By Richard Skanse
Considering that there’s enough cocaine on her latest album to fuel Tusk-era Fleetwood Mac, it’s somewhat of a surprise (and/or relief) to hear Robyn Ludwick admit that she’s actually never tried the stuff. Not even so much as a little sniff.
“Never in my life!” the happily married mother of two insists with a laugh — albeit with perhaps just the tiniest pinch of regret.
“I mean, it was always all around me, because I liked to hang out with dangerous people, but that didn’t mean that I was necessarily dangerous myself,” she explains. Growing up in Bandera and Kerrville, Texas, she always thought of herself as a “total rebel” who never really fit in with most of her small-town peers, the tough chick who drove around town in her ’65 Mustang proudly blasting Springsteen during the age of Erasure. But the fact that she was also a disciplined coach’s daughter with designs on an athletic scholarship to UT made her very much a rebel with a pause.
“I was a jock in high school, so I was scared to death of anything, you know, ‘hardcore,'” she continues. “On that side of things, I was pretty much a square; I just never had any interest in it. But, I watched … ”
“Square” or not, though, the notion of Ludwick having ever really been “scared to death” of anything is a little hard to believe. Both onstage and on record, the Wimberley-based songwriter exudes a fearless tenacity that gives even her most vulnerable songs a steel core and serrated razor’s edge. Even in casual conversation, you get the sense that this is not a woman easily rattled. Three years ago, while on tour Down Under, she played a concert at an Australian prison for an audience full of prisoners serving life for murder. And apart from having to explain to her then 7-year-old daughter that no, she could not could go with her to that show, Ludwick says she felt “oddly comfortable” walking into that setting — and even more in her element teaching an intimate songwriting workshop for some of the inmates right after. “We basically had this round robin on how songwriting can get you through the worst of times, and it was the most incredible thing,” she enthuses. “I played ‘Out of These Blues,’ and there were literally hardened criminals crying.”
Ludwick wrote “Out of These Blues,” the title track to her 2011 third album, for her older brother Charlie Robison when he was going through a divorce; he ended up recording a version of it himself, along with another song of his sister’s, “Monte Carlo,” that she wrote about their mother. Going all the way back to her Danny Barnes-produced 2005 debut, For So Long, Ludwick has mined many of her best (and most brutally honest) songs direct from personal and family history. But her emotionally forthcoming fortitude as a writer is by no means limited to songs she’s lived through; as shown throughout This Tall to Ride (released in May), Ludwick’s words ring just as true when she blurs the lines between first-hand experience, second-hand news, and unabashed rock ’n’ roll fantasy. Not every story she writes and sings this time around is necessarily her own, but sans bio or cheatsheet, good luck telling the difference.
“I just love to write about things — and people — that are real,” she says, noting that most of the “adult situations” she tends to focus can loosely be described as “desperate.” “A lot of my stories would scare the hell out of somebody that didn’t know me, or who wasn’t a fan. In fact somebody recently said that I write like nobody’s ever going to listen, because I write like I don’t care what people think. I guess if someone’s uncomfortable with a woman singing about stuff that’s not your every day subject matter … I’m OK with that, because I’ve never been the one that wants Top 40 stuff. Some people seem to understand me.”
She laughs at this, along with the admission that more often than not, she writes “like a dude.” Part of that is just attitude, stemming from her observation of not just Charlie but her other very successful songwriting brother, Bruce Robison, that “dudes can get away with things.” But she also means it in the literal sense. “I write form the male’s perspective like 75 percent of the time, which I know is really odd,” she says. “Some people think I’m a lesbian because of it, because I’ll be singing about a woman, but I’m actually a man in those songs singing about a woman.”
Or, in the case of the new album’s coke-addled “Rock N Roll Shoes,” she’s singing from the perspective of one man (Stevie Ray Vaughan) coaching another (Ray Wylie Hubbard) in the act of getting his life back together. It seems all the time Ludwick spent with Hubbard a couple of years ago organizing the “Flood of Love” concert benefiting their beloved Wimberley in the wake of the devastating Memorial Day Weekend flood of 2015 made quite an impression on her. “Ray and I got some windshield time together when we were hitting all the radio stations to promote the event, and one of the incredible stories he shared that really stuck with me was the one about how Stevie Ray Vaughn basically convinced him to go through this 12-step program and get sober,” she says. “So in ‘Rock N Roll Shoes,’ Stevie Ray is the narrator, if you will, asking ‘How did you get those cocaine blues?’”
Implied or explicit, “those cocaine blues” — amongst other demons of the road and lives lived on the edge — creep up again and again all through This Tall to Ride. And though we all know Hubbard’s real life story had a happy ending (or rather, a happy new beginning), the fate of the myriad other junkies, clowns, and rock ’n’ roll dreamers drifting through the album is left ambiguous; Ludwick’s not one for tying things up with tidy little bows. But she never passes judgment in song, either. “Good people can face really bad things at any point,” she says, “and it can change your life forever depending on the choices you make in those situations.”
As befits its lyrical themes, This Tall to Ride rings closer in sonic spirit to mature ’70s album-oriented-rock and same-vintage singer-songwriter fare (think Springsteen, Tom Petty, Chrissie Hynde, Stevie Nicks and at times Jackson Browne at their moodiest) than it does to anything in the contemporary Texas, Americana or country spheres. Ludwick is quick to credit the album’s organic rock ’n’ roll groove to her husband and bassist John “Lunchmeat” Ludwick, who manned the producer’s chair again for the first time since her 2008 sophomore album, Too Much Desire. “After doing two great records in a row (Out of These Blues and 2014’s Little Rain) with Gurf Morlix, we just decided to try something different — which is what every artist does,” she says.
The first thing on Lunchmeat’s agenda was recruiting a full band for the sessions. “That was the major difference for me,” Ludwick continues. “I think Gurf played every single lead instrument on the records we made together; he likes to create his own world, where you kind of hole up on a desert island. And you come away with an amazing record, but … [laughs] there’s not a lot of outsourcing.”
By contrast, Lunchmeat called in a veritable dream-team of Austin’s most in-demand players, including guitar hero David Grissom, pedal steel ace Geoff Queen, and piano and Wurlitzer maestro Bukka Allen. The sessions also featured the whole gang of local all-stars that Ludwick played with throughout much of 2016 as part of the Band of Babies: guitarist Chris Gebhard, drummer Ed Jarusinsky, and fellow singer-songwriters Kacy Crowley and Kevin McKinney. The Babies’ run ended last year with the closing of their favorite Austin venue, Strangebrew, but you can still feel the buzz of their late-night rock shows reverberating all through This Tall to Ride and especially on its catchiest tracks, including the edgy opener “Love You For It” (co-written with Crowley), the exhilarating “Lie to Me,” the passionate (and unabashedly Petty-esque) “Insider,” and “Wrong Turn Gone,” a rare co-write with her husband.
“I had to beat it out of him,” Ludwick says, teasing him over dinner at Guero’s Taco Bar following a live taping for Austin’s Sun Radio. “I had the melody but just couldn’t get it together lyric-wise at the time, but I knew it was something that John could help me on. So I was like, ‘Come on, dude!’ And he came up with some of the best lines, like ‘drowning in drought’ and the title phrase …”
“I just kind of added the bridge, changed keys,” her husband quickly demurs. “It’s far from being a co-write — it’s her song. And I’m not surprised it doesn’t happen more often; she’s the songwriter — I’m just a passenger along for the ride.”
Ludwick rolls her eyes but lets the matter go, having already made her case on the matter of her soulmate’s invaluable contributions to both the album and her overall musical awareness in an earlier (solo) interview: “I know this sounds really backwoods, but John’s like the big brother and the husband. [Laughs] I mean, he’s 11 years older, and he taught me stuff about music that even my brothers didn’t — and he taught my brothers stuff, too! They had this trio in the early ’90s called the Weepers, and John brought all the material to it. The dude has got this insane catalog of music in his brain, because he’s been around forever and dabbled in every kind of genre.”
By her own admission, Robyn was a bit of a late bloomer, musically speaking. Although she was hip to plenty of good artists in her teens — from classic rock and country staples to songwriters like Lucinda Williams and Mary Chapin Carpenter — and sang a time or two with her brothers throughout young adulthood, after college she opted for a career in forensic engineering and waited until she was 31 before writing her first song and even giving a thought to performing, let alone pursuing a recording career. But she’s been the most prolific songwriter out of Robison clan ever since — especially since finally quitting her full-time day job three years ago. Although her latest album is still warm from the oven, she’s already got at least half-an-album’s worth of new songs ready for her next one, just as many of This Tall to Ride’s songs first began rearing their heads not long after the release of Little Rain. She recalls premiering her song “Mexia” — set in the tiny Texas town just east of Waco and inspired by its most (in)famous native, Anne Nichole Smith — on the radio two years back, when she and Hubbard were promoting their flood benefit.
“I finished the song, and Ray looked over and was like, ‘You make me look like Donny Osmond!’” she says, beaming. “We’d known each other for a while before that, but I don’t think he’d ever really been in a spot where he had to really focus and listen, and I guess he felt that day like he had met his match. That meant a lot for me for him to tell me that.”
Another song on the new record owes its name, if not its story, to a similar reaction her writing elicited from her brother Charlie at a show they played together a year or two back at McGonnigel’s Mucky Duck in Houston. But of course, Charlie being Charlie, he expressed his admiration in an entirely different fashion.
“We’re playing this show, which was really the only show that we’ve ever done together, just him and me, and he had just gotten back from Puerto Vallarta or somewhere and was still on margarita time, so he was kind of blowing off the ‘little sister gig,’ you know?” Ludwick says. “I mean, he’s always been supportive, but Charlie and I are very competitive because I was the youngest and he was the oldest, and he basically raised me to be tough as nails. So in front of the whole crowd, he goes, ‘I’ve got a whole list of songs here that can kick your ass — because I’m Texas Jesus!’”
She doubles over laughing. “I mean, Charlie says some shit, but even I was like, ‘What? You really just said that, right?’ So I had this really inappropriate song that I had just written — I don’t even know where it came from, but I was just about to play and I was like, ‘I guess I know what this song is called now.’ And it got titled ‘Texas Jesus’ right there onstage at the Mucky Duck.”
Seeing as how the song was written before that incident, the handle “Texas Jesus” never actually comes up in the lyrics; nor is the song even about Charlie. But no matter how down-and-out, strung-out, far-out, or flat-out desperate Ludwick’s characters on the album may seem, every one of them feels as three-dimensional and real as the seedy bars and dark corners she paints them into — be they literal (“Bars Ain’t Closin’”) or metaphorical, as in “Freight Train,” which pits its determined but wary heroine against the advances of a would-be champion/patron/predator with promises to burn.
“That one’s about being female in the music business,” she says. “Whether you’re a legitimate musician or songwriter or anything, you get tons of offers along the lines of, ‘Do you want this record to come out? Do you want this money?’ It happens to all of us, and it happens all the time. And I’m sure it happens to men, too — those choices are out there for any person to make.”
As usual, Ludwick leaves it up to the listener to decide how the protagonist in the song ultimately responds to the choices in front of her. But although she concedes that the repeated tagline of “I don’t know what I’m doing” is “the only part of the song that’s me, specifically,” the fact is that, despite her keen empathy for lost souls and admitted obsession with warts-and-all rockumentaries, from day one of her own journey she’s always had her priorities in order. A dozen years now into her recording and touring career, she’s proven time and again that she can write as tough as any dude and rock with the best of them, but no brass ring or whiff of fame will ever have a stronger pull on her than family.
“Even before I became a mom, I always took the route that was best for the people around me, instead of just for myself,” she says. “So for me, my choice was always what was waiting at home. It was the safe choice, but it was also the choice that made me sane.”
Then again, there was that one time when a fan of hers came along and told her he wanted to put her in a movie. Having never acted a day in her life, Ludwick knew the safe and sane choice would have been to politely decline. But she also knew it wasn’t really a “gonna make a star” pitch so much as, well, kind of a dare. It also sounded fun. Conceived and written by Las Vegas songwriter Jeff Mix as an ambitious companion piece to his debut album of the same name, the hour-long independent film Lost Vegas Hiway follows a handful of disparate dreamers and down-and-outers (not unlike those on Ludwick’s own album) all driven by choice or circumstance to Sin City’s dilapidated Gateway Motel. In addition to Mix, who plays a fictionalized version of himself in the lead role, it also features songwriters Hal Ketchum and Jack Ingram, playing a Texas bar owner and blue collar patron, respectively, in an early scene filmed at the Devil’s Backbone Tavern just outside of Wimberley. Ludwick, meanwhile, plays a battered woman on the run with her young daughter from a seriously unhinged ex-lover — played by none other than her ex-producer, Gurf Morlix. Neither of them get a lot of screen time, but their one explosive scene together serves as the film’s harrowing climax.
“I don’t want to give anything away, but he finds me and he basically tries to kill me,” Ludwick teases with a laugh. “And we filmed it at like 1 a.m., this really scary time of night, so the whole thing was pretty intense …”
“I mean, I went into it thinking they’d just want me to play a musician, or maybe do a like Pee Wee Herman kinda cameo or something: ‘Paging Mr. Herman!’ But no — I had to be all crying and screaming and you know, acting. And I was like, ‘I don’t know what these people are thinking, because people go to school for years to learn that!’
“So it was very intimidating for me, and hard,” she continues. “But the crew was really amazing and worked with me for like two days straight. In fact, Gurf and I went out there a few days early, and they put us up in this really nice place, and we just rehearsed ever night. So it ended up being pretty cool. I actually just got to see it for the first time when Jeff sent me the DVD. It’s really heavy and very adult, you know like an HBO kind of thing, which of course makes it weird because my kids want to see it. But I like those kind of things, and think it turned out really nice.
“In other words, I’m not embarrased by it or anything.”
So how was her co-star?
“Gurf was great,” she enthuses, then grins. “But all he had to do was play a whacko — which he seemed to enjoy a little too much!”
[Lost Vegas Hiway was officially released for streaming and download on Amazon Instant Video on July 7. The companion album of the same name by Jeff Mix and the Songhearts is also available on various digital platforms. Both are worth checking out — along with Robyn Ludwick’s This Tall to Ride, naturally.]