Charlie Robison is the kind of guy your dad never wanted you to date. He’s attractive and a little cocky, and behind that sly smile he seems like trouble waiting to happen.
But Step Right Up, Robison’s second release for Sony’s Lucky Dog imprint, suggests there’s a lot going on beneath that brazen grin. The 12-cut CD is full of vivid story songs and sarcastic takes on love, lust and marriage. Robison wrote or co-wrote eight of the cuts. Rounding out the set is a song from his brother, singer/songwriter Bruce Robison , and three covers including The Hollisters’ "Sweet Inspiration" and NRBQ’s "Comes to Me Naturally" and the current single, "I Want You Bad."
"I was a huge NRBQ fan for a long time," Robison explains during a recent interview at his Nashville record label. "I came from the same place, playing in a bar band, which is basically what they were, a great bar band. I was very much influenced by those guys, so it’s a good match."
While he sounds natural singing the NRBQ classics, Robison shines brightest on his self-penned tunes. A voracious reader, the Bandera, Texas, native has mastered the art of character development in story songs such as "John O’Reilly" and "Desperate Times," painting pictures of ordinary people trapped in their lower social station and driven to extreme actions. The new songs carry on the tradition of "Loving County," "Poor Man’s Son" and "My Hometown" from Robison’s 1998 album Life of the Party.
"People say, ‘You sure write a lot about weird characters, strange situations and stuff like that," Robison says. "Well, why do Southern writers write about such weird people? It’s like Flannery O’Connor said, ‘Because we’re still able to identify them.’ To me, that hits the nail on the head."
"The Preacher" is a provocative song, open to a myriad of interpretations. The narrator rejoices the death of his local pastor.
"It’s just a song about how people justify things," Robison explains. "The guy in the song is like, ‘OK, as long as the preacher who knew about my sins is dead, then my sins went away with him.’ Nobody is accountable to themselves anymore."
Robison’s sense of the absurd nature of reality is framed perfectly in "The Wedding Song," a duet with Dixie Chicks frontwoman Natalie Maines. Two small-town sweethearts decide to marry "in suburban Seguin" because there’s really nothing else left to do. Robison and Maines — both newlyweds — recorded the song in September when the Dixie Chicks "Fly Tour" stopped in Nashville. The closing line, "now let’s make love," is a good-hearted dig at country’s golden couple, Tim McGraw and Faith Hill .
"I don’t think they know it’s on there yet, but they should get a kick out of it," Robison says. "Tim and Faith are great friends of mine, but you watch the video for ‘Let’s Make Love.’ They’re at the Eiffel Tower and they’re both wearing about $3,000 worth of clothes. They’re both beautiful. There’s a lot more people who have a common experience of not having a lot of money. They aren’t that beautiful, and they may never see Paris. I just try to write for the people I grew up with. I try to write about them."
He sings about those people, too, on the lovely ballad "Tonight." Written by his brother, Bruce, the song captures perfectly the moment when a high school party could evoke the euphoric sense that "anything might happen tonight." Charlie and Bruce collaborated on two other tunes for the album, the uptempo "Right Man for the Job" and the Zydeco-flavored "One in a Million." Although the two have different styles — Charlie more sly and ironic and Bruce more straightforward and poignant — it’s a good match, creatively.
"I hate co-writing, but Bruce is the only person I like co-writing with because it’s more like a conversation," Robison says. "When I start off with an idea for something, I don’t have to worry about Bruce not understanding what I’m talking about. We have the exact shared experiences. I can actually think of the same high school parties that we were at that he wrote ["Tonight"] about — I can see the people — so it’s very easy to get inside that song."
Robison has performed with Bruce on "Rayne, Louisiana" (from Bruce’s beautiful 1998 album Wrapped) and now with Maines on "The Wedding Song," but he has yet to record or co-write with his wife, Dixie Chick Emily Robison. When the subject is broached, one gets the sense that he feels a little reluctant to talk about his famous spouse, but at the same time he’s proud of her and her musical accomplishments.
"We’re gonna start writing together seriously for [the Dixie Chicks'] new record," Robison says. "We haven’t finished it yet, but we actually wrote a movie script just for fun. We’re tremendous fans of really bad movies, like the [cable channel] USA movies that come on on Friday night. We wrote a movie called Ski Extreme and wrote a soundtrack of all these awful songs for it. Now we really can’t wait to write real songs together."
While Life of the Party and an earlier independent album, Bandera, established Robison as an underground Texas favorite, he has yet to break into mainstream country radio. Videos for "Barlight" and "My Hometown" received airplay on CMT, but the singles peaked in the 60s on the Billboard country chart. Robison has not compromised his musical approach to meet the expectations of Nashville or country radio. During the annual Country Radio Seminar in 1999, he sassed an unruly industry crowd, first ribbing them during his performance then adding, "I hope I haven’t offended y’all, but those of you who know me know I don’t give a s**t anyway."
Still, with Step Right Up, he is poised to expand his audience. Robison assumed production duties this time around, working with Sony executive Blake Chancey instead of with longtime producer Lloyd Maines (father of Natalie Maines). Though he took the same approach as always, cutting most of the album in Texas, Robison says the final product is "sonically a little bit easier to swallow."
"I recorded things exactly how I would whether or not radio was a part of it, but in the mixing process you mix it to where it’s not as edgy," he says. "You definitely compromise that way because when you have all these beautifully produced songs in a row on the radio and you hear one that’s sort of rough, it’s definitely going to stick out."
At press time, the lead single, "I Want You Bad," is close to cracking the Top 40, and the comedic music video has a broad appeal with appearances by Robison’s actor friends D.B. Sweeney and Adrian Pasdar (Maines’ husband).
"Texas has become this real destination of the Hollywood crowd now," Robison explains. "It seems like every week Quentin Tarantino or somebody else will come to one of my shows, so I’ve just gotten to be friends with all these people. I just like being able to appeal to the most common of folk and the Hollywood folk, too. I feel like I’m doing something right."