Interviews: Charlie Robison

charlierobisonby: Thomas D. Mooney
Editor-in-Chief

Over the course of his twenty-something year career, Charlie Robison has become one of the pillars of Texas music. In an ever-changing landscape of sounds, songs, and fads, Robison has been able to stand out as one of the true voices and songwriters of a generation. 

He’s seemingly never been one to make a rash or shortsighted decision. When it’s become the norm to package an album of songs every other year without much reason other than to flood the market with your name, Robison hasn’t. Rather, he’s been more of a quality over quantity type of artist. 

It’s no surprise that when Gary Overton–former Sony Nashville CEO–had choice words in The Tennessean about artists not existing if they weren’t on the radio, that Robison was the voice that rallied the troops so to speak with a passionate, strong Facebook post. And while it was this spontaneous, spur-of-the-moment response filled with raw emotion, it was also an incredible moment of clarity. It was truth. And in many ways, it was really Charlie Robison.

Not many could have the respect, clout, and–though he’d probably dismiss it–the authority to say that. There’s no arguing that it means a lot more coming from Robison than from other artists or voices within the Texas music scene–self included. 

We caught up with Robison early this week to discuss Texas music, his upcoming album, and songwriting. He’s performing this weekend (Saturday) at Abilene’s Outlaws & Legends Music Festival. For more details, click here.

New Slang: So the last record you released was High Life a couple of years back. That was primarily an album of covers. It’s about time you’ve got another album out. I’m assuming you’ve been working on something to be released in the near future.

Charlie Robison: Yeah, I’m just finishing up writing it right now so we’ll be in the studio in a month or so I’d guess.

NS: You working with anyone or you going to self-produce again?

CR: Yeah, I’m writing and producing everything. Everything pretty much is going through me.

NS: Yeah. I know in the past, Lloyd Maines had produced some of your stuff. He’s not just become this great producer and steel player, but really, he’s become a strong voice and maybe the most influential person in what’s become Texas Country since the ’90s.

CR: Yeah, he and I co-produced some of my early records. He most definitely has. His handprints are all over the Texas music scene. He was definitely there in the beginning to help mold everything.

NS: Yeah. How has he helped your sound evolve?

CR: Well, I’ve spent a lot of time in Nashville. I was signed to Warner Brothers before and had a lot of people tell me that I couldn’t do this and couldn’t do that. Lloyd was the guy who said, “No. You can do anything you want. We can make this work. We can make this as weird or as crazy as you want to.” No boundaries whatsoever.

NS: You’ve kind have always picked out a song or two to cover on your albums. They’ve always really worked out well. Terry Allen, Springsteen. You think anything will be on this upcoming album or you thinking it’ll be all new songs by you?

CR: I think the new record will probably all be 100% me. If not, it’ll be 9/10 or something like that.

NS: Yeah. Obviously, every song is different and they’re created differently. But you’ve also learned what works for you over the years. When do you know a song is actually going to be a song and not just an idea?

CR: Yeah. Like you said, that time is different with every song. “El Cerrito Place” is a good example. It’s a Keith Gattis song, but when we did basic tracks on it, I thought it sounded so bad that we’d be leaving it off the record. Then it turns into one of my biggest songs. It wasn’t until towards the end–and having some blind faith–to just keep putting the instruments and vocals on it, it finally started taking shape. Some songs, you know right after you’ve written the first verse. Some, you don’t know until it’s actually on a record and people are responding to it.

NS: When you’re writing, are you the type who keeps everything? Who keeps it at least on the side for future songs or lines? Or would you rather just erase it?

CR: I’m the guy who has the glovebox in his car who has it full of bar napkins and hotel stationery. They’re just wadded up in there and you’ve got to just sift through when you start writing a song.

NS: What’s been the strangest thing you’ve physically written on?

CR: I’ve written on myself before. Like the dude in Memento [laughs]. I’ve had a pen and no paper and just written on myself. So I’ve done that to keep the idea until I was able to find a piece of paper. 

NS: [Laughs]. Did it actually become something of worth?

CR: I think it did. If I took the effort to actually write on myself, I hope it did. 

NS: Not sure if you saw them, but The Dallas Observer and Galleywinter both had these Top 50 Texas Country-Red Dirt Songs of All Time lists. “My Hometown” was on both of those lists. 

CR: Yeah. The bastards said Bruce [Robison] wrote it [laughs].

NS: [Laughs]. That song it came out about 20 years back now and is still one of your staple songs.

CR: Yeah, it definitely become anthemic, if you will. I certainly didn’t know it was going to take off and have a life of its’ own when I wrote it. I’ve walked into a thousand bars over the years and there’s been a band on stage playing that song. That’s really a weird feeling.

NS: Yeah. I was going to ask if it was weird since it so iconic. I don’t necessarily want to say pressure, but do you ever worry that you never become just known for that song or become a caricature of your younger self? Does that ever cross your mind?

CR: No, no really. I think if you record a song, if you’re doing the Nashville thing, you can get talked into recording a song. I’ve heard a million stories like that. Like Lee Greenwood doing “Proud to be an American.” He’s as patriotic as that song is, but there are some songs that people get talked into and it completely kills their career. You’re only known for that one song. Thankfully I’ve got 15 or 20 songs that people want to hear every night almost as much as that one. I think if you’re not pegged by a single song, you’re lucky.

NS: Yeah. How old were you when you wrote that song?

CR: I think early/mid twenties. 

NS: Do you relate to the things you wrote when you first started writing? Do you look at the songs from a different perspective or do you try and just go back to those moments?

CR: Yeah. Definitely look at them different. They’re all in some way disguised somewhat. They’re all part of my experience growing up. It’s kind of like hearing a bed time story every night when you’re playing. You don’t really get tired of that.

NS: So obviously this past month or so, there’s been a whole lot of talk about Nashville and Texas artists. The whole thing about not existing if you’re not on the mainstream radio. You had this really passionate post on Facebook. I feel a whole lot of Texas artists felt exactly the same, but didn’t necessarily want to be the ones to voice an angering opinion. You posted about it and it was shared over a thousand times. The whole “I exist” thing has really become a battle cry or something. 

CR: Yeah. I thought it was going to have 80 likes or something. I woke up the next day and it had something like three thousand likes. Florida-Georgia Line was trying to call me and make peace. I was just like, “screw off.” People have asked me to comment on it, but I’ve just basically said that what I had to say was in that piece. It’s definitely become a huge deal, but like I said, that’s really what I felt at the time. It’s what I meant.

NS: Yeah. I though their response was…special. What’re your thoughts on the Texas artists who claim to be the most Texan and have kind of made a circus of it? There’s some folks who, if they didn’t have the Texan draw, they’d be exactly the same as the Top 40 in Nashville country. Do you even concern yourself with it?

CR: I don’t care for much of it myself, but I’m not the guy who defines what Texas music is either. They’re welcome to call it whatever they want. It’s up to the audience to put it into whatever category they feel. I definitely feel that Texas music–even though it’s bigger than ever–I think the quality is suffering somewhat right now. Everything has its’ ebbs and flows. 

NS: Yeah. You think that’s just because of oversaturation? Basically anyone can record an album because of the technology.

CR: I think that’s part of it. I think when me and a lot of my peers started off, there was three or four places to play. There weren’t any radio stations playing our music. Now there’s 10 different Texas Music charts. There’s eight million venues to play. It’s a genre that didn’t exist when I started. It’s a lot easier to get heard and to get a gig. When I first started, I’d go and open up for whoever I possibly could. I was just trying to get my songs heard. Now when you start out, you can get a tour bus in your first year. That’s just crazy to me. When I started out and Robert [Earl Keen] was just starting to break, he had this tiny RV. I was driving this Suburban. Nobody had buses for 10 years or so. Now everybody has a tour bus. It’s just the perception that you’re big time.

NS: Oh yeah. The perception that you’re bigger than you actually are. I think some guys are really trying to show they’ve got a bigger following and more successful than they actually are. You could argue about the whole cart in front of the horse thing. 

CR: Oh definitely. But of course, on the flip side, perception is reality. If fans do see them as big time, then they kind of are.

NS: Yeah. I guess that’s true too [laughs]. When you were starting out, what was one of the most intimidating song swaps or opening spots you had?

CR: Oh it was awful [laughs]. Playing just me and my guitar and playing in front of Jerry Jeff [Walker]. No one knowing who I was and just screaming that I sucked and to get off stage. Throwing beer bottles. Playing front of guys like Guy Clark and David Allan Coe. Some audiences, they were receptive, but for the most part, you could say I definitely paid my dues [laughs].

NS: [Laughs]. Yeah. That’s always a good thing. You cherish the good times more.

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