By Richard Skanse
When Bruce Robison expresses his deep admiration for Don Williams, the Floydada, Texas-born “Gentle Giant” of country music, its just sounds about right. It’s not just the fact that Robison is a giant of sorts himself, standing “taller than most” at 6’7”, and possessed of the kind of easy demeanor that, at least in comparison to button-pushing, wise-cracking fellow artists like Bruce’s brother Charlie, could easily earn you the tag “gentle.” The Don Williams connection goes well beyond Robison’s towering height and nice-guy vibe, and the proof is his fine new independent album, Country Sunshine. The songs are all new, but there’s a quiet, dignified grace that runs through the album that brings to mind the broken-in, sincere comfort of such Williams recordings as “Love Me Over Again” and “Lord, I Hope This Day is Good.” Robison’s more of a writer than Williams — indeed, songwriting, moreso than performing and recording, is Robison’s true calling — but he writes the kind of honest and genuinely moving songs you can imagine Williams singing, and sings them himself with the same sense of spirit if not quite the same grandfatherly voice.
Williams hasn’t actually cut one of Robison’s songs yet, but a handful of more modern giants have and will likely continue to do so. LeeAnn Womack recorded Robison’s song “Lonely Too” for her Grammy-nominated, multi-platinum album I Hope You Dance, and Tim McGraw cut “Angry All the Time” for his current country smash Set This Circus Down — and more importantly, released it as a single. And that’s not even mentioning “Right Man for the Job,” the song he co-wrote with Charlie that will be the next single on Charlie’s major label Step Right Up album, or “Wrapped,” one of the stand-out moments on his wife Kelly Willis’ acclaimed 1999 album, What I Deserve. Over lunch at Jovita’s on a recent rainy afternoon in Austin, Robison confessed to being taken back a bit by the rapid ascent that the McGraw single has taken into the country Top 10, admitting that he’s never had much reason to follow the charts before. Given the way things are going for him lately — what with two of Country Sunshine’s best songs having already been recorded for future release by Womack and rising star Gary Allan — don’t be surprised if he starts paying a lot more attention from here on out.
So where were you when the news came down that Tim McGraw was going to use your song “Angry All the Time” as the next single?
I just happened to be in Nashville, and the publishing company called me and they asked me to come by the office. I thought maybe they were going to drop me, but I went over there, and they had put the fax with the news up on the wall — that’s how they found out [that it was going to be the next single]. I called Kelly, and it pretty much went like this: “We got the new single.” “Uh-uh. Really?” “Yeah.” “Uh-uh!” [Laughs] We did that for about 20 minutes.
It was a big cut for us — a very good thing for myself and my young family. I’m still pinching myself. I’ve mentioned that I thought I was lucky to a lot of people, and a couple of them have said, “Hey, I think that song is great — you’re not lucky.” But I’ve heard a lot of great songs that never had someone like that cut them, where a certain level of success is assured. I’ve been going to Nashville for 10 years but I still really do feel fortunate that this happened, because there have been a lot of fantastic writers, people that I idolize, that have never had something like where it’s like, “Hell yeah it’s Top 10 — it’s Tim McGraw!” It’s wild. When you get a song on one of his records, that’s like hitting a double, and when he decides to single it, it’s a home run. It’s just whether it’s a one-run home run or a grand slam. It takes the guessing game out of it, because it’s going to do well.
You left Sony earlier this year to concentrate on songwriting and go back to releasing albums on your own label, Boar’s Nest. Can you tell me a first person horror story about life on a major label?
Horror story is not the word. I have a different take on it. In my situation, I didn’t feel like I fit into the major label mentality the way it is right now. I was in a situation where I had a record deal with what I think is the best record company in Nashville, and I still didn’t like it. They gave me all the freedom that I wanted — actually too much. They wanted me not to think about commercial country radio and all that, but I knew that at a Nashville record company, if you’re not going to think about the charts or getting on commercial radio, you might as well not be on a Nashville label because that’s what they understand and do best. Kelly’s record was on Rykodisc, and they were great at doing grassroots stuff, but Sony Nashville, that’s not their forte. So I was in a situation that I just didn’t think fit. And then when I found out my song was going to be a McGraw single, I found myself in a position that most people don’t have. I don’t have to worry about how my record performs; I can just do it however I want to, and it will just find its own level. I make my money and my main focus is on a completely different thing — it’s on writing songs and getting them cut. So it really wasn’t a case of “I’ve got this stuff and the mean guys at the label are ruining it all.” Yeah, I’ve had horror stories where I’ve gone in and talked to somebody and they didn’t understand anything about what I was doing and I was doomed to failure, because they’ve got this song and they’re not trying to do anything with it. But I’m not one to curse those guys — I’ll just find a place where it fits better.
It was a leap of faith to leave Sony, but every since then it’s felt like I did the right thing. It was only hard because I’m taking money out of my family’s mouth as an investment to go do these things, but because of Kelly and what she’s got going on and because of what I’ve already got going on, we were able to do that. And it’s been an amazing couple of years. Lee Ann Womack’s record has done amazingly well, and that was before the McGraw thing ever happened. It wasn’t a single but it’s still a great thing — that’s two multi-platinum albums in one year, and Lee Ann just cut another one of my songs, “Blame It On Me,” that will hopefully make it on her next record. And Gary Allan already recorded “What Would Willie Do,” and his last record has almost sold a million so they’re going to make a big push on him next time around. So that side of it is really going great. I don’t think I would have been able to do it otherwise — drop away from the Sony deal. But it felt like, “If I don’t do it now, I’m never going to be able to do it.”
I can imagine Gary Allan doing a good job on “What Would Willie Do,” but I hope he delivers the line about Willie taking a deep breath and holding it as good as you do on Country Sunshine. That’s the best part of the song.
[Laughs] It’s a fun song, and he does a good job of it — I’ve heard it. I really like that song to tell you the truth. It was a lot of fun to get [Willie’s harmonica player] Mickey Raphael to play on it. It was a blast recording that. This was the best recording situation I’ve ever had. It all felt good
When and where was the album recorded?
I recorded it in Nashville. I did a little bit here, but I did most of it at a really cool place called Cowboy Jack Clements Cowboy Arms Hotel and Recording Spa. He was the engineer on a lot of Sun session stuff in Memphis in the ’50s, and then he went to Nashville and did a lot of the stuff that was really formative to me through the ’60s and ’70s — Charlie Pride, Don Williams, and most of the really great Waylon Jennings stuff. He’s got a studio that is not used all that much at his house, and that’s where they recorded the first couple of Iris DeMent records and the last couple of John Prine records and a lot the records through the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s that I really loved. So we went in there, and I used some of the musicians who played on those records back then, my heroes. We tracked in Nashville that way, then came back here and put Kelly on it, and Ian McLagan on it and a couple of my friends, and then took it back to Nashville and mixed it there. That’s the way I always work — piecemeal. I have to go where the people are that I want to use.
My favorite track on the album is “Friendless Marriage,” the big George Jones and Tammy Wynette style duet you do with Kelly. Was that a conscious attempt on your part to write and record the perfect country song?
Well, that’s obviously always my goal. I don’t write happy songs hardly ever because to me it’s hard to sound genuine. For me it’s easier to write sad songs, and to me that’s kind of what country music’s always been about. It kind of lost me a bit when it got all up-tempo and positive. I’ve got no use for it — I’d rather listen to rock ’n’ roll or something like that when I’m feeling that way. I tend to write sad songs and I tend to write about a lot of the harder times in life. When I was making records and making songs with an ear towards getting on country radio, they’d end up being like bad rock ’n’ roll songs.
Kelly and I wrote that song together. She woke up one night and she dreamed the melody line and the hook for the chorus. She told me that she’d dreamed this thing, and she asked me if I’d ever heard it before. I said “No,” and I hope it’s not floating around out there. But I said “that’s great!” and I went out and finished the song from the melody line she had dreamed. That was a couple of years ago, and I’ve been working on the arrangement every since then, to turn it into this George and Tammy type of thing. Nobody’s making songs like that anymore, and I miss them, to tell you the truth. It’s a very sincere song. Things are so ironic these days, everybody’s kind of winking at you, but my songs are very sincere in a way that seems antiquated in a way.
But as country as “Friendless Marriage” sounds, there are elements to the album that, while not upbeat and happy, that definitely color outside the lines. A lot of the organ and keyboard on here kind of reminds me of Boz Scaggs or even Supertramp.
That’s what makes this “what is country music” debate that people have nowadays so complicated. In the old days, the people that made country music, their influences were very narrow in a great way. If you grew up in a rural area back in the ’40s and ’50s, you were going to have a certain range of influences. But now, guys like us, what are our influences? They’re all over the place. You can’t help it. Yeah I listened to country music when I was a kid, and I listened to rock ’n’ roll. There was all kinds of crazy stuff everywhere, especially if you grew up in Texas. We’re all a product of our influence. Boz Scaggs? Yeah. I can’t help it. “Lido Shuffle” was my favorite song in the fifth grade. I’ve heard Boz Scaggs all my life. I don’t know if he was a big influence on me, but you can’t get away from it. These days you can’t escape those things when you’re growing up, and they’re going to manifest themselves in your music.
How old were you when you first started writing?
Probably about 25 or 26. I kind of started writing songs out of desperation when I had left college and quit playing basketball. I had nothing. I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life. I didn’t even get close to graduating. I was a lousy student. I was pretty good at literature and things I was interested in, but I couldn’t do anything that I wasn’t interested in so I hardly ever passed any courses. But the moment I started writing songs, doors started opening. I’d never realized how closed all the doors were before, and that I was doing things that I was really bad at. But the moment I started writing songs, someone would be like, “Hey that’s not a bad song, you should show that to my manager, or my publisher.” And I would. Before that it was like, “You’re a lousy basketball player, but you’re barely good enough to make the team, so you can stay around,” or “You’re in school and you paid your tuition, so we can’t throw you out, but …” That’s the way it felt before I started writing songs.
Here comes the inevitable part of the interview where we talk about brother Charlie. I’ve always wondered if it bothered you that when people talk about the two of you, you’re always “the nice one.” And yet, here you’re the guy that wrote what some might consider his most offensive song, “You’re Not the Best.”
It’s very good that you saw that. We went to see the Dixie Chicks last year, and they were playing Charlie’s CD before the show, and my grandmother leaned over to me and said, “I love Charlie, but I hate that song. I just cannot believe he did it — I hate that song ‘You’re Not the Best.’” I think that encapsulates what I can get away with, because she had no idea that I wrote it. Somebody else told her later on, but I didn’t even mention it. But there are songs of mine that Charlie has done and to me, it’s the best of both worlds, because I wouldn’t have the guts to do that song, and I couldn’t sell it anyway. But people love that side of his personality. So if someone wants to pigeonhole us that way, that’s ok. Those are some of the least offensive pigeonholes that can happen. As long as Charlie’s ok with it, too. It doesn’t matter what they say, as long as it’s not true.
He caught a lot of flak for some of the comments he made in a recent interview in the Austin Chronicle. Among them was the one where he said he was a better songwriter than you. Did you call him on that?
No, he called me. I hadn’t read it yet. But you know, Charlie says a lot of things that everybody feels. On one hand, you have to feel that you are a good songwriter, or you wouldn’t have the guts to do it. So he thinks he’s really good, and he needs to. The people that ask me about that, I say, “Well, listen to ‘Loving County,’ listen to ‘My Home Town,’ or ‘John O’Reilly’ off his new record.” And you can make the case that he’s a better songwriter than just about anybody. But then you get into the ridiculous, unenviable task that you guys are in every day of having to compare and contrast everybody.
How intense was the competition between you two growing up, be it in sports, popularity, or anything else?
It wasn’t that intense because it was never a fair fight. Charlie so far out-stripped me in whatever we did. He was a football star in a small Texas town, which you can’t appreciate unless you’ve lived in one and know what that’s like. He’s a very gregarious person and he has a personality that really attracts people to him and has supreme confidence and is in every way the complete opposite of me. So I felt the competition, but he never has. I’ve never been a threat to him. The only time it’s been a problem has been for me. The first few years we played music I didn’t like it because we played the same clubs for a lot of the same people with a lot of the same musicians. But over the last few years, we were able to delineate the differences between us, and that has made it a lot easier and allowed us to work together and each do the things we want to do. We both are making plans to make a record together.
But were there days when I hated my brother? You bet. Are there days when we still scream at each other? You bet and there always will be. But my God am I proud of him now. It would be real easy for me to say, “Man, I’m down there busking on Sixth Street, and Charlie is on the cover of Texas Music magazine.” But eight or nine years ago, I was playing open mics when I met Kelly, and she was making records for MCA. It was a really good learning experience. You learn humility and essentially who you are and how to do your own stuff without being concerned how well they’re doing in comparison. Now, between Emily [Robison of the Dixie Chicks, Charlie’s wife] and Kelly and me and Charlie, I’m just really proud of our whole family and hope that we will be able to continue to do what we all do in a way that we love and also pay the bills.