee Jed,' was one I wasn't aware of until I heard it about a year ago."

He loves the song, but he is by no means a Dead Head. "I don't know anything about The Grateful Dead, except for the two or three songs that they would play on classic rock radio," Robison admits. "A few years ago I bought a couple of their records that I really love, "Working-man's Dead" and "American Beauty." "I know very little about them, especially since they're such a way of life for such a huge part of the public. I think it is interesting, and it's not the type of song that I ever could have written, so it's a lot of fun to sing."

Because he's not a Dead fan, he came upon this gem purely by chance. "I think I heard it in the middle of the night on some weirdo radio program where they play Grateful Dead songs for a half an hour," he recalls.

Why he covers any particular song sometimes varies from song to song. A Webb Pierce number covered on the new release just called out for a duet vocal with Robison's wife, Kelly Willis, for instance. "Sometimes I'll want to do songs because they'll be fun to sing or that I can think of something that I can do that's different than the original," he explains. "And 'More And More,' the Webb Pierce song, didn't have harmonies on the original, so it was an excuse to do a tune with Kelly, which I'm always looking for."

If there's a theme that unites these 11 newly recorded songs, it's a rhythmic tie rather than a lyrical one. Robison set out to record an album of songs that were simply pleasurable to perform. "I wanted songs that you could play a tambourine along to," Robison says. "I wanted songs that felt really good; songs that weren't poetry, they weren't prose, they weren't novels. They were music, and they felt good in the way that a lot of my heroes' music feels. And that's what I was attempting to do - make a real musical record. And I realize that's redundant. Some songs that I've recorded, I've felt like they weren't all that groovy. So that's something I really thought I could do better."

A single from this new CD, "All Over But The Cryin'," is one of those instantly likeable songs. It's amazing nobody's used such a perfect song title before. "That's what I thought of when I thought of the title," Robison admits. "I actually went and looked on the internet to try and find out if there were 50 songs on there by that title."

Robison was happy, of course, to realize he was first with this title. "It was a pleasant surprise. It's a lot of fun to sing and play. It's real dramatic. It's real over the top. And it's tough to pull those things off, so it was a lot of fun to do."

"Eleven Stories" retains continuity, even though Robison worked with three separate bands while recording it. "We kind of got our studio up and running, so that makes it easier to work down here," says Robison about the songs he recorded in his Austin home. "On every record I've had, I think I've ended up doing some work with the players in Nashville, who are the best players that are on the planet, I think. And it's an amazing thing to be able to take part in. The guy, who played steel on the songs that we did in Nashville, played the steel on 'Exile On Main Street' and 50 other enormous, huge hits. So to be able to have that, it's hard to turn it down. You get your own special kinda vibe down here, but the players in Nashville, as far as our kind of music, they're all there, and they're the best."

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