Bruce Robison doesn’t live in Nashville, but he’s spent enough time in town to know where he likes to eat. On this trip, the 6-foot-7-inch songwriter is folded into a booth in Brown’s Diner, a (very) smoky and (very) greasy burger joint not far from Music Row.
Beers are in hand and the orders have been placed. He’s talking about the moment he first considered himself a songwriter. Not a “professional” songwriter but just a guy who can tell stories with melodies.
“I came up here for years,” says Robison, 39, a lifelong Texan. “I’d come here and eat a cheeseburger and hang out. I loved that. That was the moment. It’s one of those things where I think back and wonder, ‘Why did I keep going?’ I was starving. I couldn’t get a publishing deal. Everything was stacked against me, but it felt great.”
Robison grew up in Bandera, not far from San Antonio. He played sports, but in time, he felt more comfortable with making music. (His brother, Charlie, and sister, Robyn, are both singer-songwriters as well.) He was playing rhythm guitar and singing harmonies in a band in the late 1980s when Nashville songwriter Jim Lauderdale noticed an original song in the set list. Impressed, Lauderdale put Robison in touch with his publisher.
“I made a tape and sent it in,” Robison recalls. “They kind of liked it, and they sent me a plane ticket, so I came up here for my first trip. From then, it wasn’t that people were cutting my songs. It’s just that they were saying, ‘Well, that’s pretty good. I like that song.’ It was like a drug. In hindsight, I felt good at it, and I liked my songs, too. It didn’t matter that I didn’t make any money and that I was broke.”
He’s certainly not broke anymore. In 2001, Tim McGraw took Robison’s “Angry All the Time” to No. 1. In 2003, the Dixie Chicks marched to No. 1 with “Travelin’ Soldier.” (One of the Chicks, Emily Robison, is Charlie’s wife.) A year later, George Strait’s “Desperately” climbed into the Top 10. More recently, Garth Brooks offered an unreleased version of Robison’s “She Don’t Care About Me” on his best-selling boxed set.
With that financial windfall, Robison has built his own studio where he recorded his fifth album, Eleven Stories. It’s been nearly five years since his last album, mostly because he and wife Kelly Willis — that’s the two of them you’ve seen on television in commercials for a popular allergy medicine — now have four kids. Tonight, though, it’s perfectly clear he’s savoring every bite of his burger and fries.
After a long absence from recording, Robison feared that he wouldn’t be able to draw a consistent audience on the Texas music circuit without new songs to sing. To get back in the swing of things and to warm up for the release of Eleven Stories, he booked a handful of shows at the Broken Spoke, a comfortably worn dancehall in South Austin where Ernest Tubb and Bob Wills used to play.
“The Broken Spoke connects me to a world that doesn’t exist anymore,” he says. “Now that I have kids is what’s got me to thinking about this. They had a Wednesday night dance in Bandera and Adolf Hofner played it. They were a Czech swing band, but they played covers by the ’70s. The whole town went to the town dance. All the kids went there, too. While the parents danced, we made pyramids out of empty beer cans and ran around on the picnic tables and had a blast.”
Starting to get riled up, he continues, “Now, there’s this delineation where the nightclubs are [starting concerts] later. They’re all about selling booze, and there are no kids there. And then you take your kids to f—ing Chuck E. Cheese and it’s just … horrible! I want to find this place where you can have good music. And that’s another thing — kids’ music. You’re supposed to have kids’ music, like Barney crap. I’m like, ‘Play them the Everly Brothers, play them Van Morrison.’ They’re gonna like that better that that other s—.”
Because of his eloquent lyrics, it’s kind of a shock to hear Robison to cuss so freely. “All Over but the Cryin'” and “Don’t Call It Love,” both on Eleven Stories, are prime examples of his memorable yet mainstream writing style. (He’s much more lighthearted on one of his best-loved songs — “What Would Willie Do?” — later cut by Gary Allan.)
Asked if he spends a lot of time reflecting on the world, he says, “I’ve got to think that’s what I do best at the end of the day. I like other stuff, but that really is what I do best.”
The waitress swings by the booth to drop off the check. It can’t be much more than $20 total — a small price to pay for a memorable meal.
“That hit the spot! It just depresses me that I enjoyed that way more than if I went over to some place and someone spent $200 on me,” he says, looking around the room fondly.
“My oldest son is 5. He’s old enough that I could take him someplace like this if we do something together. He thinks it’s no big deal. He’s having an OK time. But I’m about to have a heart attack because I’m having such a great time!”