By Richard Skanse
Titling a Charlie Robison album Good Times is kind of like naming your dog “Dog.” But sometimes, stating the obvious isn’t so much a mark of laziness as a statement of purpose. Not for nothing did Robison’s last studio album, 2001’s Step Right Up, open with a resume-in-rhyme he wrote with his brother Bruce called “Right Man For the Job.” Step Right Up was supposed to be Charlie’s BIG record, the one with major-label muscle hefting him into the spotlight not just as the latest “outlaw” from Texas stirring things up in Nashville but as a bona fide country star, and the catchy “Right Man For the Job” — every bit as much as “I Want You Bad,” the NRBQ cover picked as the album’s first single — was tailor-made for country radio airplay. “You want the next big thing?” both songs seemed to ask. “Well here I am. I’m your man.”
And it very nearly worked. For all his maverick bravado and brash, unfashionable criticism of fellow country artists (Brad Paisley and Kenny Chesney come to mind as two particularly memorable Robison targets, both in interviews and from the concert stage), Robison was still well on his way to becoming not just a judge on Nashville Star but a Nashville star himself, right down to a video in heavy rotation on CMT. Of course, there’s nothing to say his next major breakthrough still isn’t just around the corner. But at the moment, that kind of fame seems to be the last thing on Robison’s mind — and not just because his priorities shifted after his wife Emily Robison (the banjo and dobro player in a little trio called the Dixie Chicks) gave birth to their first child, a son named Gus (or, later down the line when he gets in trouble, “Charles Augustus Robison!”) Parenthood has indeed had a profound effect on the infamously reckless Robison, but even if he wasn’t a new father, it was surely only a matter of time before Bandera’s favorite bad boy grew tired of hopping through mainstream radio hoops and playing a restrained version of himself on a TV talent show. So when a contractual “loophole” turned up allowing him to bow out gracefully from his deal with Columbia Nashville, sign to the more independent-spirited Dualtone and return to his home turf to record a new record with Lloyd Maines (who helmed Robison’s 1995 debut, Bandera, and 1998’s terrific Life of the Party), there was no holding him back. Hence, his new album kicks off not with a song about getting any kind of job done but rather one telling titled … well, “Good Times.” And it shows. It’s been a while since Robison sounded this confident on record, and there’s a reason for that: He’s back to doing things the way he was born to do them — his way.
We talked with Robison via phone on his ranch in Medina, Texas, caught in the act of bailing hey. It was a day before he was scheduled to play a show way, way out West in El Paso and a week away from his 40th birthday. “You don’t have to print that,” he laughed. But somehow, we really don’t think Charlie Robison gives a damn if people know how old he is. And if he does, hey … we were just feeling a little reckless. Surely he’ll understand.
So you’re headed out to El Paso tomorrow. You know, that’s “ my hometown.”
Really? I love El Paso.
I was actually going to offer you my condolences.
[Laughs] No, I love El Paso, for the same reason I love San Antonio. It’s one of the few cities that are unaffected by suburbanization. I mean, El Paso’s definitely grown, but it’s still pretty old school there.
Continuing with the small world theme, you birthday is Sept. 1, the day before mine. How will you be celebrating?
Me and a bunch of friends are going to Vegas.
So you won’t be working this year?
No. Well, I do my Labor Day thing at Gruene Hall, and sometimes it falls on my birthday, but this time it doesn’t. This year it’s still going to be like a birthday bash, like it has been for the last six or seven years in a row, but it’s on the 4th and 5th. So we’ll go out to Vegas and then come back and play the two-night stand at Gruene.
Are you a big gambler?
What’s your game?
Believe it or not, roulette.
Really? Can you be good at roulette?
No, and that’s what I like about it. You know your fucking chance is there, and it’s just all based on a feeling. It’s kind of a karmic thing. So you can just drink and have fun and bullshit and play at the same time rather than get all serious about blackjack or something and get screwed and not have a good time while you’re playing it. Roulette doesn’t take a lot of thought, and any game that doesn’t require a lot of thought is a good game for me! There’s no science to it, that’s for sure.
I don’t reckon you and your buddies will be catching Celine Dion’s show while you’re in Sin City.
No, but we’re gonna see Tom Jones. I go see Tom every time we’re in Vegas. I’m a Tom Jones fanatic. I’ve seen him like, 27 times now. He is really amazing in concert.
That sounds like a pretty good time. Speaking of … I’m really digging Good Times. Because it sounds like you weren’t trying to please anyone but yourself.
Thanks a lot. It was just kind of a, you know, turning 40, being a dad … I was just like, “Fuck it. I’m just not going to worry at all about the record company or anything.” And for the first time ever I just wrote off groove things, and just kind of went about it in a whole different way than I have all the other ones. I loved all that ’70s country that was very hard to categorize, and I wanted this to have that kind of vibe — like where Don Williams would make a record, and Eric Clapton was digging Don Williams, or when Willie was making Shotgun Willie, and that whole record was based on kind of a groove thing. I wanted to make a record that sounded like it could have been made in 1974 … just groove-oriented, where it has kind of a bounce the whole way through.
This was really the first record that I really had fun recording. I usually don’t like the recording process that much. The writing process and the recording process are stressful, because when you’re on a big label, everybody’s expecting so damn much. And you really can’t please everybody. But when you don’t worry about that and just go, “This is what I’m doing,” it always seems to work out where you end up with something good.
You went back to Lloyd Maines for this one. Is working with Lloyd worlds removed from working with Blake Chancey, the Sony guy who produced Step Right Up?
Yeah, very much. Lloyd and I just work so well together. We’re family, really. So it was really like going back to the beginning. Him and I have both come a long way musically, but we didn’t work together on the last record — that was the only record we didn’t work together on. So as I was writing this record I thought, “Man, I want to work with Lloyd on this.” We were both just totally fired up about working together again, and we had a blast the whole time. Blake is a friend and a lot of fun to do stuff with, too, but half of him is still a company man. So he’s still trying to edge you along in a way that’s a little bit more commercial, not too risqué. With Lloyd, it’s like the more risqué or the goofier it is, the better. We’re not trying to please anybody except ourselves.
In an interview you did for Step Right Up, you said you really liked that NRBQ song “I Want You Bad,” but that it was definitely something you cut with radio in mind, hoping that it’d draw attention to your own songs. So doing it for the record was kind of a compromise.
Yeah. And that’s the pressure I was talking about, with Blake being a good friend but also being the VP of A&R. They came out and said, “OK, we really feel like this is the time for you to bust out. We’re still going to give you artistic leeway, but try to meet us halfway. Try to compromise.” And I definitely did on that record. I did a couple of NRBQ songs. “Right Man for the Job” was written towards radio. I love that record, but there definitely were some compromises going on during the recording, and that’s the difference between Good Times and that one. Like I was saying earlier, I felt totally free of everything this time. While I was making the record, I felt like it was just a record for me and my buddies. We were just making stuff I’d want to listen to.
It’s that kind of freedom that allows you to cover a Terry Allen song, “Flatland Boogie.”
Exactly. And the funny thing is, I’m getting better response from country radio on this record than I did on the last record. So it just shows to go you that if you let go and do something that you love, then it comes through in the music. It transcends what’s considered commercial. You can hear that we were having a good time making the record, more so than on the last one. The last record sounded like we were trying to make a good record. This one just sounds like we were trying to have fun.
“Flatland Boogie” stands out, as any Terry Allen song will, but you’ve got three other covers on the record — two by Keith Gattis and one by Waylon Payne — that sound just like songs you’d write yourself. I did a double-take at the credits when I saw you didn’t write them.
Right. It’s very seldom that I’ll do too many covers. I’ll sometimes cut a song by my brother, but there’s very few other people that have that kind of vibe or delivery I like. But this friend of mine, Keith Gattis, and Waylon Payne both had these records I really liked that I was listening to before I started writing this record, and I totally fell in love with those songs. I was like, “I’m going to cut these songs and I’m going to cut ‘Flatland Boogie.’” And then I wrote the rest of the record kind of around those to fill in the tempo blanks and the groove blanks and make it a complete book. It’s a little bit daunting to do a cover of a song when you have so much respect for the original, but they ended up working out all right.
If you love the originals so much, what is it that makes you want to cover them in the first place?
Well, you’d love to be able to write that caliber of a song all the way through a record every time, but that’s a very hard thing to do. Plus, you get so fired up when you hear something that makes you kind of feel like you did in high school the first time you heard Jackson Browne or something like that. And it seems like the older you get and the more you listen to music, the more jaded you become, and those songs become fewer and farther in between. So when you do hear one like that, where it just kind of hits you in the stomach, you’re like, “Oh my god, I really want to hear this song, and I really want other people to hear it too.” So there’s two big reasons to do it.
Let’s talk about your own songs. I love Lloyd’s quip at the end of “Love Means Never Having to Say You’re Hungry,” when he says, “I don’t want to say the obvious, but that one has some sting on it.”
Yeah! While we were cutting it, he didn’t even think about what he was saying. And of course with the implied sexuality of the song and everything … we didn’t even realize it was on there until we were mixing. And we just busted out laughing. I went, “We have to leave that on there.”
That’s one song I definitely wouldn’t count on hearing on mainstream country radio.
Probably not. [Laughs]
I mean, there’s good, clean sexual innuendo, and then there’s cunnilingus innuendo.
Yeah. But it’s fun to mess with people who are a little stuff-shirty. Like, “Hey man, I’m talking about food. I don’t know what the hell you’re reading into it. That’s your problem!” So it’s fun to kind of pretend that I never intended that to have any oral sex innuendo whatsoever and try to get them to believe me.
My favorite song on the record though is “New Year’s Day.” In fact it’s beaten out “Loving County” as my favorite song of yours, period.
Oh cool. Thank you. It’s become my favorite for sure.
It just sounds like a song you’ll always be known for, years down the line.
Yeah. And it would be great to get “Loving County” kind of pushed back for a little while. [Laughs] I’m ready to have that new song that I’m known for. And that one was just a total blast to write. It was kind of pieced together from like 20 different trips to the border, from when I was 16 to 25. I took the highlights and the lowlights of those trips and put them all together.
It actually reminds me a lot of Robert Earl Keen’s “Wild Wind,” from his Gravitational Forces album. I think that’s one of his best songs, too. Did that song cross your mind at all while you were writing “New Year’s Day?”
The funny thing is, when I wrote the song and finished it, I called Robert up and said, “I just wrote one of your best songs.” And he started laughing. So yeah, when I wrote it, I thought, “This is one of my favorite Robert Earl Keen songs.” It wasn’t by any means by design, but there was probably some kind of seeping-in influence. It definitely has that groove to it and that kind of narrative style that Robert is the king of.
Are there other songs you’ve written like that, where you’ve thought, “I just wrote my favorite Joe Ely song …”?
It’s felt that way before. Like with “Love Means Never Having to Say You’re Hungry,” I felt like that was a really good Lyle Lovett song, because he’s so great at that narrative blues style. Some people do certain things so well that you can’t help but think of them when you cross into that style. It’s kind of a fun yardstick. If you are going to cross into a genre that somebody else is great at, like if you decide to write kind of a Southern rock song, you better make one that Lynyrd Skynrd or Marshall Tucker would add to their set. So it was fun to go out and be like a tourist into these other genres, kind of take a vacation from yourself.
How would you characterize your own writing? Can you put your finger on a distinctive Charlie Robison style?
I would say … I’m not sure this is the answer you’re looking for, but if you wanted to know who I’ve always wanted to be as a writer, it would be “New Year’s Day.” I’m so happy with the melody, if it was just the music playing, I’d be happy with it. And if I was just reading the words off a piece of paper, I would like those too. I think it has just a little bit more … I keep referring to the word “bounce,” but if I had to say what I wanted to be most like, it would be that song.
After you write a song, who’s more likely to get to hear it first — your brother Bruce or your wife, Emily?
Nobody. Nobody’s allowed to hear it until it’s down on tape. There’s only one song on this album that I played for Emily right after I wrote it — “Photograph.” I played it for Bruce and Emily in the same week, just because it’s very close to both of them. It’s about our family the first part of it, and then Emily and my family in the last part of it. So I was like, “This song is a little bit y’all’s, so you get to hear it. But the rest of them are mine so you’ll just have to wait.”
On Step Right Up, you had both Natalie Maines and Emily on the record. But this time you just have Natalie (singing on Keith Gattis’ “El Cerrito Place”). Is Emily too expensive these days?
Yeah. She makes me cook for like a month when she plays banjo or anything. Domestically, I can’t afford her.
Jon Dee Graham has a great line in one of his songs where he says, “Having a child takes the paint right off a man.” Can you relate to that now?
Most definitely. The whole laid-back attitude about going into this record, it was kind of like … when you have a kid, it’s a cliché, but your priorities change so much. Like I’m not going to harsh myself out trying to please some label guy who the last eight acts that he’s signed have been the worst fucking people in the whole world. I’m just going to go back and get more organic. All the people that came in and played on the record have been some of our best friends for 15 or 20 years. It definitely brings it all home musically.
At the same time, has fatherhood softened your edges any? Or slowed you down?
You know … I’d say, definitely, probably a little bit. But that poison in your blood, there’s really nothing you can do about that. And my son definitely showed me that. I mean, every other kid his age takes two naps a day, and then they’re asleep by 9 o’clock. He takes a 30-minute nap in the afternoon, and at 10:30 at night he’s just really waking up. At 12 o’clock, he’s hitting his stride. So I told my wife, “See? You see there? I can’t help it!” And she was like, “OK, I can see why!” She understands a little bit more why I am the way I am after seeing him at such a young age exhibit these qualities that are in the genetics. [Laughs]
You have the family now, and your career is established. But do you ever get nostalgic for the simpler days when you were playing on Sixth Street and the Continental Club in Austin, like people might dream about their college days?
You know, it’s odd because … well, “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” I have everything in the world I’ve ever wanted times 100. I have a beautiful wife, the most wonderful kid in the whole world, a career that I’m so lucky to have and this ranch that I love. But there’s so much responsibility that goes along with all of that, and sometimes, when you’re doing nothing but working on the ranch or taking care of the kid who’s whining and going over payroll and finances, all this stuff, you kind of think, “Man, I could use a couple of those days when I was sleeping until 4 o’clock in the afternoon, then going out and playing for $10 and spending it all on beer, and then just waking up wherever I woke up. All I had to worry about the next day was where I was going to get the next $10 and whose floor I was going to crash on.” So yeah, sure … there’s things about that that you do miss sometimes. But I’m definitely enjoying where I’m at now a lot more than I where I was then.
Were there ever nights on Nashville Star where you thought, “What the hell am I doing here?”
Oh yeah. Almost all of them! [Laughs]
In retrospect, was doing that a good time?
There were good times. The thing that always kept me going was looking at my check every week. I’d be like, “OK, I do like TV.” But it was more like a good experience. It was like, when I was in high school, I joined student council — I was like student council vice president – just so I could get out of school. I’d do anything to get out of school. So I was like a popular jock, but I joined student council. And we’d go on these retreats and stuff where you’d go hang out with all these other kids from different schools for a whole week, and at the end of it, one kid would play “Time in a Bottle” and everybody would do their “Kum-Bay-Ya” hugging and stuff. Doing Nashville Star was like one of those student council retreats; it was a good experience, but I would never want to go back and do it again.
Now that you’re on Dualtone, you’re label mates with john Arthur martinez, who was the Nashville Star runner-up on the season that you were a judge. Has he tried to critique your stuff yet?
[Laughs] Not yet. Well, I played with the band for the final episode of the show, and him and the other last two people all got to critique me, which was pretty funny. They just did their best impressions of the kind of lame ass comments I had made to them.
You mentioned being a jock in high school. You played football, right? What position?
In high school I was tailback and strong safety, and then in college [South West Texas] I was a linebacker.
So are you a Cowboys fan or a Texans fan?
Man, I hate the NFL. I’m a college football fan. I’m a UT fanatic. And I love watching A&M, I love watching Tech — I wish SMU or TCU were worth watching — but I love watching anybody that was in the old Southwest Conference. To me I feel that’s the only football that’s around. But I’d rather shove bamboo shoots up my fingers than watch the Cowboys. But I am a bigger Spurs fan than Jack Nicholson is a Lakers fan.
Your brother Bruce told me once that you were always the star athlete and he was the perpetual B-teamer. But he’s got three kids now, so he’s kicking your ass in the baby race.
Yeah, he definitely is doing that. And as far as No. 1 singles, he’s kicking my ass at that too. You’re not going to keep Bruce down. He’s very self-effacing, but don’t let that fool you. He knows right where he needs to be, just like everybody. I’m kind of the guy that’s more braggadocio and everything like that, and I use that to my advantage, but he definitely uses that whole “I’m just a shy boy who never does too much” thing, and that’s a crock of shit. That’s his angle, but don’t let him get away with it!
The cliché is that Bruce is the good boy and you’re the troublemaker. Growing up, did you ever get blamed for anything he did?
No. Actually, I was really good at blaming him for things I did. Whenever I was up to something mischievous, because he was the little brother, I’d be like, “You better come along or I’m going to frog you until your arm starts bleeding!” So he’d come along, and then we’d be throwing rocks and I’d break a window or something like that, and I’d blame him for it. And because I was a better orator at the time than he was, people would believe me rather than him. But it only took them a few years to catch on, and nobody ever believed me again.
I gotta ask … between Bruce and Kelly [Willis] having twins, and then Emily’s sister Martie having twins … are you and Emily scared shitless that you’re next?
We are scared way beyond shitless! Say a prayer. Three sets of twins in the family? Oh my god.